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This story first appeared in Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Drive up to Pat Kingsley‘s house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and you’ll be in for a bit of a shock. Amid the elegant homes and manicured mansions, it seems incongruously small, a modest, single-story place built in the early 1950s, its blandness almost studied, with little to set it apart except, perhaps, for the blinds drawn closed, as if to keep the world out.
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This is where you’ll find the woman who ruled Hollywood for years, dispensing favors to a few and fearsomeness to many more, terrifying reporters and editors alike — and even several of the studio executives who paid her bills — a woman who, before her 2009 retirement, held sway at the nexus of Hollywood and the media, as authoritative as she was authoritarian, as strategic as others were tactical, a giant in a land of dwarfs.
She defined modern publicity, creating long-term road maps for her unparalleled roster of stars, issuing edicts on their behalf like no flak had done before and limiting their exposure strictly to the essential. She gave them an aura of mystery, a steel wall against inquiring minds. “I never had anybody who made me think everything would be OK like her,” says longtime client Jodie Foster. “It’s just the safety she conveys of somebody who is going to take charge.”
Kingsley’s dominance allowed her to earn seven figures a year, and she made even more from the sale of her company, PMK (which had billings of about $12 million a year). And yet she chooses to live with a modesty that by Hollywood standards seems almost austere. As if she no longer has anything to prove — as if she ever did.
All of which gives me pause as I walk toward the house on a warm afternoon the day before Thanksgiving and ring the bell. Silence. Then the door cracks opens and a poodle mix scurries out, yapping, followed by the lady herself. She’s tall, and surprisingly gracious, with silver hair and large, plain glasses that give her an almost schoolmarmish air. She smiles with unexpected warmth.
“Don’t worry,” she says, introducing me to her daughter’s dog, Clara, with her distinctive Southern accent undimmed, before leading me inside. “She’s all bark and no bite.”
At 81, Pat Kingsley, for the first time in years, has agreed to talk about her life and work, and over the next two and a half hours, she will do precisely that, without hesitation or doubt, only once raising an index finger to warn something is off the record. She talks about everything from her time with Joan Crawford and Charlie Chaplin (“He had this heavy coat he never took off; he thought he was going to die of pneumonia”); to her bitter split with partner Leslee Dart; to her last days at PMK; and even to her relationship with, and eventual firing by, Tom Cruise.
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On Dart: “She felt it was her time. She felt she was ready to run the company. But that wasn’t the case. And since her contract was coming up, [I thought] it was the best time [for her to go]. That was sad.”
On exiting PMK: “I was having more and more trouble dealing with the issues. I wanted less and less to do with the outside world. I just wanted to work with the staff and let them be conduits [to journalists] and clients, pretty much everybody else. They said, ‘What if you take a buyout?’ I said, ‘I’m all for it.’ ”
On Cruise: “His assistant called and made an appointment for Tom to come into my office. He had never been to my office before. And he came in, had a few minutes of chitchat, and he said, ‘I want you to know I’ve decided to make a change.’ I said: ‘I knew that was going to happen today. I guess I’ll probably take a pretty big hit with the media.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve all had those hits, haven’t we?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I’ll be OK.’ And then I said, ‘A lot of people have worked on your behalf that you’re not aware of, and I’d like to have you say hello to them.’ So I took him around, and he saw everybody and even went to see the mailman, just as cordial as could be.”
Kingsley sits back in her somewhat spartan living room, and I take in the surroundings.
There’s an old-fashioned beige carpet and chintz-covered couch, a glass-and-aluminum table, bookshelves and a couple of black leather chairs; but nothing — no posters or pictures — to show she once handled such stars as Cruise, Al Pacino and Will Smith. All that is gone, and there’s little hint of the power she once wielded.
But there’s much to indicate this person likes order. The chairs are arranged precisely at a right angle to the sofa, without a cushion out of place, and even the books are so carefully aligned that none protrudes an inch from the rest.
It is here that Kingsley spends much of her time. She gets up around 7:30 or 8 a.m., makes breakfast and does a little exercise. Then she switches on CNN (“I want the news, not opinions”), watches that and sports but relatively little entertainment: “I like Bill Maher, I like The Good Wife, I like Downton Abbey — I can’t wait for the new season! But I try not to watch series — I don’t want to get hung up.” (She also likes Mad Men but didn’t watch Breaking Bad.)
