I met Robert Beal about five years ago in New York through a friend in common. I was finishing my second Master’s degree at Columbia University, and he was just retiring from his family enterprise, one of the most successful real estate companies in Boston: the Beal Companies, more recently renamed Related Beal after the 2013 partnership with Related. Robert passed away a week ago. He and I were 45 years apart, yet he is one of the most inspiring friends I’ve ever had. Our favorite topics included modern art, architecture, politics, Europe, and the world. There is no generation gap when you talk about timeless topics. His legacy lives forever.
A décor worthy of the Titanic, French and eclectic at the same time, fresh flowers, dimmed light, and mirrors all around to see and be seen, La Grenouille is the last traditional French restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. “Monsieur, des chouquettes?” (pronounce shuket) “Il y a de la viande dedans?” I asked, genuinely thinking the waiter spoke French. The waiter looked at me confused: “Hum, sorry sir?” I then translated: “Oh, I asked what was inside?”. Robert and I had our first conversation around French cuisine and a 12-piece silverware set. Coming from Lyon, this traditional set up somehow made me feel at home.
Even when the dining room was crowded, it was still pretty quiet. It became a fun place to go if you were with Robert and his friends. Robert was very social and spoke to others in the restaurant, waving to kids and greeting those around him. He sometimes would show his tie and make small talk and jokes to strangers. I’ve always admired the distance with which he lived his life, never taking himself too seriously.
Robert loved feeding the birds on the street. He often stopped on the sidewalk to feed pigeons right before entering Beal Co, in the former Grain Exchange Building of Boston. He was a philanthropist, funding many charitable and cultural organizations, and also a major contributor to many civic and Jewish organizations. He did not judge people on the cover and always tried to help on the individual level.
For his 75th birthday, Robert invited 400 people to a hotel ballroom in Boston, including many public figures such as the Governor of Massachusetts (R-Charlie Baker). Robert’s family and himself created tight relationships with the real estate and political world, Democrats and Republicans alike. Not one project, not one election, not one big decision could stay away from Robert’s advice. Some even gave him the nickname Mr. Boston. He was always calm and inspired respect. But he was also very popular. Whether you were a bird or the president of the United States, he would always behave the same way towards you. He would always treat everyone equally.
When going to Boston, I sometimes visited Robert at his place in the center. Entering Robert’s house was quite an experience. It was transcendental yet very homey, slowly climbing the tufted ovoidal staircase, surrounded by master paintings of modern and contemporary art. Robert’s mansion was like a mini MoMa at home. He had an anecdote for every painting he bought, having met with many of the artists, except maybe for Picasso, De Kooning or Léger. Robert remembered every detail of every moment, often referring to the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and other political figures. He was more than just a Renaissance man, he was resolutely a Modern.
As a painter myself, I cannot describe the feeling of being in front of Willem De Kooning or Picasso. It is unusual to experience a master painting at such an intimate level. I often asked Robert about the paintings. Their story meant a lot to me. Robert had the subtle ability to make you travel in time and his paintings were like a time machine. Robert passed away last week in his sleep. I imagine his soul traveling through the walls, his paintings guiding him one last time, enjoying Picasso, De Kooning and Léger, and meeting them.
We so-called Millennials always want to change the world, but what exactly do we want to change? We want to have a positive impact, but how exactly are we planning to do that? We dream of becoming millionaires, but do we even understand the responsibilities associated with such wealth? Robert was a figure of authority and one of the most respected men in his city. He drove his own car and was very humble. He was authentic and an example of absolute integrity and generosity. In the unstable and polarized world we live in today, Robert Beal was not a conformist. He was a futurist.
“Wonderful,” as he always used to say.