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Turmoil Plagues Wealthy Keck Family : Whodunit Reveals Problems of the Rich and Feuding

March 19, 1989|EDWIN CHEN | Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES — Libby Keck was distraught as she stood in the conservatory of her $42-million, treasure-filled Bel-Air mansion.

"Look at that!" she shrieked.

"Yes, ma'am," her bodyguard and chauffeur, Roger Paine, replied hesitantly.

Sensing his uncertainty, Keck led him by the hand to a painting and ran his fingers across its surface.

It was as smooth as glass. Paine knew right away that it was no Impressionistic oil painting but a high-quality color photograph.

"Well, hell! Somebody has stolen this painting," he concluded.

"I know it! I know it!" said Keck, her hands still shaking. "It's gone!"

On that afternoon in August, 1987, which was later relived by the two in Los Angeles Superior Court, it hardly seemed likely that Keck had touched off a scandal that would titillate the world of fine arts from Los Angeles to the Louvre. The painting's disappearance led to the prosecution of the Keck family butler on a grand theft charge last year.

But a jury refused to believe the butler did it, and what ensued is a whodunit that also has raised questions about the veracity of Elizabeth Avery Keck, matriarch of one of America's leading philanthropic families.

The painting's disappearance also flung open the curtains on the war among the Kecks, heirs to an immense oil fortune, as they hurled charges and countercharges of betrayal, theft, family jealousies, illegitimacy and, behind it all, pure greed.

Court battles in the internecine combat have already cost members of the Keck family well over $12 million in legal fees.

It all began when Howard and Libby Keck's oldest child, Howard B. Keck Jr., or "Little Howard," filed a "friendly" lawsuit in 1983 to clarify inheritance issues.

At stake were hundreds of millions of dollars as well as the world-renowned collection of priceless French objets d'art that fill La Lanterne, the 11,000-square-foot Stone Canyon mansion that Libby Keck, a lifelong Francophile, designed and named after a pavilion in the park at Versailles.

But the trust litigation quickly degenerated into no-holds-barred warfare among the Keck family members that left lawsuits strewn from Los Angeles to Houston.

The acrimony also led to a messy divorce between the Kecks in which "Big Howard" questioned the paternity of "Little Howard."

Libby Keck said her husband at one point even threatened to "go out and have more children" and maybe adopt the entire Marlborough School for girls to dilute the inheritance of the next generation of Kecks.

'Torn Family to Shreds'

"This thing has really torn our family absolutely to shreds," Libby Keck said with a sigh of resignation.

Other Keck family members refused to be interviewed. Especially adamant in refusing to comment was Howard Keck Sr., even though his lawyer was advised that many of his kin, including his ex-wife, had ugly things to say about him. Even Libby Keck, who sat for two interviews in her lawyer's office, abruptly withdrew, terminating all contact.

"Everybody's afraid to talk. Even the little children are afraid," she rued.

Through it all, Libby Keck has remained an active if stoic player in the local art and museum scene, serving on the boards of the County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Huntington Museum and the Music Center.

Board members say her personal problems have not come up. "We've never discussed Mrs. Keck's situation. She has been a very satisfactory trustee," said Los Angeles attorney Frederick M. Nicholas, chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art board.

Aside from the art world, sports fans, too, might recognize the Keck name. She owns Ferdinand, the thoroughbred that won the Kentucky Derby in 1986.

Libby Keck is best known as a world-class collector who has assembled a museum-quality treasure of French tapestries, paintings and exquisite furnishings once owned by the likes of Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon.

In happier days, La Lanterne, a walled estate on Bellagio Road, was a regular stop for curators from Europe's finest museums, many of whom had competed with Libby Keck for those precious objects.

Howard Keck Sr., 73, sponsored cars that won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954. He retired as chairman of Superior Oil Co. in 1984 after it was purchased by Mobil for $5.7 billion, a sale triggered by a dispute with his late sister, Willametta.

The Keck family fortune can be traced to William M. Keck Sr., a one-time candy and sandwich salesman on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Oil Firm Is Born

Early this century, he went into the oil business as a roustabout in Pennsylvania. Eventually, he made his way to California and, as a speculator, drilled wells on contract for big oil companies, often taking leases as payment instead of cash.

By 1921, Keck had accumulated enough leases to start his own firm, Superior Oil Co. Within a decade, it had wells in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Louisiana and Venezuela.

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