When David Lloyd Kreeger died Sunday, the music stopped, and every institution for the arts in Washington felt the silence he left behind.
Kreeger earned his fortune as head of Geico. But he was best known as a one-man band for the arts. He gave not only money, but a rarer gift -- his time and expertise -- to the cause of culture in the capital. He made of philanthropy a performing art in itself. People tended to lose track of whether he was chairman or president of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera and (less happily) the Corcoran Gallery.
Kreeger was a major donor to another dozen organizations of diverse causes and religion. He endowed the Kreeger Concertmaster Chair of the National Symphony and the Kreeger Creativity Awards at Catholic University, among others. His philanthropies gave his name to major cultural buildings: the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage; the Kreeger Music Building at American University; the Kreeger Auditorium at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville; the Barnet and Laura Kreeger (his parents) Theater at Rutgers University. He gave prizes for art at three local universities and sponsored dozens of musical events. He earned some 20 national and international awards and decorations, topped last month by the presentation of the 1990 National Medal of Arts for philanthropy, given by President Bush.
"Dave was the cultural center of Washington before it was a cultural center. And to his actions and words, in great part, Washington owes its centrality," violinist Isaac Stern said at Kreeger's 80th-birthday party, a little over a year ago. "The indomitability of his character is second only to his dogged belief he's a fiddle player -- as will be demonstrated later, if you'd like to go somewhere else," Stern joked, as he took Kreeger's violin away from him and retuned it.
"His name was synonymous with art and culture in Washington," Stephen Klein, the National Symphony's executive director, said yesterday.
Kreeger lived his life at an allegro con brio tempo. A fire and fervor for the arts, for people and for institutions burned in him so brightly that it made of his small figure a torch. You could see it in receiving lines -- as chairman of nearly every cultural institution in Washington at one time or another, he was a principal greeter. His eyes would light up, his hand would take yours, and you felt as though the event and your presence were a thrill in his life. Even after he was stricken with the cancer that eventually killed him, he kept the love of life that so cheered those who met him.
Kreeger was a major influence in other than cultural circles. He once told the story of the time the American Jewish Committee asked him if he could possibly manage to arrange an honored guest -- a senator or a representative -- for a dinner.
"I asked President Lyndon Johnson first," said Kreeger, who always had high aspirations. "But he had a prior commitment. So I asked the vice president, Hubert Humphrey. He couldn't come either. Finally, I asked Chief Justice Earl Warren, and he agreed to come. Then I had a call from President Johnson saying could he change his mind, and another from Humphrey saying he'd like to come. So we had all three speaking at the dinner."
Alec Levin, physician and Washington Opera supporter, said Kreeger did not allow his association with Johnson to silence his fervently held beliefs. In a business group meeting with the president, Kreeger stood up and bravely told Johnson of the harm he believed the Vietnam War was inflicting on the country.
Kreeger was also a forgiving man, though he was often too quick to guarantee others' financial notes. His friends remember more than one occasion on which he still had a kind word for people who had, through perceived incompetence, cost him much money and anguish. "Poor fellows," he was given to saying.
"He never inflicted his outrage on anyone personally," Levin said. "He was devoid of hostility. He was a decent man."
Even so, he was not above occasional sarcasm, attorney Walter Freedman remembered. "Once when he was with the Justice Department, he assigned a lawyer an arduous research task on the history of United States patent law. After months of dusty study, the lawyer was complaining to Dave. Dave said, 'Do you want to know how to do it in half the days?' The man said, 'Yes.' And Dave told him, 'Work nights.' "
To praise him on Sept. 17, 1989, in the fifth of birthday parties to honor Kreeger, Levin orchestrated 5 1/2 hours of virtuoso performances, besides cocktails, dinner and a birthday cake.
Stern came by private plane in the middle of the night after a Vermont concert to perform for and with Kreeger.
