It all began with a ‘friendly’ lawsuit . . . : Whodunit Reveals Inner Turmoil of a Wealthy Family

Times Staff Writer

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.

“The whole thing’s absolutely, absolutely off the wall--the whole thing. We’re all kind of in a limbo,” she added. “The family’s all blown apart. Everybody’s just sort of stunned.”

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.

Keck died in 1964, leaving most of his estate to his three surviving children through the $640-million William M. Keck Foundation, one of California’s largest private grant-making foundations. He also left five beneficiary trusts set up at USC, Stanford, Pomona College, Occidental College and the Church of Our Savior in San Gabriel.

As the family became increasingly mired in litigation, some feared the hostilities would adversely affect the foundation’s charitable giving, which over the years has totaled tens of millions of dollars to museums, schools, churches and community programs throughout the country. But those concerns have been allayed.

In 1985, the foundation put up $70 million to build a state-of-the-art telescope in Hawaii. And last year, the foundation’s grants totaled more than $34 million. In January, the foundation awarded $5.3 million to KCET Channel 28 to produce a six-part series on astronomy.

The family trusts came into being in 1978 after a 14-year probate over Keck’s estate.

Sibling Rivalry

His children never got along well, according to some of the Kecks. Initially, William M. Keck Jr. was installed as Superior’s chief executive officer. But Howard B. Keck Sr., or “Big Howard,” eventually wrested control of the company away from his brother.

“The reasons they didn’t get along go back to childhood,” explained Libby Keck. Their father baited the brothers and encouraged the rivalry, she said.

Such intense competition, Libby Keck said, later also poisoned Big Howard’s relationship with his own son, Little Howard. It was as if her husband had transferred that sibling rivalry from his brother to his son, she said.

“As it happened, our son was born on Bill’s birthday,” Libby Keck said. Little Howard even had the same, straight brown hair as Big Howard’s brother. “And so he (Big Howard) was jealous of his son from Day 1.”

Willametta Keck, Howard’s sister, was also not immune to sibling rivalry. When they were children, Howard killed her pet ostrich by stuffing an orange down its throat, according to one well-told family story. Later, Howard sent Willametta’s children to work at a refinery in Alaska--out of spite, said Libby Keck.

Willametta was seriously ill in Santa Barbara when Howard dispatched emissaries who urged her to grant him sole control of the trusts set up by their father. She refused, calling her brother a “dumb son of a bitch” in the Wall Street Journal.

Proxy Fight

Their dispute prompted Willametta, who died shortly afterward, to start a successful proxy fight against her brother, which triggered the 1984 sale of Superior to Mobil Corp. for $5.7 billion.

It was after that sale that Little Howard filed his lawsuit to clarify the complex inheritance issues involving the family trusts.

According to court documents, income from the trusts was to be distributed to the grandchildren of the patriarch, William Sr. And the trusts themselves were to terminate with the death of his last surviving child with all assets to be divided among the living descendants. Big Howard now is the sole surviving child of William Sr.

But Little Howard’s “friendly” lawsuit proved anything but amicable.

In and out of court, Big Howard and Little Howard became increasingly hostile toward one another. At one point, Libby Keck said, Big Howard vowed to bring his son “to his knees.”

Such enmity hardly surprised her.

Libby Keck said her son always “idolized his father. He killed himself to be everything his father wanted him to be.” But it was never enough. His father wanted him to become a geologist; instead, he studied economics and finance at USC and Pepperdine. Later, Big Howard sent his son to northern Canada and then to Africa--assignments that scared her son “to death,” she said.

‘Just a Prelude’

“He (Big Howard) sent him as far away as he could. He didn’t want the threat of a son or an heir-apparent around,” she said. “So we always fought over that. But I never dreamed for an instant that it would blow up in the end the way it did. All that was just a prelude.”

Big Howard was a fabulous provider, according to Libby Keck, and his children had “every advantage known to man"--private airplanes, limousines, ski vacations, tennis camps, surprise black-tie parties, hunting lodges.

