Brian Kellow in a shirt I designed and made for him. He loved vibrant colors, especially bright green.

When I was a SoCal kid I fantasized a lot about going to New York City one day to be part of the big, glamorous, brainy arts and media world. I dreamt of becoming friends with hundreds of brilliant, clever, ambitious people who would form a community of mutual support.

Brian Kellow was exactly the kind of person I'd dream of becoming friends with in NYC.

He was incredibly well-read in literature and philosophy (and, I would later find out, in theology as well). He was also well-trained and knowledgeable in classical music as well as Broadway. He had a day job as an excellent editor at Opera News for twenty-eight years (my husband Ray and I wrote several pieces for Brian and can both attest to his editing skills).

At the same time he wrote and published a bunch of highly-praised biographies about powerful women in the arts: among them, the larger-than-any-Broadway- stage Ethel Merman, the influential New Yorker magazine film critic, Pauline Kael, and the bigger-balls-than-any-man Hollywood superagent, Sue Mengers.

Brian was the right biographer for those women. He thought gutsy dames were heroines. And yet he was able to be objective about them. In each book, he shows that these strong women could make bad choices or even ethically wrong choices, but they also never succumbed to feminism's view of female victimhood. Brian showed how each of them pursued their passion singlemindedly and succeeded without ever playing the victim card. I think these biography books should be on the reading list for every teenage girl.

Brian was both extremely talented as a writer and able to succeed in the difficult world of NYC media. He could write a perfectly organized article -- make that a perfectly organized book -- with enviable ease. No writer's block for Brian!

Perhaps this had something to do with Brian's friendly relationship with his background. Raised on a farm in Oregon, Brian never hated his small-town upbringing or rejected it, the way so many people who come to NYC do. He adored his father, a hilariously ornery man who drove a tractor on the freeway at age 96 and gave the finger to honking cars who wanted to pass, and who adored Brian and not only accepted that he was gay, but embraced Brian's spouse, Scott Barnes.

Brian was generous in his interest and praise of other writers and artists. Which meant that at the end of a day of writing, Brian was the ideal dinner companion. He could set aside all of his own ambition and listen to what you were up to and what you thought. When he disagreed, he did so exuberantly, in a way that made you want to think more and write more about your opinions. Well, he was of Irish descent, after all. He had the Irish gift of gab.

And Brian loved to laugh. He and I used to meet for dinner at Jack's (which sadly went under financially as so many downtown restaurants did after Hurricane Sandy). Brian loved salmon, and Jack's had an under $20 pre-fixe that included it. One night there, Brian got up to use the bathroom and returned five minutes later. "There's a couple having sex in the bathroom," he roared. "I tried to open the door and one of them kicked it shut." He paused, enjoyed a bite of salmon and said "Let's see if we can figure out who they are when they walk through the restaurant." Moments later, a middle-aged couple, walked through the restaurant blushing and looking quite post-coital. "That's got to be them!" Brian said.

That was Brian. He loved to talk about the latest opera production and he loved to talk about just what was happening at that moment. He loved the arts and he loved life. 

I thought I'd meet hundreds of people like Brian in New York City. But what I learned from my years there was that Brian was a very rare person in the arts world. I met many brilliant, talented and glamorous people. I often loved their work and I loved the kind of high-level conversation I could have with them at parties or events. But most of the brilliant, talented people I came to know were either so ambitious that they couldn't be a friend let alone keep themselves from indulging in Schadenfreude when people they knew had a downturn in their careers, or they were so neurotic it was impossible to deal with them on an easy level, or they were so narcissistic that they spent all their time over dinner talking about themselves, or they would be so entrenched in their beliefs, whether political or about even the most obscure foreign film director, that if you disagreed with them they'd cut you out of their life.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Brian was his resilience. Just a few years ago, times were unbelievably tough for him in a number of ways. Brian reconfigured his career and dealt with his personal losses in the most gallant way and he never lost his generosity towards others.

Now that I've fulfilled my dream of living the cultural and media life in NYC, I look back on it with a lot of gratitude for who I knew there and what I was able to do as a writer. And yet, I long ago gave up thinking my life there would be made up of hundreds of friends like Brian Kellow. The truth is, I've only known a handful of art and media people who were like Brian -- whose work I admired, and who were open and generous to others, and had it in them to wish others well. Those friendships are all too rare and very, very precious.

Today I'm thinking about the opening lines from Erich Segal's Love Story, a long-forgotten novel that was popular when I was a teen. The novel struck me as ridiculously corny then. But like many bestselling works of pop fiction, there was enduring truth mixed in with the corniness. Segal's lines resonate for me today. "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me."

Brian was 59, and fifty-nine was too young for him to go. He had achieved so much, yet he was about to move on to perhaps even more wonderful things. It was as though he was becoming Brian 2.0. He was working on a memoir, a novel, and had a job at Miami Opera.

Brian died from brain cancer. "What can you say about a man who died at only 59? That he was beautiful. And brilliant. That he loved Mozart and Bach. And Broadway tunes. And that he was a very dear friend to me."

Here are links to Brian's website, his books and his blog:

Brian Kellow website

Follow Kellow -- his blog

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent

Ethel Merman: A Life


Reader Comments (6)

Thank you. You captured so well the essence of Brian. He was a wonderful man, and he found a true friend and kindred spirit in you. I know how much he cherished his friendship with you and Ray.

July 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTracy Turner

Polly, you nailed it! He was as unique as they come. A boundless, outsized personality of the first order. My life will forever have a gaping hole in it but fortunately I will be luckier than most. I have 59 years of memories, laughter and love to backfill that gaping hole. Oh those brotherly memories and oh that laughter. The laughter I will miss most of all.

July 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Kellow

Thank you, dear Polly. I’m so happy that you featured Brian in your beautiful shirt—he LOVED wearing it! My sweet boy adored you and your work, and prized the times he spent with you and Ray. He would love being remembered for his generosity of spirit. 💔

July 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSCOTT BARNES

Brian's blog was Follow Kellow http://s181314165.onlinehome.us/follow/brian-kellow-1959-2018/

July 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPolly Frost

This is beautiful. Thank you for getting it all in words.

July 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMary Kay Moment

Love it... Mr.Kellow was an amazing kind hearted guy. I was blessed to know him when he moved to Miami and his personality alone made me so delighted and attracted to him. He always knew the right things to say to make a person smile i think about you daily and it only hurts more and more...
I truly loved Mr.Kellow and Mr Scott the best kind hearted people.

November 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarkesha Barnett

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