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THE OPERATOR
by Charlie Finch
 
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You couldn't spend your whole life in New York, as I have, without encountering Ted Kheel, who died at 96 on Nov. 12, 2010. He was a bon vivant, who lived for the love of the game, while making piles on the side. Labor mediator, oenophile, representative of Robert Rauschenberg whose work he collected by the yard, Kheel was still feisty enough in his late 80s to turn Christo and Jeanne-Claude's monstrous The Gates into a huge cash cow for his family, who were up to their ears in the project and its ancillary sales.

I first heard about Kheel in 1966, after John Lindsay was elected mayor and the Transit Workers promptly went on strike, an excuse we Upper East Side boys used to dally with our girls past curfew, because, we would tell our mothers, "the buses aren't running so we had to walk home." Kheel was the strike negotiator at the time.

When Kheel bought Automation House, off Madison Avenue, ostensibly as an office for his labor clients, word would quickly reached me and my cronies that Ted was having a party. There was never a guest list, you just showed up to greet Ted in his smoking jacket, have a cocktail with his brace of beauties and gawk at whatever art acquisitions, by Rauschenberg or Mel Ramos or Jim Rosenquist, he had secured for his walls on that night at that party.

In later years, Ted worked with Richard Feigen, another quintessential elegant hustler, to exhibit Old Masters at Automation House on the fly.

But my most exquisite encounter with Ted occurred in 1983, when I was the New York State Field Coordinator for Gary Hart's Presidential campaign. The Washington office had the bright idea to throw Gary (a prickly, diffident fellow in the best of times) a birthday party in New York, and raise some needed bucks in the process.

One call to Ted was all it took to secure Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center (now bloody air, of course) for Gary's party. Kheel essentially used Windows as his clubhouse. At the party, Ted, who was in effect the restaurant's sommelier, sent over some of the best reds to Senator Hart's table. Not only did Gary refuse the booze, when Ted came over to say hello, Hart had no idea who he was!

In an era of Bloomberg-style domination, when hedge funder Stephen Cohen thinks it's "impressive" to invite Glenn Lowry to his mansion so the museum director can watch him buy a Warhol coke bottle at auction on the phone, a true class gentleman like Ted Kheel, who treated everyone like his best friend, is missed, and needed, more than ever.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).



 



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