Marina Keegan ’12, a prolific writer, actress and activist, died Saturday afternoon in a car accident near Dennis, Mass. She was 22.
At Yale, Keegan distinguished herself as a leader across disciplines: in addition to writing and starring in several campus plays, Keegan served as president of the Yale College Democrats, and last fall sparked a campus discussion on careers in finance and consulting that ultimately spread to other Ivy League campuses and the pages of the New York Times. Friends and professors interviewed remembered Keegan as a talented and ambitious young woman who had keen insight into human nature.
“Marina was someone who looked at the world and knew it had to be changed, but at the same time saw there was beauty in it,” said Yael Zinkow ’12, Keegan’s close friend.
Keegan came to Yale from Wayland, Mass., in fall 2008. An English major and member of Saybrook College, she completed the writing concentration and graduated magna cum laude five days before her death.
In her writing, Keegan captured the concerns of her generation, friends and writing professors said. She drew national media attention in September 2011 with the WEEKEND cover “Even artichokes have doubts,” which critiqued the high number of recent Yale graduates pursuing careers in finance and consulting. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and on the New Yorker website, and one of her short stories aired in NPR’s “Selected Shorts” in 2011.
Keegan interned at the Paris Review in New York City this spring and was preparing to move to Brooklyn in June to start a position as assistant to the general counsel at The New Yorker.
“She was an exceptional person, wildly talented, and with the confidence and character (and personal modesty) to have done fine things,” English lecturer John Crowley, who advised Keegan on her writing concentration senior project, wrote in a Sunday email. “Her loss can’t be expressed — to those who knew her, to her family, to her friends — but the loss also to the world that lay before her. In what seems to me now the beautiful yet terribly small pile of writing she left, that’s clear.”
Writing professor Anne Fadiman described Keegan as a “self-starting cornucopia” who demonstrated her aptitude as a writer across several genres, never falling victim to writer’s block or needing the pressure of a good grade or impending deadline to write.
Fadiman first encountered Keegan at a Master’s Tea in fall 2010, when Keegan, then a junior, challenged author Mark Helprin after he told audience members not to pursue writing careers because of their low likelihood of success.
“I just remember this beautiful, articulate woman standing up and clearly not willing to be cowed by this famous writer, contradicting him, speaking up, declaring her determination to try, declaring her determination to ignore his discouraging words,” Fadiman said.
The same conviction was evident in her political and social advocacy on campus.
Keegan served as president of the Yale College Democrats in 2011, spearheading the organization’s lobbying efforts to end the death penalty in Connecticut and pass legislation that would allow illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition fees at public colleges under certain conditions. In late 2011, she helped organize the Occupy Morgan Stanley movement, which urged Yalies to be more conscious of their career choices.
Joseph Breen ’12, who served as a 2011-’12 co-coordinator of Dwight Hall, described Keegan as pragmatic and skilled at accomplishing her goals. She was a “strong political leader who fought for progress and for political engagement,” Breen said.
Ben Stango ’11, Keegan’s predecessor as Dems president, said she advocated for the “type of progressive politics students should be engaged in” with passion and a “grass-rootsy political spirit.”
“Marina was motivated by the same impulse that drove her to write, to act, to invest in friends, and to improve her community — the impulse that insisted that all of us were destined to do something tremendous, and it ought to be something tremendously good for the world,” Alexandra Brodsky ’12, who helped organize Occupy Morgan Stanley, said in a Sunday email. “Marina, I think, saw clearer than most just how privileged we were, and thus how little stood in our way to doing great things — and so she demanded that greatness of herself and those around her.”
As with her efforts in advocacy and writing, Keegan approached her work in theater boldly.
Charlie Polinger ’13, who directed Keegan’s musical, “Independents,” last fall and will direct it at the New York International Fringe Festival production in August, said Keegan pursued ambitious goals in her creative work. He recalled how Keegan insisted a 10-minute monologue at the end of “Independents” be left uncut, though the creative team worried the piece would not engage its audience. The monologue “ended up being one of the most powerful parts of the show,” Polinger said.
Keegan’s close friends said she considered friendships and relationships a vital part of her life, and maintained them in spite of her numerous other commitments.
“The same insights and wits that made her a good writer made her so much fun to be around,” said Chloe Sarbib ’12. “She knew when you needed support or when you needed to be reminded you were good.”
Michael Blume ’12 and David Mogilner ’12 said Keegan was a prolific source of romantic advice for her friends. Blume said she “loved love,” while Mogilner described Keegan as the “first cheerleader” in her friends’ lives. Brodsky noted that, while Keegan was ambitious about her future career, she “very much wanted to fall in love with one person for her whole life and raise a family.”
Her death Saturday reverberated throughout the University.
Saybrook College Master Paul Hudak said all of his college is in shock, calling the event “an unbelievable tragedy.” Yale College Dean and former Saybrook College Master Mary Miller and her husband, Japanese literature professor and former interim Saybrook College Master Edward Kamens, said they were “devastated.”
Reached at his home Sunday afternoon, English professor and renowned literary critic Harold Bloom GRD ’56 said he had come to regard Keegan, his research assistant over the past two years, as a granddaughter. He called her death “beyond human comprehension.”
“Marina was wise, almost beyond measure, and manifested immense good will towards everyone privileged to have known her,” Bloom wrote in an email later that afternoon. “It is 60 years since I first came to Yale. I can think of only a few other women and men I have taught whose presence always will be with me.”
Keegan is survived by her parents, Tracy and Kevin, and brothers, Trevor and Pierce. Her family could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Clarification: May 28 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the job Keegan was planning to start at the New Yorker in June.