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Bobby Zarem, the colorful, larger than life New York publicist who repped the likes of Ann-Margret, Cher and Sylvester Stallone, contributed to Oscar campaigns for films including Dances With Wolves and helped create the landmark “I Love New York” marketing campaign, has died. He was 84.
Widely regarded as the Big Apple’s king of publicity in the 1970s and ’80s, Zarem died Sunday morning in the same home in Savannah, Georgia, in which he was raised. Bill Augustin, a friend and colleague, told The Hollywood Reporter.
In 1974, with a loan from restaurateur Elaine Kaufman — at whose eponymous Upper East Side showbiz hangout he dined twice a week from 1963 through 2010 and where in 1979 he introduced Mia Farrow and Woody Allen — he left Rogers & Cowan to launch his own PR operation, Zarem Inc.
Zarem brought with him a few important R&C clients, including music manager Robert Stigwood, and quickly made a splash with a black-tie, post-premiere party that he organized — at a new subway stop at West 57th Street and Sixth Avenue — for Tommy (1975), a Stigwood-produced film for which Zarem had delivered Ann-Margret to star. Some 700 bigwigs attended, and the event is still discussed in PR circles.
As his own boss and with a small staff slaving away under him in a bustling office, Zarem took on a wide variety of projects — from helping Dustin Hoffman land 1974’s Lenny (and marijuana on New Year’s Eve) to promoting Pumping Iron (he lured Jacqueline Kennedy to a party for Arnold Schwarzenegger).
But the campaign of which Zarem was proudest — one that he says he “created and spent 3 1/2 years doing,” though others including Mayor Ed Koch also claimed credit — was “I Love New York” (later changed by the ad agency Wells Rich Greene to “I [heart symbol] New York”), which put a positive spin on his adopted city at a time when it was hurting.
“I was walking home from Elaine’s on a Saturday night in 1975 and realized that you could throw a quarter down Second Avenue and there wasn’t a person or car that would stop it,” he said in a 2015 THR profile. “The city was in great disrepair, tourists weren’t coming because the crime scene had been grossly exaggerated, and the city was slipping into the East River. Walking home that night, I decided somebody had to do something. And the slogan was there that night.”
He dug into his deep Rolodex — which he later accused Peggy Siegal, who got her start as his secretary before becoming a top publicist, of stealing from him, a charge she denied — and began lobbying contacts from virtually every segment of New York life, among them Broadway producer Hal Prince and ex-mayor John Lindsay, to support a full-fledged campaign to restore the image of New York.
“He had the keys to the city,” Siegal said. “It was just a crash-course in learning about the concentric social circles of the cultural elite in New York.” (She also accused Zarem of throwing telephones and typewriters at her, a charge he denied.)
Ultimately, the state legislature and governor pushed through $16 million in funding, and what started as TV commercials evolved into massive merchandise sales and a motto that endures to this day. “The ‘I Love New York’ campaign saved the city of New York,” Zarem said. “I saw my creativity come alive, and it’s the most exciting feeling a person can have.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, as other PR firms were being bought by big conglomerates, Zarem continued to march to his own beat. He consulted for studios and individuals; helped Dances With Wolves and Shakespeare in Love win Oscars for best picture; and showed up on screens himself, as a third-base coach in Bull Durham (1988), as himself on a 1998 episode of Law & Order and as the model for Al Pacino‘s character in People I Know (2002).
Through it all, Zarem was alternatingly charming (he was known for writing personalized, handwritten pitches, letters and invitations, sometimes by the hundreds) and vulgar (after learning that gossip columnist Liz Smith was one of the ghostwriters of the syndicated “Robin Adams Sloan” column, which often targeted his clients and him, he sent out notices announcing Smith’s wedding to her partner, Iris Love, effectively outing them).
Meanwhile, many who had begun their careers working for him began rising to positions of power themselves — among them Liz Rosenberg, who became Madonna‘s personal publicist; Jason Weinberg, a top manager; and Siegal, who made an art form out of the Oscar season tastemaker screening-reception.
Zarem was born on Sept. 30, 1936, in Savannah — but, to be sure, he was made in Manhattan.
His first taste of New York came at age 12 when he took a trip there with his father, who required treatments for throat cancer. Zarem, oblivious to the seriousness of his dad’s situation, spent 10 days hustling between their base at the Waldorf Astoria and Broadway shows, falling in love with the city’s grit and glamour. His father, who owned a shoe company, died a year later.
Zarem spent the rest of his childhood fantasizing about show business, consuming movies and fan magazines and collecting autographs of stars. “My dream was to be around them,” he said.
He overcame a debilitating case of ADD to graduate from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts (234th of 236 students in his class, he would acknowledge) and then Yale, where he majored in political science.
A week after being handed his college diploma, he was back in New York, angling for a position in entertainment. It took him five years to find one — he worked at a bank in the interim, a job he hated — but, through a friend, he eventually landed at the talent agency Columbia Artists Management and was put in charge of the Macy’s Theater Club account, booking film screenings and theatrical performances at discounted rates for subscribers.
As it turned out, Zarem excelled at this, so much so that the fabled showman Joseph E. Levine hired him to promote Avco-Embassy’s company’s films to such clubs, and it was in that capacity that Zarem began to understand the ways of publicity. Buyers attended advance screenings of Levine’s films to consider them for their clubs, and Zarem realized he could shape their impressions by audibly reacting at certain moments, which invariably led the rest of the audience to react similarly.
“I learned probably the single most important thing for a publicist to know,” he recalled. “Not only can people be guided, but people have to be guided.”
As part of a 1969 freelance gig, Zarem put together a star-studded fundraiser that received coverage in The New York Times and caught the attention of Rogers & Cowan, Hollywood’s premier PR agency at the time. R&C dispatched top executive Paul Bloch to hire Zarem, who was immediately tasked with overseeing The Jackson 5‘s East Coast affairs. He subsequently brought in an impressive roster of clients that included Ann-Margret, Diane Keaton and Stigwood.
However, the freewheeling, outspoken Zarem — who drank heavily at the time and had a penchant for winding up in the news himself — was never a fit for the buttoned-up firm. And when R&C placed a moratorium on commissions, he exited to start his own firm.
Around 2000, life in Manhattan began to wear on Zarem. “I’d sit on my terrace in New York and fantasize I was at Savannah Beach,” he said. “The things that were there [in New York] — that made me want to go there all those years when I was a kid — were no longer really in existence, at least the way that I knew them.”
In 2010, he returned to Savannah full-time and devoted his attention to the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Savannah Film Festival. He had begun consulting for the event in 1998 and would remain involved with it through 2014.
“I actually made my dream come true,” he said. “I got movie stars to Savannah.”
Zarem, who was predeceased by his brothers, fashion retailer Daniel and plastic surgeon Harvey, never married. “When you work until 3 o’clock in the morning 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 said. “If I’d been married, I wouldn’t have been able to do one fucking thing that I’ve done. I was obsessed.”
In his later years, Zarem found happiness in the living room of his Savannah home, surrounded by signed photos of people he spent his life making famous. He received visitors from near and far, worked on his memoirs and took in the view of his beloved town through a picture window.
“I really don’t miss New York, I just love it here,” he said. “I sit here now and realize what I went through — how many fights I had, how many people screwed the shit out of me — but it’s just the industry. I finally stopped taking it personally and realized that it’s just the way of the world. The thing that I enjoy most is looking back over it all and seeing that I survived.”
He added, “Do you know, I really don’t regret one fucking thing that I did. I really don’t.”
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