The Legacy of Brad Keil: A Tragic Death but a Triumphant Life by Gregory Hilton–
The funeral for H. Braden Keil was yesterday morning. He was the popular “Gimme Shelter” real estate/celebrity columnist for the “New York Post.” His final column appeared six days ago and now his work is done.
During the past few days his friends and admirers have composed numerous condolences. Especially poignant was Hamilton Nolan’s comment: “no one at the ‘Post’ was as Great Gatsby as he truly was.” Donald Trump described him on Thursday as a “great guy, a fantastic reporter who understood real estate as well as anyone in the industry.” His “Post” colleague Max Abelson called him “the prince of the newsroom” and “a scoop artist.”
Brad obviously impacted the lives of many people. I previously reprinted his May 2007 column on the early signs of skin cancer. Brad wrote of the anger he directed at himself because the disease was so easy to prevent.
What the article omitted was that the melanoma came back, and it spread rapidly. Sustained treatment took a heavy toll, yet, his spirit never wavered. In the final months Brad’s thoughts were focused on his family and those he would leave behind. He was not consumed with self-pity and melancholy.
Now skin cancer has claimed Brad as well as my pal Rob Nottingham. They both had so much to live for, and left us far too early. Hopefully their passing will be an important reminder for the rest of us. It is also a reminder that we are here for a brief moment in time, and then we are gone. Although we hated to lose them, their legacy continues in the lives they touched.
To most people our lives are only noted by 8 simple numbers and a single dash. When we were born and when we died. Life, death and the time we spent in between. Brad will be remembered because of the vibrant and exemplary way he used that in between time. I have so many wonderful memories of Brad, and it is difficult not to smile when I think of him.
It takes me back to our glory days in the Georgetown of the 1980’s. This was well before he moved in 1996 and became a fixture in the Manhattan real estate/society world. His phone calls often signaled the beginning of a new escapade, and after being in his company, I always had a great story to tell.
I am not sure why Brad included me in these adventures, but I am so glad he did. He was the one inviting me, and I rarely, if ever, reciprocated. Of course, our contact greatly diminished when he moved to New York City, but I was not forgotten.
I did not know anyone when I arrived at one cocktail party in the Hamptons, and all I could say was “I am friend of Brad’s.” I quickly learned that those were the magic words. His New York friends shared the respect, admiration and genuine affection I always felt for him.
Brad did so much for me, and I hope he was aware of my gratitude. Sadly I can not think of anything significant I ever did for him. I didn’t even attend his funeral in New York City. My debt to Brad can not be repaid by sending a condolence note or flowers. I did not see him in his final months, and I missed the opportunity to thank him in person. Nevertheless, there is still something I can do.
I was a witness to at least some of his good old days. I knew what it was like in those gone but not forgotten lightning years. The stories my Dad told regarding the journeys of his youth always fascinated me, but now Brad will not be able to provide a first hand account.
His daughter Kourtney is 21, Braden is 5, and Kaitlin, 3. In the years ahead the toddlers will have few vivid memories of their father. They will of course treasure stories their mother will share. The condolences will demonstrate that Brad had many friends who were overcome with grief. They will see heartfelt comments such as “really, really sad” and “Poor Braden, I don’t have words.”
They will clearly know their father was loved. His exit was premature, but his devoted and unfailing character resulted in a triumphant life. As a minor character I can not write his story, but I can share my own observations. I have written the following with Brad’s young children in mind.
HOW I MET YOUR FATHER
Now that your father has moved on to that better place, memories of how I first knew him have returned. Almost 30 years have passed since Brad Keil was the center of attention at Congressional Country Club during the debutante season of 1980. A debutante ball is a formal presentation of young ladies, or debutantes, to “polite society,” and the popularity of those events faded a long time ago.
We were both wearing tuxedos but your father’s style was always unique. He stood out from other young boys because, as usual, he was not wearing socks. He maintained that tradition for the rest of his life. There were also times when well after midnight he would be drinking Chardonnay while wearing Ray Ban sunglasses! It sounds silly today but to us he had a particular sense of elegance and distinction.
I was still in school and our paths would intersect frequently at social gatherings in the weeks and months to come. In our early twenties the “preppy” traditions of the elite private schools were in vogue. It was the disco era but your father never adopted that look. He would not want me to say this, but he did like the Bee Gees and Kool and the Gang. For our crowd the fashion and style was the old school.
It meant “Guys in ties, girls in pearls.” For the men, the uniform of the day was often khakis with white or blue collared shirts and ties. In warm weather the girls wore sundresses which were usually some variation of pink or green. I did my best to conform but unlike your Dad, I never would “pop the collar” of a Polo shirt.