She reads the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and consumes articles on her beloved iPad. Other than Vanity Fair, there are no magazines she follows regularly, a contrast to her working life. “I read a lot of op-ed pieces, articles from the Washington Post and these long AP pieces that bring me up to speed with certain countries,” she says.
She also reads books, but fewer than in the past — Philip Roth’s The Humbling and Chris Matthews‘ biography of JFK, one of her heroes (along with Adlai Stevenson, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ted Turner). She remembers her shock at Kennedy’s death, which left her so upset she went home and didn’t emerge for four days.
She has a Facebook page, but only to keep in touch with family; doesn’t use Twitter; and seems uninterested in the celebrity culture of today. Indeed, when asked how she might handle Justin Bieber, she mistakes him for Justin Timberlake, then laughs with pleasure when she realizes her error. “My daughter,” she exclaims. “I got her tickets to see [Timberlake] last night, and she was so excited!”
She has lunch most days with her son-in-law, who works from an office in this house (his wife, Janis, 45, is a psychologist); occasionally gets together with former colleagues Jennifer Allen, Melissa Kates, Catherine Olim and Heidi Schaeffer; spends one or two afternoons a week with her grandson, Ethan, 10; and loves sports — she’s a fan of the NFL’s New England Patriots and tennis great Roger Federer.
She remains fascinated by politics and once thought she might have a career in Washington after helping Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis: “He said he would find a place for me, and I would have gone. But I was still an idealist then. Now I’m a realist.” She laughs once again — something she does often and infectiously. Then she adds that she likes President Obama but “less than I did. I was actually for Hillary. But I’m still a Democrat.”
She doesn’t see that much of her former clients (Foster and Lily Tomlin are exceptions), nor does she ever go to premieres, which she hated at the best of times. But she says she doesn’t get lonely. “I don’t even get lonesome,” she insists.
It pains her that her health is in decline: last year, she says, she suffered a TIA (a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke) and discovered she has atrial fibrillation. She would love to overcome that but can’t, and she’s impressively stoic about it: “I am not going to get rid of fibrillation, but I would like to feel better. I am not used to being sick. I am not used to having health problems. But at my age, I don’t know what you do about that. It’s hard to get better if you’re 81.”
Pat Kingsley was born Patricia Ratchford in 1932 in Gastonia, N.C. Her father worked in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps, and “we moved every three months,” she says. “So I would be in three schools a year, from Georgia to South Carolina to Alabama to New Jersey, all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It was not an easy thing to pick up and form new friendships, knowing they were going to be gone, and it was not that close-knit a family because we were all so busy trying to get along with our new environment.”
Young Pat, the elder of two children, adored her father and inherited his work ethic. “My father was a very strong man,” she recalls. “He had a bit of a temper, but he was always in charge and would take care of things. I felt safe” — precisely the thing her clients said about her — “but he was very remote, and the only way that I could really communicate with him was through sports.”
Her mother, on the other hand, mystified her. “She never met someone who wasn’t a friend,” says Kingsley, with a hint of horror. “She became friends with the bus drivers, the cab drivers, the mailmen. She would always find something to talk about. I was never a small-talk person, and neither was my dad.”
In her late teens, Kingsley left home for the all-girls Winthrop College but dropped out after two years and began to roam around the country with an itch to wander, first moving to Atlanta, where she worked as a secretary for a plywood company; then to Reno, Nev., where she lived with her aunt and uncle; and on to Miami, joining the publicity department of the recently opened Fontainebleau hotel. “No place seemed to hold a fascination for so long,” she reflects. “I would get bored, and I would want something new.”
At the Fontainebleau, she engaged in a touch of chicanery that appalls her today. When there was space in a daily newsletter she oversaw for the guests, “I put a tagline saying, ‘Marlon Brando visits hotel.’ I made it up out of thin air!” The next day, she overheard two women in the elevator, regretful that they had missed him. A man at the back tapped one on the shoulder and said, “Would I do?” It was Gary Cooper.
At the Fontainebleau, Kingsley learned how to manage the celebrities who were guests. “I developed a way of looking and sounding confident, no matter if I wasn’t at that particular time,” she says. “You always had to show you were in control, even if you were on the edge of falling off a cliff.”
Although she claims to have had no ambition, there was something special enough about her to impress Joan Crawford, who was staying at the hotel and “had agreed to do a press conference with high school kids,” says Kingsley. “So I went to her suite, and she was in the bathroom throwing up because she was nervous. I thought that was kind of touching. And afterward, I took her back, and a week later I get this letter thanking me, and every month or so I’d get this letter from her.”
