Senior Life

Uncovering a hidden Hollywood friendship on the Hill

by Len Lear
Posted 7/13/23

Every so often, someone will ask me who is the most memorable person I met and interviewed in all those years. It was definitely David Eichler.

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Senior Life

Uncovering a hidden Hollywood friendship on the Hill


I have been writing and editing articles for Philadelphia area newspapers for 56 years, and started writing for the Local in 1981 with a weekly restaurant column, “Table Hopping,” that lasted for 35 years. As a result, every so often, someone will ask me who is the most memorable person I met and interviewed in all those years.

There have been many candidates over the last four decades, but the most memorable person was definitely David Eichler, who is undoubtedly best known by older Chestnut Hill area residents as the co-founder of Eichler & Moffly Realtors, which he started in 1960 with partner William T. Moffly. The firm was sold in 1995 to William Lee Morse, who retired in 2012, when the firm merged with Prudential, Fox & Roach. (Eichler served as chairman of the board until 2003.)

But the reason Eichler was so memorable had nothing to do with his real estate acumen and success, as impressive as that was. In mid-July 2003, I received a phone call from Eichler, who was then 90 years old.  I had never met or chatted with him.

“I would like you to come to my house tomorrow” (across the street from Chestnut Hill Hospital), he said. “I have a story for you that I know you will like. I thought about calling The Inquirer, but I decided to call you instead because I have gotten to know so many people in the Chestnut Hill area over almost 70 years, and they are the people I want to read this story.”

When I went to Eichler's house, I found him in a wheelchair, physically debilitated (a home care aide lifted him out of his wheelchair, placed him on a couch and fed him) but mentally sharp. He told me that he grew up in Lancaster, was a piano prodigy and wanted to become a classical music soloist, but his parents dissuaded him. A brilliant student, he went to Princeton University and later earned an M.B.A. from Harvard University, where he befriended “the sons of people named Rockefeller, Kennedy and Roosevelt.”

In 1936, he began a tenure as chairman of the English department at Chestnut Hill Academy. At age 23, he was 26 years younger than the most youthful CHA department head. Eichler left CHA to sign up for the military after the start of World War II and became part of an Army flight crew attempting to bomb German submarines and cities. Once, he and two other soldiers with German surnames were temporarily taken off the crew. Shortly thereafter, their flight buddies were shot down and killed by the Germans. After the war, Eichler held an important post with the U.S. State Department for eight years.

In 1939, before his military service, Eichler wrote a fan letter to Katharine Hepburn, who was about to come to Philadelphia to star in a touring version of “The Philadelphia Story.” (She also starred in the movie version with Cary Grant.) Hepburn invited him to visit her in her dressing room after a performance and to bring his CHA students with him.

“She was so gracious and nice to the boys,” Eichler told me. “She gave every one of them an autograph and answered all their questions and kidded around with them. They all fell in love with her, and so did I.” (Hepburn won four “Best Actress” Oscars, more than anyone else in movie history. In 1999, the American Film Institute named her “the greatest female star in the history of Hollywood.”

Eichler wrote Hepburn a “thank you” note afterwards, which began a 64-year correspondence between Hepburn and Eichler. Eichler said Hepburn even gave him a key to her Fifth Avenue house in Manhattan, and he often stayed there when Hepburn was out of town with a play or movie set. When she was there, Eichler said, they would usually go out to a restaurant and maybe a Broadway play. Eichler said Hepburn every so often visited him in his Chestnut Hill home and would stay in a guest bedroom.

Their relationship was strictly platonic. Hepburn spoke candidly in her best-selling biography, “Kate Remembered” (2003), about her 26-year romantic relationship with married actor Spencer Tracy, as well as relationships with director John Ford (married), agent Leland Howard (married) and billionaire Howard Hughes (married). She was once married to Ludlow Ogden Smith, a businessman she met while she was a student at Bryn Mawr College.

Eichler asked me to open a few bureau drawers in his living room and take out the contents. There were literally hundreds of letters from Hepburn. “She said she did not want me to show these letters to anyone as long as she was alive,” Eichler said. (Hepburn died at age 96 on June 29, 2003, and two weeks later he called me.)

I read at least a half-dozen of the letters. She wrote about her relationships with married men, about movies she was making and about the fact that even though she was rich and world-famous, she was essentially a loner who went home every night to an empty house.

“I respected Kate so much,” Eichler said, “and I'm so glad I can do a tribute to her with this article. The last thing she said to me was, 'I have outlived almost all of my friends, and I'm so glad you are still here, David.'”

I actually wrote two articles about Eichler in the July 24 and 31, 2003, issues of the Local. The first one had a huge page one photo of Eichler and Hepburn in 1984 coming out of a Broadway theater showing the play, “The Real Thing.” (We no longer have the photo.) He called to thank me for the first article, but when I went to his house on August 1, 2003, to give him copies of the second article, I was told by a relative that he had just died that morning.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.