Chivalry, or courteous behavior towards women, was an important characteristic of this small society. Doors were opened for women, chairs pulled out, and they always entered the elevator first. Your Dad would frown at us if we did not get up when women entered the room. Deference to others (“After you”) was the cornerstone of good manners. According to the news media, young people today share costs when they are dating. That never happened in our time. The man was always expected to pay, and if a woman made an offer, we knew she was not serious.
THE NATION’S CAPITAL IN THE BRAD KEIL ERA
I was not part of your father’s inner circle. The “New York Post” compared him to the Great Gatsby, and in that case I would have been just one of several Nick Carraway types (the narrator). We were among the many guys Brad was kind too, and it was really fun to be part of his entourage.
Similar to Carraway, I had plenty of time to observe your Dad. Almost every Friday night began at The Third Edition, a popular Georgetown bar for the 20-somethings. It still looks exactly the same today as it did in our time. Your Dad had a ready smile to the fore, he would saunter in and radiate warmth. I was among the first to detect his eventual interest in politics. Barflies like myself would try to latch on to some desirable girl, but your Dad was always in circulation. He made it a point to talk to everyone. He was networking well before that term had been coined.
Our next stop was often a half a block away. The back room at Nathan’s was popular because it featured the music of our crowd, and the dancing was your father’s style. We frequently stayed until closing time.
The girls would depart and the staff did not kick us out. My best conversations with him were in that back room after the crowd had gone home. I will never be in the same league as your father but we did have a lot in common. We shared the same age, hobbies, religion, politics, cuisine, DC and NY, admired fathers, adored sisters, and on one occasion, even the same girlfriend! Of course your father was very social, but he certainly was not a dilettante. He had a real curiosity about life. He was interested in so many subjects, and wanted to serve in the Maryland state legislature. Because of his boundless enthusiasm, I never discouraged him.
Your father was a bachelor in those days and he proved Oscar Wilde was wrong. Wilde, the Irish playwright of the Victorian era, said: “Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.”
Women were among your father’s best friends, and I am not referring to romance. In those days Mount Vernon College was a girl’s school (it is now co-ed and part of George Washington University), and your Dad was truly the big man on campus. The campus was surrounded by high walls and the only entrance was through a gate house. All of the guards knew Brad, and when I was in his car we were instantly waved through the main gate.
I was stunned when he entered dormitory rooms without knocking, but no one seemed to mind. His hair was quite blonde in those days and while he was very handsome, that did not explain why he had so many female friends. Perhaps it was because he had three sisters? I still do not know the reason, but he was able to understand emotions and feelings. I guess empathy is the best word. He maintained those friendships in the years ahead.
There were many other places that were popular with your Dad. The Chinese Disco, or “Chi Di,” was a Chinese restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue during the week, but on Friday evenings they pushed the tables to the walls, brought in a DJ and played “beach music.”
Everyone did the “shag.” At one time I could have told you the difference between the Virginia shag and the Carolina shag, but I have long since forgotten. The Spy Club was located in an alley, and it was the in spot for a few years. Your Dad was one of the charter members. I would have to wait on a long line at the entrance, but your father would pluck me out, and because of him I was in the more exclusive backroom. It was a pattern that would be repeated in NYC years later.
As time progressed your father became even more sophisticated, and was amazingly well connected. He shocked all of us when he trained to be a French chef. He was obviously talented because he became well acquainted with Jean Louis Palladin at The Watergate, and Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle at Lion d’Or. Today diners at fine restaurants take for granted fresh and exotic ingredients, but those things were largely unknown when your Dad was a young man. Because of his enthusiasm the rest of us would visit the new places he recommended. Twenty years later he would describe his newspaper column as focusing on “New Yorkers’ favorite topics – gossip, food and shelter.”
In his final years in DC the place to be in the warm weather was the Sequoia restaurant and bar on the Potomac River. Brad’s entourage would gather in the evening hours, and the party would not stop at closing time. He had an apartment that was just a short elevator ride away. I well remember waking up at noon the next day at your Dad’s place. I felt foolish because I had to go home in broad daylight while wearing a tuxedo.
WHY WAS BRAD KEIL SO POPULAR?
The first word I would associate with your Dad is “popular.” In the Georgetown-centered universe of people in their twenties and thirties, your father was a focal point for the in crowd.
Brad had a unique style which was sophisticated, charismatic and cool. We all admired him, but that does not explain his popularity. Beyond his unique outlook, he was fun and always appeared interested in the mundane details of our lives.
Brad knew that being a good friend is not just about having a good time. It’s also about how willing you are to put others first. The DC/NYC social circuit will always include some superficial snobs and pretentious people who have no reason to act in that manner. Your father knew plenty of them, but he was just the opposite.
