Katz, the Philadelphia tycoon, former sports team owner, and philanthropist who had just purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, had been trying for days to persuade former governor Rendell to fly up with him on Saturday to Concord, Mass., for a cocktail party and dinner at the home of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“I stopped to get some produce at a place on 20th Street, and Lewis was sitting in an outdoor seating area at a restaurant across the way,” Rendell, 70, told The Daily Beast on Sunday afternoon, a few hours after he learned that his friend had been killed the previous evening, along with six other people, in the fiery explosion of his chartered jet. “We joked and kibitzed, and Lewis said, ‘You really ought to come tomorrow. Doris would love to see you.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I’ll call you, but I don’t think I can.’”
Rendell, who served as Philadelphia’s district attorney and mayor before being elected Pennsylvania governor in 2002, explained that he had an early morning speaking commitment at the Little Shul in south Philadelphia and was worried he wouldn’t be back in time. It was a fundraising event for the renovation of the state’s smallest synagogue, which is situated in a row house, “and I couldn’t let them down,” Rendell said.
Had it not been for the fundraiser, Rendell said he would have been aboard the jet and killed along with the 72-year-old Katz, three other passengers, and three crew members, when it crashed on the runway and reportedly hit a fence and exploded at Hanscom Field, a small airport outside Boston, on its way to Atlantic City, N.J.
“That flashed through my mind for a second when his son Drew called me this morning,” Rendell said about his brush with cheating death. “But what flashed through my mind most of all is that I was never going to talk to him again.”
Rendell said he is unsure what to make of news reports that Katz and his guests were using a chartered four-passenger Gulfstream IV for the trip to and from Massachusetts. Katz, who had been one of Rendell’s biggest political fundraisers and best friends since his district attorney’s campaign in 1977, owns two 12-passenger Gulfstream Vs, Rendell said. He added that since leaving public office, he has flown on one of the G-Vs “25 or 30 times” as Katz’s guest.
If Katz was using a chartered jet, “maybe that explains it,” Rendell said. “With his regular pilots, if there was a speck of water out of place on that plane, they wouldn’t take off. That’s how careful they were. They were great pilots. They never would have crashed into a chain-link fence.”
Rendell added: “All of Lewis’s close friends, we all know his pilots and his stewardess, and we’re desperate trying to find out if they were on the plane.” As of this writing, only Katz and his next-door neighbor, retired preschool teacher Anne Leeds, 74, had been officially identified among the dead.
Rendell said he talked with Katz on Tuesday shortly after he and a business partner, Gerry Lenfest, made the winning bid for the Inquirer and Daily News, agreeing to pay $88 million for control of the financially strapped morning and afternoon papers—a $33 million premium over what New Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, along with Katz and Lenfest, had paid for the media properties only two years ago.
“Lewis knew he had to do the right thing, and he way overpaid for the papers,” Rendell said. “He did it because he wanted to keep the papers in Philly, and he didn’t want to close down the Daily News, and wanted to keep it free of any interference.”
On Tuesday after the auction, “Lewis and I did a postmortem…I’d never seen him happier than he was this week,” Rendell went on. Katz's son Drew—who is named after the legendary Washington columnist Drew Pearson, for whom the elder Katz worked as an assistant when he was college student—will take his father’s place on the board of the newspapers’ parent company.
“This is unbelievable,” Rendell said. “The shock and the sorrow here are unbelievable, not only because he was a great philanthropist, but because he did so many small things for people that no one ever heard of. His greatest thrill in life was helping people.” Rendell added: “This is so fucking hard.”