Jacques L. Kahn, 76, advertising executive, musician, benefactor of Peabody students

March 27, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For Jacques L. Kahn, a poor boy growing up in the Baltimore of the Great Depression, the joy of receiving a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music was something that lasted a lifetime.

Out of gratitude, Mr. Kahn later endowed and awarded a scholarship to the venerable Mount Vernon Place institution. He once said that being given a scholarship "was the first nice thing that ever happened to me, and my giving an annual scholarship now is a chance for me to duplicate for some other kid what that meant to me."

Mr. Kahn, a Pittsburgh advertising, public relations and marketing executive, ended his life March 18. He was 76.

"He had been disabled by several strokes and was distraught recently that he could no longer play the piano," said his son, Victor J. Kahn, of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Kahn, a child prodigy who was born and raised in Baltimore, was 8 when he was awarded his first scholarship to Peabody in 1930.

At the school, his piano teacher was Helen Williams, a diminutive woman who lived in a Park Avenue rooming house.

He was awarded four scholarships from 1930 to 1936, and as the Depression deepened and the school was unable to grant scholarships, Miss Williams continued teaching him at no expense.

"My only good memories of my childhood were of Peabody and my teacher Helen Williams," he told the Peabody News in a 1982 interview.

"I remember that when I was about 12, she took me with her to a recital, and I spent what little money I had buying her one gardenia as a corsage."

Miss Williams, who considered Mr. Kahn a substitute son, kept up with her former student, collecting clippings of his World War II adventures and success later in business.

In 1957, after learning of her death, he returned to Baltimore and visited the humble room where she had died. The walls were covered with photos, postcards and newspaper clippings he had sent to her.

Lying on her dressing table, pressed between two pieces of glass, was the gardenia he had given her years earlier. It may have been the only one she had ever been given.

As a tribute to the enduring kindness and love of his teacher, Mr. Kahn said years later, "I went out and bought every gardenia I could find in the city of Baltimore. I asked for her coffin to be opened and I poured them in."

He left the Baltimore of his youth after his parents sold a piano the day after he had won it in a regional talent contest. "I never came back," he said of the incident.

He went to Pittsburgh and worked as an inventory clerk in a department store.

He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and later organized and led the 9th Air Force Mobile Entertainment Unit, known as the Sky Blazers. The unit, the first of its kind in the Army, played for Egypt's King Farouk and Allied troops in North Africa.

Later stationed in London, the Sky Blazers performed in the Royal Albert Hall in 1944. While in London, he played for King George VI and Winston Churchill.

Perhaps his most daring performance was playing on the beaches of Normandy 10 days after the invasion -- his piano was literally blown up from underneath him by enemy fire. He later was decorated with the Bronze Star for "entertainment under fire."

After the war, he went to work as an office boy for Warner Brothers Pictures. He later handled publicity for the stars, directed world premiers and was a special assistant to Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes.

In 1953, he established Kahn & Associates Inc., whose clients include such entertainment giants as Warner Bros., Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Orion Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures and the Harlem Globetrotters. He was semiretired at his death.

But it was to Baltimore and Peabody that Mr. Kahn continually returned.

"His favorite time of the year was going to Baltimore to present the annual scholarship in the memory of Helen Williams and then returning to hear the scholarship winner's recital. He thought that was just fantastic," said Mr. Kahn.

In addition to his annual scholarship to the Peabody Preparatory Department, Mr. Kahn endowed a lifetime scholarship at the school shortly before his death, said his son.

"He always considered Peabody his saving grace. It was a place that saved his life," said his son, Mr. Kahn.

Services were held Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Beside his son, he is survived by his former wife whom he divorced 20 years ago, the former Adelaine "Vickie" Victorhaus; a sister, Jille Wiseman of Charleston, W.Va.; and four grandchildren.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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