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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

M. Peter Keane, 103

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By James Lomuscio

M. Peter Keane of Westport, who died at 103 on Friday, Feb. 7,  has been described as an artist who loved music and film, someone who went from recording bird songs at Cornell to filming iconic scenes in “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Image
M. Peter Keane: science studied his family’s longevity. Contributed photo

Keane was also “the baby of the family,” his wife, Elisabeth Keane, said today, one of four siblings whose longevity has been the subject of scientific study.

Keane’s older sister was Helen Faith Keane Reichert of Westport and New York City. She died in 2011 at the age of 109 “just a few weeks shy of her 110th birthday on Nov. 11,” Elisabeth said. (See WestportNow Sept. 27, 2011)

Keane’s older brother Irving Kahn “is 108 and still doing well,” she added. Irving recently stepped down as chairman of Kahn Bros., a New York City investment firm. Unlike his siblings, children of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Irving never changed his family name.

Then there was Lenora, called Lee, who died in February 2011 just a few weeks before she reached 102 “because she tripped,” according to Elisabeth.

“It appears to be genetic,” Elisabeth said about longevity in her late husband’s family.

She noted all four had been part of a centenarian, long life, genome study conducted by Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“None of them were health nuts,” Elisabeth pointed out. “They behaved normally, no extremes. They ate normally, and they enjoyed life. He enjoyed life.”

Even after Keane developed blindness in 2005, he continued to keep his mind active, listening to books on tape, his wife said.

“He remained interested in all sorts of things, and his favorite subjects were history and science,” Elisabeth Keane said.

Born Feb. 16, 1910 in New York City, the “baby of the family” developed an interest in birds, an interest he pursued by studying ornithology at Cornell University where he graduated in 1932. At Cornell, he became involved in early birdsong recordings at the university’s newly built Laboratory of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods.

Photography was another one of his passions, one that eventually drew him to the West Coast and Hollywood where he worked as an assistant cameraman during the early days of Technicolor. It was there that he would have a hand in making legendary movies.

“He was on the set when Judy Garland sang ‘Over the Rainbow,” and he said half the crew was in tears or certainly getting misty,” Elisabeth said.

She described her late husband recalling the filming of “Gone With the Wind,” particularly the burning of Atlanta scene. Image
The Keane-Kahn siblings in this undated family photo. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

“What they used were old sets on the back lot that were going to be destroyed anyway,” she said.

With his 25-pound fully loaded camera, Peter Keane was filming “God’s Country and the Woman” in 1936 when a planned log jam explosion went awry, and a piece of log hit him in the head, landing him in the hospital for a few days.

Elisabeth Keane also recalled her husband telling her that during the filming of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Erroll Flynn, only a thin piece of cork board stood between the actors’ flesh and the arrows fired, and many complained of bruises. 

During World War II, Keane served as a captain in famed director Frank Capra’s Army Signal Corps in the Pacific. After the war, he returned to New York City, working as an executive at several companies involved in the early years of video technology. Keane was also a fellow of the Society of Motion Picure and Television Engineers.

In addition to Elisabeth and Irving, Keane is survived by his daughter Karin, son Marc and grandchildren Kai Keane and Luca Losecaat-Vermeer. He was predeceased by his first wife Lucille Fouillet, the mother of his children.

In lieu of flowers, family members say donations can be made in Peter Keane’s name to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, or online at 

Checks can be made out to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with a memo note saying “honoring Peter Keane.”

Posted 02/12/14 at 03:47 AM


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