He attended the best parties, but he never pretended to have superior social status. Anyone could be his friend, and I remember him howling at the silliness of one guy who told us he would only date women from the Green Book (the DC social register).
Our circle included a number of good-looking guys from aristocratic families who had all of the impressive trinkets. Far too many of them were also selfish, had bad attitudes, and did not treat women with respect. None of them could compete with your father who was best known for his excellent reputation.
He also was known for his kindness and understanding. At times I did wonder if he was perhaps too kind for his own good. I do not know if he was familiar with Mother Teresa, but he certainly followed her guidelines: “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”
I am not saying your Dad was a saint, but he was not self centered and that allowed him to establish a real connection with people. He appreciated a person because of their character, not because of their occupation or what they could do for him. Many people are glib talkers, but your Dad had the rare ability to be a good listener. He paid attention and remembered our stories.
I do not know if he was truly intrigued by what we had to say, but he certainly gave that impression. He would really tune in to our comments. In my case he frequently asked about books I was reading. He would later surprise me by obtaining the same texts.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT HIS PERSONALITY?
Brad had that je ne sais quoi. It was a certain something that you can’t quite pinpoint what it is, but it was there. Men like him are rare.
It’s not unusual for women to have close friendships from decades ago, while men often have superficial relationships based on common activities like sports, hobbies or drinking. Men’s friendships often do not have the same emotional richness as women’s, but your Dad was not reluctant when it came to self-disclosure. He had the type of conversation-heavy friendships that comes so naturally to women, and he was passionate about so many diverse topics.
In the lottery of life your Dad had it all. He was handsome, intelligent and had a winning personality. Everyone remembers Brad’s great sense of humor, but he was never cruel and did not use other people as a topic for laughter. Cool guys do not put other people down in order to feel better about themselves. They inspire us to be better people. Your Dad was a cool guy.
Your mother must be very special because she married the guy all the other women wanted. Once again, your Dad’s blonde hair, great smile, and physical appearance were obviously desirable, but there were plenty of handsome guys. These other men could not compete with your Dad because he was a great conversationalist and as I indicated, he had a tremendous sense of humor.
At one point I knew practically all the women he dated. There was a common denominator. All men are visual but Brad liked smart girls, artists and journalists. They were beautiful, but they were also women of accomplishment.
Your father admired people who were subtle, modest and did not boast. I met him in the barber shop one day and he invited me along to a reception that evening at the University Club for then Congressman Les Aspin (D-WI). Years later Aspin became Secretary of Defense. The Congressman gave your Dad his business card and Brad was surprised by what it did not include.
It appeared fairly typical to me but your Dad was impressed that Aspin had omitted his “Ph.D” title and did not refer to himself as a Doctor. He reminded me that when we were at the barber shop another customer had introduced himself as “Dr. Smith.” Your Dad’s comment to me was “What does being a doctor have to do with getting your haircut?”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOUR DAD GIVE?
We will never know, but the past is a good indication. Your father’s activities are an excellent clue to what he might have said. Your Dad knew and interviewed a wide variety of people who were on the A list (admired individuals in the limelight). In Manhattan he encountered the titans of finance in real estate and on Wall Street. In DC it would be the power brokers who were often present at functions he attended.
It would not matter if you were in the same room as these celebrities if you did not have anything interesting to say. You have to be constantly informed and that is yet another reason to obtain a good education. Your Dad was surrounded by intelligent people and I know he would want you to focus on your school work.
He was also very fortunate to have an exciting and high profile career in a field he clearly enjoyed. I think he would tell you to find an area that sparked your passion, and to learn more and more about it until you become an expert.
Some experts are genuine geniuses, but most are like your Dad and myself. They are people of normal intelligence who simply work harder than others. Your Dad was in the newspaper business and he knew the basis of becoming an expert is to read more. The old cliché is true, the reader is the leader.
The absence of your Dad means your path in life is far more difficult. Your father lost his battle with his cancer but he would want you to triumph in life. Your first job will be your school work. When you do decide on a career path you will have to focus, maintain good habits and build your self-discipline. Most people will not put in the immense effort required to achieve this goal, but most of us are not like your Dad.
AS WE REMEMBER HIM
The best advice from your father was unspoken. It was the admirable way in which he lived. To those of us who knew him, your Dad will not be forgotten. We will grow old but in our memory Brad will always be young. We were fortunate to have been touched by the light of his life.
In thinking of your Dad always remember that he left you a legacy. It is his curiosity about life, a hunger for knowledge, a passion for the outdoors, an example of a life whose riches owe little to money, a sense that anything is possible if you work hard, and a model of what a man should be. Those are all great gifts.