THERE ARE MORE than a few antique shops in historic Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, a short walk from my suburban neighborhood. Antiquing is normally of interest only if my mother-in-law is visit-ing, but some years back a friend messaged me to let me know one of the shops had something I should see. On the back wall, shunted behind a variety of well-preserved 19th century furniture, were two large Soviet propaganda paintings.
The first was a portrait of three strapping Russian sailors, wearing bandoleers across their chests, in front of the Aurora— the infamous ship that fired the first shot on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, launching the Russian Revolution. The second painting, of soldiers smoking in a field in Afghanistan, was less dramatic but a better and more impressionistic piece of art. Both paintings were done by well-known graduates of the Kharkov Art Institute and were fine examples of Soviet socialist realism—insofar as one can take any art movement that began under Stalin seriously. I inquired about the paintings, and all the clerk was able to tell me was that they originally came from the estate of a man named Samuel Cummings.
If you know anything about Samuel Cummings, you may suspect the two Soviet paintings were some of his more prosaic possessions. When the billionaire died in 1998, he owned, among many other things, the sword Napoleon carried at Waterloo. For years, he tried to open a museum in Alexandria to exhibit his collection of exotic and historic weaponry, though that never came to fruition.
As interesting as that sounds, Cummings’ collection is in some respects less interesting than the manner in which he acquired it. For nearly 50 years, he was the largest arms dealer in the world.
In recent years, the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria along the Potomac River has been redeveloped. Some of the land was seized by eminent domain, the area turned into parks and boardwalks and otherwise made an inviting spot for tourists looking to schlep around the same streets once haunted by George Washington. But when I moved to the area a decade ago, there was also a small wooden building on the water where you could still make out a sign that said Interarms—the name of Cummings’ company. The building is now gone, and it’s hard to imagine that, through the 1980s, the same waterfront now littered with restaurants and boutiques was an industrial port where Cummings owned a series of converted tobacco warehouses stacked to the rafters with guns.
“At one point, we had 700,000 rifles, machine guns, pistols and submachine guns stored in our warehouses in Alexandria,” Cummings told The Washington Post in 1986. “We could have instantly overwhelmed the American armed forces. We could have armed 700,000 mercenaries that could have goosestepped right over the [Arlington] Memorial Bridge….We also had 150 pieces of artillery, ranging from 25 mm to 150 mm…. So, if I didn’t like a particular piece of legislation in the Congress, I could have phoned up the speaker and I could have said, ‘My armies will be rolling over to the Capitol, if you don’t do something about that.’”
Fortunately, Cummings was clearly joking. Well aware that such quotes were catnip to reporters, he was famously candid with the press, a remarkable trait for an arms dealer.
By the 1980s, the intrigue surrounding the Cold War’s many proxy conflicts had made arms dealers figures of notable interest even in popular culture: The 1983 Chevy Chase comedy Deal of the Century was a satirical take on the arms trade, and the band Queen even wrote a song, “Khashoggi’s Ship,” about partying on the yacht of notorious Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. (Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, notoriously dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, was Adnan’s nephew.)
But among arms dealers, no one was more intriguing than the straight-talking former CIA employee Cummings, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in D.C. but died a British citizen living in Monte Carlo.
AN EDUCATION IN ARMS
CUMMINGS WAS BORN in Philadelphia in 1927 to parents so wealthy they had never worked. Soon thereafter they lost everything in the Great Depression. His father died when Cummings was 8 from the stress of having to do actual labor for the first time in his life.
When Cummings was 5, he found a World War I German machine gun abandoned outside an American Legion post. An adult helped him carry the 40-pound weapon back to his house, where the boy learned to take it apart and reassemble it, sparking a lifelong fascination with guns.
After Cummings’ father died, his enterprising mother found a way to make one of her primary skills as a rich woman—good taste—profitable. She convinced a local bank to let her move into a repossessed house and renovate it in exchange for a share of the sale profits. Cummings’ mother proved quite adept at flipping houses this way. It eventually brought the family to D.C., where the housing market during the Depression was stronger. This unusual occupation necessitated moving the family every six months or so into a new home, but Cummings’ mother was thrifty enough to put her children through some of D.C.’s better private schools.
Cummings enlisted immediately after high school, just as World War II was ending. As a teenager, he headed off to Fort Lee for basic training with his burgeoning collection of 50 guns packed into the trunk of his car. Cummings excelled in his cadet program in high school, and when he got to the Army he was so familiar with weapons and drills he was immediately made an acting corporal. He spent his hitch instructing other recruits on close-order drills and weapons handling. His 18-month service was uneventful—he never left Virginia—and in 1947 he enrolled in George Washington University on the GI Bill, earning a degree in political science and economics in just two years. While in school, Cummings pursued his hobby and supplemented his income by buying and selling guns. He even made a tidy profit after uncovering a cache of German World War II helmets in a Virginia scrapyard.
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