Mstislav Rostropovich, the refugee Russian cellist brought by Kreeger to direct the National Symphony Orchestra, performed. And the Cleveland and Tokyo string quartets, playing six Stradivari instruments, fiddled while the birthday candles burned. For a finale, opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya sang "Happy Birthday."
Tickets were not sold to the event -- but the guests quietly mailed checks to Kreeger's favorite institutions.
Not all the tributes were musical that night. British Ambassador Sir Antony Acland spoke, saying he still liked Kreeger despite the two mock courtroom hearings he sponsored -- one with U.S. Supreme Court justices to adjudicate whether the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote under the pen name of William Shakespeare.
Justice William J. Brennan cited Kreeger's magna cum laude graduation from Rutgers in 1929. Kreeger also graduated with the same honor from Harvard Law School and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review from 1930 to 1932. He received honorary degrees from the Peabody Institute and from Rutgers, George Washington and American universities.
Kreeger's deprecation of his accomplishments was a recurring theme in the stories his friends told about him. Levin likes to tell about one of the famous musical evenings at Kreeger's magnificent Foxhall Road house.
"I forget whether it was the Tokyo String Quartet or the Cleveland," Levin said. "Dave stood up and said, 'After some sublime music, we're going to eat well, but you have to pay the piper and listen to me play the violin.' Though everybody joked about his playing, as they did about Jack Benny's, he really wasn't a bad amateur violinist. He was the only nonprofessional Isaac Stern would play with. Dave loved performing; he'd drag out his violin at 2 in the morning."
Kreeger had two rare violins, a Stradivarius and a Galiano. Often musicians would come to his house to play Mozart's "Upside Down" Duet (playable from either side of the score), and autograph it. When his wife kept him waiting before they went out, he filled in the time at the piano.
In the beginning, Kreeger made a lot of money -- the proper thing to do for anyone aspiring to life as a philanthropist. And it came about in a way that shows that sometimes virtue is rewarded. When he was a young lawyer, he unwillingly took on a job to collect a debt. When he heard the circumstances, Kreeger sympathized with the man who owed the money and worked out a way to satisfy the lender without bankrupting the debtor of his money or his honor.
Many years later, the man he had helped told him about a small innovative company up for sale that sold insurance by mail. Banks were not interested in financing the purchase. So Kreeger raised the money privately, enlisting as investors his family, the man who'd suggested the investment, and their friends. Kreeger and the Government Employees Insurance Co. managed to make them all very, very wealthy.
Kreeger was born in New York City and came to Washington in 1934 as a senior attorney with the Agriculture Department, moving on to Interior and Justice before opening his own firm in 1946. He became senior vice president, general counsel and director of Geico in 1957, president in 1964, chairman and chief executive officer in 1970, and honorary chairman in 1979. He was a director of Crestar Bank and president of his own philanthropic foundation.
Perhaps the most enduring of Kreeger's accomplishments, his Foxhall Road house completed in 1967, was commissioned from America's most important 20th-century architect, Philip Johnson.
The house is roofed with crushed nutshells and held up by travertine columns. Its vaulted ceilings top a 66-by-22-foot concert hall/gallery, two stories high. Three spacious underground galleries and a magnificent pool-side sculpture court display the David Lloyd and Carmen Kreeger art collection. Carmen, hiswife and an enthusiastic participant in his busy life, planted the exotic tropical garden in the atrium. Two years ago the house and its 5 1/2 acres were assessed at $3.3 million.
The art collection includes Monet's "Morning on the Seine River," and works by van Gogh, Gauguin, Mondrian, Braque, Picasso and Cezanne. Kreeger said that a 1984 appraisal of the art collection was estimated at $30 million. The Kreeger children -- Peter, a local real estate investor, and Carol Ingall of Chicago -- would be trustees, with nine grandchildren to take up the cause.
In his last days, Kreeger often talked to Levin about ideas still to accomplish. "He would smile and say, 'We'll do it if I live. If I don't we'll do it a year later.' "