Yet they were all afraid of their father, she said. Big Howard’s relationship with his other children--two daughters and a stepdaughter--also were less than smooth, Libby Keck said.

As the father-son lawsuit progressed, the Keck daughters began taking sides. One of them, Kerry C. Vaughn, joined Little Howard’s lawsuit. But the other daughter, Erin Anner Lower, and stepdaughter Francesca Elizabeth Drown joined Big Howard, alleging that Little Howard is not the biological child of Big Howard--"based on recently discovered evidence.” But according to Sorrell Trope, Libby Keck’s divorce lawyer, that issue has been laid to rest through genetic analysis.

Married for more than 38 years, the estranged Kecks continue to live--separately, rarely

Gag Order

Until 1988, little was known about the deepening Keck family misery because much of the litigation was inaccessible to the public. Throughout the trust litigation, a Texas judicial gag order prevailed. And even though the litigation has been settled out of court, most of the documents remain sealed and its participants have signed a confidentiality agreement.

Similarly, the Kecks’ divorce proceedings in Los Angeles Superior Court have been sealed at their mutual request.

But all that secrecy began to crack in August, 1987, after Libby Keck instructed Paine, her bodyguard-chauffeur, to summon Los Angeles Police Department detectives to investigate the disappearance of a painting in La Lanterne’s conservatory.

It turned out that the century-old painting, “I Fria Luften,” (In Free Air) a nude of a mother and child by Swedish master Anders Zorn, had fetched nearly $500,000 at a Swedish auction that spring.

It is not disputed that the Kecks’ then-butler, Roy Donell, had received the proceeds.

Charged with grand larceny, Donell proclaimed his innocence before a Los Angeles Superior Court jury, saying he had acted at Libby Keck’s behest because she needed money to pay her lawyers.

‘Black Lies’

Donell said he turned over the proceeds to her, minus his 20% commission, in installments in white envelopes on her breakfast trays under a napkin. A second, minor painting was also allegedly stolen by Donell.

Libby Keck took the witness stand and called Donell’s assertions “black lies.”

But after a monthlong trial last summer, the jury exonerated Donell. In the meantime, the Kecks were paid off by their insurance company, minus a $50,000 deductible.

It was this criminal trial--attended by numerous lawyers representing the conflicting interests of the many Kecks--that served to part the curtains on the Kecks’ private affairs.

Denouncing Donell’s claims, the elegantly dressed Libby Keck told the jury: “The suggestion that I would conspire with my butler to sell these paintings for a sum of money which is but a small fraction of one month’s income of myself and my husband is ludicrous.”

She said she never had any financial worries, noting that she had sole control of an $11-million account. “I could have written a check for the whole amount,” she testified.

A document from the divorce proceedings, produced at Donell’s trial, showed that she also had a monthly allowance of $5,000 for groceries, $3,300 for dinners, $1,200 for lunches, $10,000 for dinner parties and $25,000 for clothing and other accessories.

Husband Takes Stand

During final arguments in Donell’s criminal trial, Donald Randolph, the butler’s defense attorney, told the jury that it would come down to Libby Keck’s word against his client’s. “She says X, and he says Y.”

It did not help Libby Keck when her husband took the witness stand and told the jury that she was not one to be trusted. “I don’t think she is a truthful person,” he testified.

After acquitting Donell, jury foreman Joel Nenzell said the jurors did not necessarily believe Donell was innocent--only that his story seemed more believable than Libby Keck’s.

Despite his acquittal, Donell is not out of the woods.

Libby Keck has sued him in civil court for theft, slander, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress, demanding $31 million. The former butler, who earned $25,000 a year, has been representing himself during the pretrial machinations.

Libby Keck said she filed the suit to clear her name.

“I want the truth out. I don’t want to live with the lies that have been cast upon me by the bludgeonings of fate,” she said. “Until about three years ago, I lived a charmed existence. But now, oh, what a nightmare.”