The obituary yesterday of David Lloyd Kreeger misidentified the auditorium at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It is named for Frances and Armand Hammer. (Published 11/21/90)
David Lloyd Kreeger, 81, who made a fortune as an executive of the Government Employees Insurance Co. and used his money to become a famous art collector and a leading patron of the arts in the Washington area, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Washington.
Kreeger's millions helped build the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, the Kreeger Auditorium at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Kreeger Music Building at American University and endowed the David Lloyd Kreeger concertmaster's chair of the National Symphony Orchestra. As president of the National Symphony, a job he held from 1970 to 1978, Kreeger recruited Mstislav Rostropovich, the world's most renowned cellist, to be the orchestra's music director.
Kreeger was an amateur violinist and the proud owner of a Stradivarius violin, which he sometimes played in concerts at his home in the company of such musical luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Pablo Casals. Casals once told him to practice more often, and Kreeger took the admonition as a compliment.
"Casals could have told me to stop playing and forget about it," he once recalled. "But instead he seemed to think that I played well enough for more practice to be worthwhile."
Although he was better known for his art collection, which included works by Picasso, Monet, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Bonnard, Braque, Kandinsky, Sisley, Dufy and Pissaro, Kreeger treasured his violins the most.
"The music is a creative thing in which I take part. The pictures, while very dear to me, are the work of someone else. They do not give me a creative outlet," he once said.
Described by friends as the "quintessential Renaissance man," Kreeger was an aggressive tennis player, an energetic and graceful ballroom dancer and an enthusiastic scholar of English literature. He was convinced that Edward De Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, was author of most of the works attributed to William Shakespeare, and he sponsored debates on this issue in the United States and in England.
De Vere, Kreeger argued, paid Shakespeare for the use of his name because it was considered improper in those days for a nobleman to be connected with the theater. Kreeger was unable to persuade most scholars to adopt that position.
Kreeger's ability to indulge his artistic enthusiasms was the result of his success at Geico, which he helped guide from a struggling local insurance company when he first helped find investors to prop it up in 1948 to one of the nation's largest car insurers. The company had established affiliates in life insurance, small loan and high-risk car insurance by the time he retired in 1974. The fortune Kreeger acquired has been estimated at $50 million to $75 million.
A lawyer, Kreeger conducted his business affairs with precision. But he also was known as an extrovert with a wide range of friends throughout the world and an almost childlike enthusiasm for life.
He was born in New York City, the son of Russian immigrants who operated a grocery. He graduated from Rutgers University and Harvard University law school where he was editor of the Law Review. He had learned to play piano as a child, and he supported himself in college and law school by playing piano at resorts in the Adirondacks.
As a young man he practiced law in Newark, then in 1934 moved to Washington to work as an Agriculture Department lawyer. Later he worked for the Department of the Interior and was assigned for a period to Puerto Rico, where he met a schoolteacher named Carmen Matanzo y Jaramillo. They were married in 1938. She later would participate with Kreeger in assembling their art collection.
In 1941, Kreeger joined the Justice Department as special assistant to the attorney general and chief of the Supreme Court section of the claims division. He opened a private law practice in Washington in 1946 as senior partner in the firm Kreeger, Ragland and Shapiro, and the fledgling Geico insurance operation became one of his first clients.
In 1948, Kreeger founded a group to buy shares of the company, and was elected a director, vice president and general counsel. He continued his private practice but found himself spending increasing amounts of time on Geico operations and becoming one of the key players in shaping the new company's growth and direction.
The company aimed its business at government employees, whom it considered good insurance risks, and it specialized in personal property and casualty insurance. It did not deal through agents, but sold its policies directly to its customers, thus avoiding commissions and maintaining a low overhead. Some of the saving was passed to customers in the form of lower rates.
By 1957, Kreeger was spending so much time on Geico business that he left his law practice to become senior vice president and general counsel of the company. He became president of the company in 1964, and chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1970. He retired in 1974 but continued to serve as chairman of the executive committee and a member of the board of directors until 1979, when he became honorary chairman of the board.
Kreeger's years at Geico coincided with a period of steady growth in the Washington area, and the company's business grew accordingly. When Kreeger stepped down in 1974, the company's premiums totaled $534 million, and it no longer limited its sales to government employees. Kreeger's 600,000 shares of stock were worth an estimated $27 million.
But two years after retiring, Kreeger had to step in once again to save the company after a profit of $32 million a year turned to an annual loss of $125 million. The company's stock, which had sold at $60 a share, was down to $2 a share.
To help keep the company solvent, Kreeger sold 30 of his best paintings, and a new management team was installed. Profitability was restored and stock prices climbed, reaching a high of around $150 a share before the slump that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
With his wife, Kreeger began his career as a serious art collector in 1952 with the acquisition of an abstract expressionist oil by Ardon-Bronstein called "Ravens Over the Valley of Emek." Seven years later they acquired a Renoir, then in 1961 bought a Blue Period Picasso at an auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York for $81,000. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a Picasso. Over the years, they added steadily to their collection while sticking to one fundamental requirement: Both Kreeger and his wife had to like whatever they bought.
In the early 1960s they commissioned architect Philip Johnson to design a house on a five-acre wooded tract on Foxhall Road NW, across from the Belgian Embassy. The result was what Johnson described as a "Mediterranean modern" or "contemporary Moorish" building, featuring wide-spaced marble columns and vaulted ceilings. It includes a great hall, measuring 22 by 66 feet, with two-story ceilings, designed for maximum acoustical efficiency during concerts and recitals.
The Kreeger family moved into the house in 1967, and eventually it came to hold about 150 paintings and 50 sculptures. In the last two decades the collection has been viewed by more than 10,000 people, both at the Kreeger house and on loan to art galleries. The collection's value in 1984 was estimated at $30 million, but Kreeger said he never bought art as an investment. "I bought it for love and was lucky."
Two or three times a month, the Kreegers sponsored musical evenings at the Foxhall Road house, where they also entertained regularly. Guests ranged from the rich and politically well connected to students from nearby American University, of which Kreeger was a trustee.
Artist Marc Chagall once spent an evening there and offered to do a series of three paintings for the great hall. But when Kreeger asked him for a sketch, he replied, "Chagall never makes a sketch," and the painting was never done.
Two years ago, Kreeger and his wife said they intended to leave the Foxhall Road property, which includes a swimming pool and tennis court, and the art collection to a foundation, which they would establish in their wills. The bequest would include an endowment to enable the trustees of the foundation to establish a museum that would be open to the public.
For 20 years, Kreeger was president and chairman of the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He resigned from the Gallery's board last July.
Kreeger was a national vice president of the American Jewish Committee, vice president and trustee of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, a member of the executive committee of the United Jewish Appeal and chairman of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Foundation. He donated money for construction of the Kreeger Auditorium at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville and the Kreeger Lobby at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
In September, he received the Medal of Arts Award at the White House. He was a member of the Metropolitan, Cosmos and Alfalfa clubs and Woodmont Country Club.
In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include two children, Carol Ingall of Highland Park, Ill., and Peter Kreeger of Potomac; and nine grandchildren.