A version of this story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah, Ga., is a massive spectacle of the sort that Bobby Zarem is famous for masterminding: exciting, well-organized and highly covered by the media. Some might be surprised to find the 78-year-old pioneering publicist among the throngs gathered to take it in — after all, he remains closely associated with New York, where he lived for more than 50 years while crafting some of the most ingenious PR campaigns in history, including “I?Love New York.” But Zarem left the Big Apple in 2010 to return to his hometown in the South, and it was there that he recently spoke to THR about how he realized his childhood dream of hanging with the stars.
Post-parade, Zarem, wrapped in a robe, his white hair astray and “in constant pain” ever since a small stroke several years ago led to a fall, plants himself in his favorite recliner in the living room of the humble house in which he was raised. “My obsession with the movies started with the glamour,” he explains, recalling that, as a child, he read every movie magazine, solicited countless autographs and stalked stars who visited Savannah. “My dream was to be around them.”
Zarem got his first real taste of show business when his father, who ran a shoe company, relocated to New York to receive cancer treatments. Zarem, then 12, visited him for 10 days, staying at the Waldorf, attending Broadway shows and chasing autographs. “That was the first time I got to see New York the way I fantasized about it,” he recalls. His father died a year later.
Despite a lifelong battle with ADD that made it “impossible” for him to read, Zarem followed his brothers to Andover (he graduated 234th out of 236) and Yale (he talked his way off the wait-list). A week after graduating, he moved to New York and began a series of jobs that included stints with showman Joseph E. Levine and Hollywood’s premier PR agency Rogers & Cowan, where he worked with The Jackson?5, Ann-Margret, Dustin Hoffman and others.
In 1974, with encouragement from restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, a dear friend for decades (at whose establishment he introduced Mia Farrow to Woody Allen), Zarem started Zarem Inc. He quickly made his mark with events like a black-tie premiere for Tommy for 700 New York bigwigs — in a new subway station on 57th and Sixth — which attendees marvel about to this day. He made headlines when he assaulted a Paramount marketing exec and stole stills of Saturday Night Fever; the studio was planning to write it off as a dud, and without Zarem’s impertinence, the public might never have learned about the film and its star John Travolta.
Around the same time, Zarem caught an early screening of the documentary Pumping Iron, which featured a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. Free of charge, he secured the first national story about the film, which led to him being hired to work on it. “Arnold wanted to meet Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis more than anything,” he recalls. Zarem made it happen, and the resulting photograph went viral, leading to a 60 Minutes segment that solidified Schwarzenegger’s stardom.
But the PR campaign of which Zarem is most proud is “I Love New York.” As he recalls, “I was walking home from Elaine’s on a Saturday night in 1975 and realized you could throw a quarter down Second Avenue and there wasn’t a person or car that would stop it. The city was in great disrepair. I decided somebody had to do something. And the slogan was there that night.” He lobbied contacts from every segment of New York life — and ultimately came up with $16?million in funding. “The ‘I Love New York’ campaign saved the city of New York,” insists Zarem. “I saw my creativity come alive.” (Ad exec Mary Wells Lawrence and the late Mayor Ed Koch also have claimed credit, which Zarem dismisses.)
Even so, at least one prominent New Yorker doesn’t think very highly of Zarem — gossip columnist Liz Smith, now 92 — and the feeling is mutual. “We’ve had a 35-year public feud,” laughs Zarem, adding, “I caught her.” Zarem says he figured out that Smith was the ghostwriter behind “Robin Adams Sloan,” a syndicated column that regularly skewered his clients — and, he says, Smith’s own friends — and he wrote her asking her to stop. Instead, he says, she began going after him. In retaliation, he sent out hundreds of notices announcing Smith’s wedding to her partner Iris Love. Though he denied he was responsible at the time, he now proudly admits his role. Smith has said that she was outraged by Zarem’s behavior and has insinuated that Zarem is homophobic. Zarem says categorically that he does not hate all homosexuals — only Smith.
Zarem’s bustling office always was peopled with eager young talent. Many of his proteges today hold positions of power in the industry — among them Untitled Entertainment manager Jason Weinberg, Madonna‘s publicist Liz Rosenberg and event planner Peggy Siegal — and say that though their boss was prone to rages, he also taught them invaluable lessons, from the value of handwritten notes to how to behave around the rich and famous. “He had the keys to the city,” says Siegal, who gave up a career as a fashion designer at 26 to work for Zarem. “He taught me how to do events: how to conceive an event, how to do a guest list, how to do press coverage, how to put myself in the guests’ place as they walked in, about the flow of traffic, about the availability of alcohol and food, room temperature, lighting, everything.” She adds, “It was just a crash course in learning about the concentric social circles of the cultural elite in New York.” (She also accuses him of throwing phones and typewriters at her — a charge he denies — while he accuses her of breaking into his office to steal his contact list — a charge she denies.)
For all those years, publicity dominated Zarem’s life. “When you work until 3 a.m. and you’re up at 8 and at the office at 9:30 or 10, you don’t have too much time for personal relationships,” he says. “If I’d been married, I wouldn’t have been able to do one f—ing thing that I’ve done. I was obsessed with what I was doing,” he emphasizes. (For the record, he says: “I am straight. I admire beautiful men, but I’m not gay.”)
Eventually, life in the concrete jungle began to grate on Zarem. He started spending more time in Savannah, where in 1998 he helped to launch the Savannah Film Festival, and by 2010 he was living there full time. His contract with the fest was abruptly terminated in 2014 — Zarem says he was let go after passing along allegations of sexual impropriety by a senior employee of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which hosts the fest — but he’s still happy to be home. Surrounded by Savannah’s lush green squares, courtly citizens and slower pace of life, he says: “I really don’t miss New York. I just love it here.”