Kingsley didn’t follow her new connection to Hollywood but instead left for New York, where she was hired by a syndicated TV company, Ziv Television Programs Inc., which in turn led to connections at PR powerhouse Rogers & Cowan. In 1960, she moved to Los Angeles to work for its chairman, Warren Cowan.
“He used to take me to the Valley and make me read these memos to him, and I would get carsick and be absolutely green,” she recalls. “He was very smart, he had wonderful ideas, and they’d come right off the cuff. It was fun to watch. He finally pushed me. He said, ‘I want you to be a publicist.’ I didn’t want to. I was raised in the Southern ethic that you went to work until you married and started having children. But I somehow didn’t seem to fit in that well.”
Cowan put her in an office with publicist Dick Guttman and gave her Doris Day, Natalie Wood and Samantha Eggar as her first clients. To Kingsley’s surprise, she found handling them easy, then built her skills when she returned to New York in 1966. There, “I developed the hardcore relationships with Time and Newsweek and 60 Minutes and everywhere important.”
Looking back, she says: “I liked the challenge. I liked the people I was dealing with. They were smart people, these editors. They were fun people to be around; they were challenging. You could talk about life, and the world, and politics, and everything.”
In 1971, she returned to Los Angeles as the joint head of her own company, Pickwick Public Relations (along with Lois Smith and Gerri Johnson), with clients including Robert Redford, Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch and Mary Tyler Moore.
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By this time, she was married. She had met her husband, Walter Kingsley, at Ziv TV — he was her boss, and nine years her elder, an Andover and Amherst graduate who taught this self-described “hick” about life. “We went together for 10 years, and then we got married for 10 years,” says Kingsley. “I think we had a pretty successful relationship.”
But by the time that ended, Kingsley’s work had taken over her life. She was a career woman in a man’s world, while Walt had retired from entertainment. He wanted to go on cruises; she wanted to stay put. He wished for a more traditional wife; she only thought of her clients.
“Walt had these heart attacks and had to get out of the broadcast business; he just couldn’t take that pace,” she explains. “I wasn’t striving to be successful, but these things just kind of happened. He would refer to me as ‘my wife, the executrix.’ I had to have a rule that clients could not call me after 10 p.m. and no calls on weekends unless it was an emergency. And the phone would ring, and somebody would say, ‘Is Pat Kingsley there?’ He didn’t like it. He would say, ‘Just a minute, is there a Pat Kingsley here?’ I would say: ‘You know something? These people probably don’t even know I’m married. They’re not interested in my life. They’re just interested in their own. They don’t even know who you are.’ It was hard.”
The couple divorced in 1978. (Walt died in 2010.) After that, Kingsley never had another long-term involvement. “I just threw myself into my work and my kid,” she says. “I’m kind of a selfish person. I like my own time. I like to eat when I want to eat, I like to go to bed when I want to go to bed. And I got used to that kind of lifestyle. I don’t regret it. For a long time, I had a very good marriage. But I didn’t find anybody that was worth sacrificing for. Doing the business I did, it was all-consuming, and I had to make sure I made time for Janis. Those were my two priorities, and they were fulfilling enough for me.”
In 1980, Pickwick merged with Maslansky-Koenigsberg, and soon the newly formed PMK dominated the business.
With her increasing clout, Kingsley could make demands hitherto unknown, insisting on magazine covers or no story at all; choosing certain writers; and even getting multiple TV time slots if a network wanted access to a certain star.
She became known for saying no; for being a “suppress” agent rather than a press agent; for not returning calls (though she says she did with the people who mattered); and for being averse to most journalists, though now she says, “I like them more than people think.” (She adds, “I would like to have been a writer, but I couldn’t do the writing part, and that really hurt.”) All this she handled with dazzling dexterity.
Notes former colleague Mara Buxbaum, now a partner at ID-PR: “She knew how to wield power and did not hesitate to do so. Stars were kings back then, and she worked in that time so beautifully.”
Adds a former colleague, not a fan, “She is shrewder and tougher than anyone — anyone — I have ever known.”
Kingsley says her toughest moment wasn’t when she had to handle her client Ellen DeGeneres‘ coming out in 1997 (for which she secured a Time magazine cover headlined, “Yep, I’m gay”), but rather when tennis star Billie Jean King admitted to a lesbian relationship in 1981.
