Although I had heard of him and knew a little about him, I must confess that I never really thought of him as a crook, someone who'd step out of his way to steal the Social Security check from a widow with promises of riches beyond avarice. Yes, I knew I was in the minority, that millions of Americans thought of him as a thief and swindler. That thousands of Americans lost money in the Lincoln collapse. Still, I thought there must be another side to the story. This man who had created so much enterprise and land development couldn't be that bad. Or, could he?
In August 1997, my wife and I were having dinner with a business associate and his wife at Tomaso's, a nice Italian restaurant in Phoenix, when, like the coronation of a king, Charles Keating and his entourage entered the restaurant and seized the table next to ours.
In those days, his entourage consisted of his personal secretary and her husband (the crowd of admirers had thinned a bit after spending all that time in federal prison). Keating had been released, the beneficiary of an overturned decision on a technicality, and I guessed this was his first big night out. He looked great. More than 70 years old and not an ounce of fat on him. Tall, tan, and thin and telling everyone who cared to listen (and a few who didn't) that he swims 1,500 meters a day.
Charlie sat down as though he owned the place. No one at our table said a word to him, not only because we didn't want anyone to think we were star-struck but because we genuinely had nothing to say. Yet, Charlie looked over at our table and noticed a bottle of chianti I had ordered and commented: "That's a fine wine you've got there." Well, I like a good chianti as much as the next guy, but I would never call it a "fine wine." Still, I understood that, being in prison for so long, even Ripple would taste good to him at that point. So, I poured him a glass, and he replied "Oh, I don't want to sponge off you."
Strange, I thought, that he would consider me offering him a glass of wine as "sponging." I should have known right then and there. It was only later I learned the true definition of that colloquialism as it applied from Mr. Keating to me.
As dinner progressed that evening, the conversation flowed along with the wine. Bottle after bottle was brought to our table. We laughed and joked with Charlie and his crew. Charlie was fond of saying, again and again, "You know, I don't have any money since they took it all away from me." If he was flat broke, I thought, then why was he dining with his team at a pricey Italian restaurant in Phoenix? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to see him taking in the bill of fare at the local Olive Garden if he were truly busted? I didn't ponder that thought too long because the wine was flowing along with my good sense. And, at one momentous point in the evening, Charlie announced, "On the 15th of October we (meaning he and his staff) are eating at Mary Elaine's and you are all invited!"