Remembering a relentless publicist, never too proud to beg

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This image provided by Beth Vantosh shows Helen Mirren, from left, Bobby Zarem and Jane Fonda on Oct. 9 2017, in Los Angeles. (Beth Vantosh via AP)

NEW YORK – Some 15 years ago, while working on a story about the New York Post's famous Page Six column, I needed some perspective on the gossip industry.

So I sought out Bobby Zarem, who'd by then spent more than 30 years as a tireless, relentless entertainment publicist, with a client list that read like a Who's Who of a certain era: Cher, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman, ​​Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, Ann-Margret, Al Pacino, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and more.

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Zarem explained the delicate dance of getting gossip items placed — how one greases the wheels by offering juicy tidbits unrelated to one’s clients, just to keep the door open. “If you're intelligent,” he said, “it's never discussed.” But he told me how even that strategy didn’t always work, and sometimes, you just had to beg.

How, I asked, does one do that? He replied patiently: “Literally. I say, ‘I’m begging you’!”

Zarem may have been proud, but for his clients, never too proud to beg.

Robert Myron “Bobby” Zarem died on Sunday at 84, a decade after leaving one beloved city, New York, for the other, his native Savannah, Georgia, where he spent his final days at home, surrounded by friends and family. Longtime colleague Bill Augustin said the cause was complications of lung cancer.

Never a household name to the public, but a storied figure to many entertainment insiders, he earned a number of colorful descriptions over the years: Superflack. PR legend. Storyteller. New York booster. Never forgets a friend — and definitely not an enemy. Nurses a grudge.

Perhaps former tabloid gossip writer Joannna Molloy put it most colorfully: Zarem, she said, was “more connected than a set of Deluxe Lego.”

In an interview this week, Molloy described Zarem in a way that made her analogy, which she first came up with in the ’90s, doubly meaningful. Lego bricks are connected, yes, but if you’ve ever tried to clean up a kid’s room, you know they’re also very hard to take apart. And Zarem, she said, was way more than superficially connected to the stars. “He was really friends with these people — Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson,” she said. “These were real friendships.”

For Pacino, Zarem was also a role model — by which we mean he played a role modeled on Zarem; a disheveled, indefatigable press agent with a southern drawl in the 2002 film aptly titled “People I Know.”

“Sometimes an actor is lucky enough to actually get to know the person first-hand he is portraying in a film,” Pacino told The Associated Press this week through his publicist, Stan Rosenfield. “I got lucky. I got to know Bobby Zarem.”

Zarem's client list blended to such an extent with his friend list that it's hard to separate them. A statement from the Gamble Funeral Service in Savannah described them all as friends, including also Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Gregory Peck, George Segal, and Christy Turlington.

Zarem wasn’t only a booster of people; he was devoted to his two cities. He helped launch and promote the Savannah Film Festival, sending endless pitches and perk-filled invitations to lure the media. And he worked to make the city a tourism destination through the fame of John Berendt’s 1994 true-crime novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

But New York was the setting for what Zarem considered his greatest triumph, often describing how, he said, he came up with the “I Love New York” slogan. Others played key roles in the famous ad campaign. But Zarem told the AP in 2010 that he had the original idea, after which an ad firm added the “heart” logo.

Fittingly, the anecdote involved the former celebrity hangout Elaine’s, on the Upper East Side, which he frequented religiously. “I was walking home from Elaine’s on a Saturday night,” he said. “You could have rolled a coin down the street and nobody would have stopped it. The city was dying. Something had to be done.” And so the idea was born, as he told it.

​​He was known as much for his own star-studded birthday gatherings as for events like the lavish party for the movie “Tommy,” starring client Ann-Margret, for which a midtown Manhattan subway station was procured.

He also took credit for introducing Woody Allen and Mia Farrow — before it became something better off denied. It was also at Elaine’s, of course.

Born in Savannah on Sept. 30, 1936, Robert Myron Zarem attended Andover and then Yale, and worked briefly in finance before getting into publicity with producer Joe Levine and then the PR firm Rogers & Cowan. He formed his own company in 1974.

He stayed in New York when others might have moved to Hollywood. Molloy attributes that in part to an instinct for what would best serve his clients: “He understood that the New York tabloids drove the morning shows.”

Zarem was also a huge opera and theater fan. “Music and theater sustained him,” said Molloy, who like many in media and entertainment, counted herself among his good friends. (Disclosure: After profiling Zarem in 2010 at his New York farewell party, I came to know him through close Savannah friends, sharing a few meals and becoming part of a galaxy of acquaintances.)

Zarem’s amiable, disheveled manner belied not only a will of steel but a propensity to hold a grudge. He famously feuded, bitterly, with the late columnist Liz Smith. And there were others — even the funeral home statement noted that “his many feuds were the stuff of legend," and also that “profanity and withering invective” were part of his arsenal.

And Richard Johnson of the New York Post recounted at Zarem's farewell party how he'd once received a furious call from the publicist, after a gossip item had been delayed, "a withering tirade, full of so many four-letter words it would make a sailor blush.”

One might imagine that in nearly a half-century as a publicist in New York, Zarem might have had an anecdote about one Donald J. Trump. One would not be mistaken.

Zarem told South magazine about a call from Trump, in the real estate years. “He called me in August or September of 1978. It was six months after I launched the ‘I Love New York’ campaign," he said. “I walked in and he said, ‘Bobby, every cent I’ve ever made is because of you.'”

“I didn’t think much of it,” Zarem added.


Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Atlanta contributed to this story.