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“Billie said, ‘I want to do a press conference; I want to tell the truth,’ ” recalls Kingsley. “So I said, ‘I want you and Larry [King‘s husband] to come out here, and I’d like to have your parents there.’ I thought the staff I had in Los Angeles was better equipped to handle a press conference of this type than the staff in New York. No one was going to know what she was going to say. When I called reporters, all I said was, ‘If you’re not there, you’re going to be really disappointed.’ It was at a hotel near the airport. We had Billie’s parents, and Larry, and I’m sitting on the floor. It was important for Billie to say two things: one, she had an affair, and two, that she had made a mistake. Because Billie did believe in monogamous relationships.”
Kingsley was stunned when the “hardnosed” press applauded at the end of the conference. Then Barbara Walters called and interviewed the couple in this very living room where Kingsley now sits, ramrod-straight; and People photographed them here for its cover. The publicist’s strategy helped save her client’s reputation, but ultimately she didn’t get what she wanted: “We were trying to salvage her endorsements. But she lost them all and never got them back. We failed. How could we win?”
She sits back, more intrigued than upset. Few things ruffled her then, even fewer now. “She’s so non-neurotic,” says Tomlin. “She’s like a rock. She could take a bullet, and the rock would not be pulverized. You couldn’t have held the wall for so long against all those forces otherwise.”
Adds Foster: “She’s spiritually even. She knows what energy is necessary to expend. She doesn’t react emotionally; she intellectually sorts out what is important and what isn’t, and the things she can’t change, she doesn’t dwell on.”
The actress says she never saw Kingsley’s fury — except once when they were traveling: “It was around the time Princess Diana died [in 1997], and she [had been] handling Dodi Fayed and having no sleep at all, and somebody messed up, and — wow! I finally saw Pat Kingsley get mad. She didn’t stomp and scream and yell. She was just so blunt: ‘You’re not doing your job, and you need to leave right now.’ “
Conflict was part of the work, and some of Kingsley’s conflicts became famous. She reportedly sued her onetime colleague Annett Wolf when Wolf left to form her own company (Wolf declined comment); and she boycotted Rolling Stone and People at different times — then in turn was boycotted by NBC’s Today.
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At one point, when Jeff Zucker was serving as that program’s executive producer, their clash spilled into the public following an offer that had been made for Cruise and Nicole Kidman to appear on the show while promoting 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.
“Today offered us three segments — one with Tom, one with Nicole and one with [co-star] Sydney Pollack,” says Kingsley. “But Good Morning America offered five, plus a segment on 20/20. I said, ‘Well, that’s an easy choice.’ Then Zucker called and insisted on waiting on the line till I got off the phone. He said, ‘We had a deal.’ I said, ‘We didn’t.’ He said, ‘We are going to ban all of your clients from Today.’ ” The ban, she says, lasted until Zucker left the show — though she hints slyly that she got around it by having the studios book their stars directly.
No client became as closely linked to Kingsley as Cruise, whom she signed during the early ’90s.
“I met with him on the set of [1992’s] A Few Good Men, and he grilled me in his trailer,” she says. “It was fabulous! ‘What do you think about this? How important do you think Japan is? And how important do you think TV is opposed to print?’ I was quite taken with him. And then he called me and said, ‘Let’s start tomorrow.’ “
Over the next few years, they became so close “we could almost finish each other’s sentence. We never really had a disagreement about direction or any particular interview. The trust became pretty complete on both sides.”
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They would talk every day, often at 11 p.m. “We talked constantly. He was an insomniac. I liked the fact that he was so much fun. And he was so thoughtful. He remembered birthdays, my daughter’s birthday. He came to her wedding; she was registered somewhere for the china, and he bought out everything. They’ve got things they haven’t even opened yet, and they’ve been together 15 years!”
Once, she remembers, “He took me up in this little airplane he had in Santa Monica. It was a two-seater, one in front and one in back. You could pick it up with your hands, practically. I went to the airport, and they said, ‘Tom’s flying around, he’ll land soon.’ So he lands the plane, and out comes Barry Diller — ‘I’ve got to get me one of these.’ Then it was my turn. You had to put all these straps on. I said, ‘Which one’s the parachute?’ They said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ We took off and started going to Malibu. I said, ‘Tom, I don’t want to wave at anybody, I just want to fly straight.’ He said, ‘Well, there’s Jeffrey Katzenberg.’ I said, ‘I don’t care!’ It was scary, I’m telling you. He said, ‘Next time, I’ll take you over to Catalina for lunch.’ But I never wanted to get in that plane again.”
