The Death of a PR Legend
We first met in the late '60s in New York, and we were kind of rivals. I was at Rogers & Cowan, and Lois was at Allen, Foster, Ingersoll and Weber -- she was the Weber, which was her maiden name. A couple years later, we decided to form our own little PR company with Gerry Johnson called Pickwick. My husband and I were moving to California, where I would open an office, and Lois and Gerry would be in New York.
It was a time when the PR business was changing because the studio system was ending. The studios weren't doing personal PR work anymore. Everybody was on their own, and independent publicists were gobbling up the major stars. It was a great time to be in this business.
We had maybe 15 clients when we started, but they were all A-list: Candice Bergen, Robert Redford, Raquel Welch, Alice Cooper, Dick Cavett -- names like that. Almost all the clients were referred to us by agents and managers. Plus, we were lucky to begin with films like The Sting and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
In terms of how we did PR, Lois and I were simpatico. "Less is more" was always our motto. Always leave them wanting more. Don't overload the public with information. Keep it simple. We always tried to exhibit a great deal of calm with the client -- not always with the media or the opposing person we were talking to, but we brought calmness to the clients, and they felt comfortable.
And we both had two lives: work and family. We kept them separate. You know, I only met her husband, Gene, maybe twice in the 40 years we knew each other. And I think she only met mine once, and that was before we moved to California. She lived in one of those little sections outside the city, where she had four kids and a husband who worked. She'd go into the office every day, but she didn't do the show business life at night. She wanted to be home.
Around 1978, she wanted to work in production. She wasn't disenchanted with PR, but she wanted to give it a shot, so she went to work for Marble Arch. Then she went to United Artists as a production exec. Sophie's Choice and Yentl were two of the films she worked on. About that time, Gerry had a baby and decided to retire, so I was Pickwick all on my own. Lois had left UA to start a company with Peggy Siegal, but in the mid-'80s we convinced her to come to PMK, which I had started with Michael Maslansky and Neil Koenigsberg.
PMK was a well-oiled machine, and she fit right in. It was almost as though she'd always been there. I once asked her why she came back to PR, and she said, "There's money in it now!" -- but that was just part of it. She loved working with the staff and the clients. And she stayed until she retired in 2003.
We used to talk about how we'd seen the glory days of the PR business. It was before the blogs and the reporting that comes overnight, and in 30 minutes you've lost control of the story. Those things took a lot of the fun and the thought process out of the business.
We were really lucky to have been publicists when we were.
Pat Kingsley is a former partner at the firm PMK/HBH.
REMEMBERING SMITH: Friends and colleagues share their memories of the legendary publicist.
Peggy Siegal principal, The Peggy Siegal Co.: "Lois was very friendly with all the film critics. She'd ask which actors they admired, and then she'd pursue those actors as clients and make them into stars. She was very clever and intuitive about actors, but she was also in cahoots with all the guys who ran the entertainment media in New York."
Mara Buxbaum president, ID: "Beginning the first decade of my career in publicity under Lois Smith [at PMK] was like being born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Every day I carry Lois' lessons in my heart and aspire to meet the high bar she set in this industry. Lois understood the privilege and responsibility that comes with representing true talent. She knew how to protect her clients, nurture them and give them wings to fly. She understood the value of keeping mystery alive. Most importantly, Lois brought humor, heart and a deeply personal touch to everything she did -- making everyone around her feel like family. She leaves a legacy like none other, and all of us working in this business owe a great debt to the standards she set. Some people are fortunate enough to live in the time they were meant to live in. Lois Smith lived wonderfully in her time. I'm forever grateful to my wise, loving mentor and dear friend."
Robert Redford actor-director: "Lois was my publicist since 1963 and throughout my entire career. She was not only a career supporter but a dear friend. I feel a tremendous loss."
Meryl Streep, actress: "Lois Smith had a giant heart and a gorgeous spirit that paraded up and down the press line in her signature red coat (so the clients could always find her in the screaming crowd). Her unmatched joviality in what can be a craven business, her hardheaded soft heart was what steered and sustained her clients through the hyperbolic crush of media exposure. We all loved her and depended on her, and she is the last of her line to have had unquestioned authority over the paparazzi. When she swept her arm, they scattered, in amused deference and real respect."
Martin Scorsese, director: "Lois Smith was a legend: warm, wise, funny and generous -- one of the sharpest people in the business. She was my friend, and I am lucky to have known and worked with her."
Ethan Hawke, actor: "I met Lois in the days after Dead Poets Society was released. Her big advice to me was not to think about publicity -- think about reaching my potential. If I did that, the publicity would take care of itself. Her confidence, love and empathy were always inspiring. There will not be another Lois Smith. She was a lion."
Rosie O'Donnell, comedian: "Lois was a force of nature who loved her clients with a fierce loyalty and a huge open heart that went far beyond show business."
Leslee Dart, founder and CEO, 42West: "Back in the mid-'80s, public relations was a business that welcomed women, but Lois was unique. There were enough people out there who were screaming, arrogant, opinionated and forceful. Before I met Lois, those were all the role models I could have had. But she taught me you could be powerful, successful, kind and considerate all at the same time. She was my partner, very much a mother figure and at the same time one of my best friends. By choice, we shared an office for more than 15 years. Lois referred to us as the original odd couple because she never met a piece of paper that she didn't need to keep, and I didn't have a paper clip out of place on my desk. Her clients became her friends. When Lois had heart surgery a few years after she retired, I went to visit her, and there, in the middle of her NYU hospital room, sitting on the bed -- with a roommate a curtain away -- was Meryl Streep giving Lois a pedicure. And they were just having girl talk. Their relationship wasn't just about photo shoots and 60 Minutes and The New York Times. They knew each other's children, and their children knew each other. I mean, Bob Redford is her daughter's godfather."