The end of their relationship in many ways meant the end of Kingsley’s run at the top. She realized it was coming: The late-night chats had dried up, and she wasn’t traveling with Cruise as much as before. “I’d had so much control over everything,” she observes. “I think he wanted to be more personally involved in all those decisions. He felt, ‘Look, it’s been 14 years. I think it’s time I tried something different.’ And I certainly had no quarrel with that. It was his life, his career. It was not working. I was not having the rapport. I felt a kind of pulling back, and I knew it was going to happen.”
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Cruise’s Scientology played a role, but only toward the end. Before that, there had been just one serious conflict with reps for the religious organization, “but it was taken care of very early in the game,” says Kingsley. “I felt that they were involved in a story that I was doing on Tom, and I said: ‘It’s not your story, it’s Tom’s. You have to step aside.’ And they did.”
Later, however, Cruise wanted to be more vocal about his beliefs. “I did have that conversation with Tom, about cooling it,” notes Kingsley, saying she told him: ” ‘Scientology is fine. You want to do a tour for Scientology? Do a tour for Scientology. But Warner Bros. is sponsoring this tour.’ That was for [2003’s] The Last Samurai. He didn’t say yes or no, except he did not discuss Scientology on that European tour.”
It was clear Cruise wanted to do things differently, and now it was just a question of whether he or Kingsley would end their work together. The rupture took place in March 2004; she has not seen him in private since. (Through a rep, Cruise declined comment.)
Regardless, says Kingsley, “Tom Cruise was a prince.”
The light is fading. We’ve been talking without pause for more than two hours, during which Kingsley never has flagged.
After Cruise’s departure, things were not quite the same, she continues. The company had been sold to Interpublic in 1999, then merged with Huvane Baum Halls in 2001 to form the newly named PMK/HBH. Under new owners, there was pressure to do more lucrative corporate work, which was less appealing to Kingsley. Then came the split with Dart.
Dart was based in New York, with Kingsley in Los Angeles, but their relationship had grown frosty over the years, especially after Lois Smith‘s retirement during the early 2000s. Knowing Dart was angling to displace her, sources say Kingsley flew to New York and summoned her to a meeting in November 2004. There, with just the two of them and a human resources staffer, say the sources, she told Dart she was being fired.
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Dart left the next day and formed her own powerhouse company, 42West, taking a slew of celebrities with her, including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Scott Rudin. “After the Leslee thing, we knew it was going to take some time to structure the company in a way that would be really viable once I left,” notes Kingsley.
With Cruise’s exit, then Dart’s, there was a sense she was fallible. The world she had commanded for so long was changing. She no longer could control information as she once had. The galaxy of TMZ and bloggers and endless online chatter repulsed her. “You lose control of something so fast,” she explains. “Publicity in my day was all about control.”
Kingsley had signed a new, two-year contract in late 2007, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was longing to leave, and when her bosses at Interpublic insisted on more cuts, she decided to go. “I said: ‘Let’s do it. I’ll take my money now.’ Within 24 hours, I had the check. Then I took my son-in-law and cleaned out my office. I had been planning that for two years, thinking I had another year to serve, and I didn’t have to.”
She adds: “I was so relieved. I was ready to give it up. I was ready to go.”
A lamp comes on, casting a glow across the room, the amber light reflected in Kingsley’s glasses. We sit in silence.
Kingsley is happy like this. She has few regrets and conveys no sense of longing for the past. “My life is divided into my growing up, my professional life and now my retirement life,” she says, “and it’s like three different people. I feel a little bit of guilt in that I am not being of some service to the community or some cause, but I am quite selfish about it because I don’t want to. Retirement is great!” — great in every way except for the looming future.
Mortality has begun to vex her, and especially her loss of faith. Once, she notes, she would read the Bible every day — a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New — and she even taught Sunday school in her 20s. But now she has doubts, and they’re growing.
“I don’t know that there’s somebody out there waiting to welcome me into the pearly gates,” she says. “I am more and more thinking that maybe this is it and there’s nothing afterward.”
She wishes she could slow her mind enough to find the type of haven she created for her clients. But her brain is too active, as busy now as ever before. “If I could just meditate, I wonder what that would feel like,” she muses. “But I can’t. I can’t turn it off. I can’t stop.”
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