Anatomy of Posthumous Tito Smear: It Was Sold By a Hungry P.R. Guy

On the afternoon of June 22, Christopher Hulbert was speaking into his cell phone with the tremulous voice of a man expecting that, at any moment, a mob seeking vengeance would show up at his door. On Mr. Hulbert’s mind was an item in the previous day’s New York Post Page Six gossip column headlined “Did cocaine wreck Tito’s heart?” In the item, someone named Christopher John, described as a “part-time publicist” for Tito Puente, asserted that the beloved “Mambo King,” who died at age 77 on May 31 after heart surgery, had been a cocaine addict for 40 years. Mr. Hulbert, a 34-year-old publicist, had personally delivered the item to the Post ; now, a day after publication, he seemed to regret it.

“[The Puerto Rican] people are going to vent at the only person that they can blame for this-me!” he gasped. That’s because, not surprisingly, Mr. Hulbert is the pseudonymous Christopher John.

“If they don’t vent, they’ll get violent, as very often they do-as characterized by the Central Park situation during the parade,” Mr. Hulbert said. “Puerto Ricans get violent .”

Mr. Hulbert claims he knew Puente for 11 years, although Joe Conzo, a friend of Puente’s for 40 years, said, “If he’s a friend of Tito Puente’s for 11 years, Fidel Castro and me are brothers.” But Mr. Hulbert said his motive for pitching the cocaine item was pure altruism: He claimed he wanted to liberate current cocaine addicts from “these chains that bound Tito.” Skeptics might suggest another motive: The Post item included a mention of an Upper East Side jazz club called Sessions 73, which happens to be a client of Mr. Hulbert’s.

The item also contained an unattributed quote from “a close friend of Puente’s, a respected member of the Hispanic community, [who] confirmed the secret addiction.” Which is how Mr. Hulbert managed to really piss off one of the toughest and most politically well-connected figures in the Bronx Latino community: Jimmy Rodriguez, the owner of Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe. Since the club opened in 1993, Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe has been the unofficial hangout of the New York Yankees, as well as the occasional likes of designer Robert Isabell, director Quentin Tarantino and Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. How did Mr. Rodriguez get dragged into this affair? It seems that when a reporter for the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario , following up the Page Six item, pressed Mr. Hulbert to reveal the identity of this unnamed “close friend” of Puente, Mr. Hulbert said it was Mr. Rodriguez. The club owner denies he spoke with anyone from the Post ‘s Page Six.

How did Mr. Hulbert land himself in this mess? He seems like the last Manhattanite one might expect to find salsa dancing along the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. A round-faced preppy with close-cropped hair, he is a former member of the New York Young Republican Club. His former business partner, publicist Doug Dechert, is a member of the Fabiani Society, a right-wing salon that counts among its regular participants both Lucianne Goldberg and Wall Street Journal editorial board member John Fund.

According to Mr. Hulbert, after Puente died, he began telephoning reporters with the cocaine story and Page Six reporter Chris Wilson eventually showed interest. Mr. Hulbert claimed that, for confirmation, he told Mr. Wilson to call Mr. Rodriguez, who had been a good friend of Puente. (As for Mr. Hulbert himself, he knew Mr. Rodriguez slightly: In April 1999, the club owner hired him and his then-partner, Mr. Dechert, to stir up press for Puente’s 76th birthday party, to be held at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, for a fee of $2,500.) Mr. Rodriguez said he never spoke with Mr. Wilson about anything to do with Puente.

On the day the Post item ran, Juan A. Moreno Velazquez, a reporter from El Diario , called Mr. Hulbert to ask him some questions about his familiarity with Puente.

“I asked this kid a number of questions that somebody who had hung with Tito for two hours should have known,” said Mr. Velazquez. “There are certain people who were always around Puente and he didn’t know who they were.”

During the call, Mr. Hulbert supposedly buckled and gave up Mr. Rodriguez as the alleged source of the quote from “a close friend of Puente’s.” Mr. Hulbert told The Transom that he had felt “cornered” by the reporter.

But Mr. Velazquez said that “it was fairly easy” to get Mr. Hulbert to give up his source. Mr. Velazquez then called Mr. Rodriguez, who denied the quote was his, said he had no idea who Christopher John was and asked for the mysterious Mr. John’s phone number. When he called the number, according to Mr. Rodriguez, he got a voice-mail recording and recognized the voice as that of Mr. Hulbert, the man he had once hired, along with Mr. Dechert, as a publicist for Puente’s birthday party.

When Mr. Rodriguez reached Mr. Hulbert, the two had a little conversation, the substance of which the two men disagree on. Mr. Hulbert said he was threatened: “[Mr. Rodriguez] said, ‘You wanna play with me. We’re going to play, man- oh , we’re going to play. You don’t know who I know .'”

Mr. Rodriguez denied that he threatened Mr. Hulbert. “Listen,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “he’s probably 170 pounds. I’m 260 pounds. I don’t need anybody to hurt him. I’d smack him like a bitch, and put a collar and leash on him and walk him up and down Manhattan with no problem.”

Things were cozier in April 1999, when Bill Cosby, Armand Assante, Isaac Hayes and Lionel Hampton braved a pulsating throng to celebrate Puente’s birthday at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe. Mr. Hulbert and Mr. Dechert had succeeded in bringing press to the event.

Earlier that night, Mr. Dechert and Mr. Hulbert plied journalists from The New York Times and other papers with free cocktails and fried calamari at Sessions 73, the Upper East Side jazz club that was one of the duo’s clients. Mr. Dechert and Mr. Hulbert afterward put the journalists in a small fleet of white stretch limousines, which deposited them at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe. The Times and Post ran stories about the event. But soon after, Mr. Rodriguez gave his business to a more seasoned Manhattan publicist, David Granoff. Mr. Dechert and Mr. Hulbert both admit that they were angry and disappointed. In December of 1999, the pair say, they ended their business partnership. Mr. Hulbert, however, kept at least one of their clients, Sessions 73.

In fact, the mention of Sessions 73 as a “favorite hangout of Puente’s” in the last paragraph of the Page Six item puzzled Puente’s longtime friend Joe Conzo. Not only had Mr. Conzo never heard Puente mention the club, but the item contained a quote from Sessions 73’s owner, Hunter Hulshizer, that read: “Whatever Tito may or may not have done in his personal life was his private business. He was a great man, and he’ll be sorely missed.” Mr. Conzo had never heard Puente mention Mr. Hulshizer, either.

The Transom asked Page Six reporter Chris Wilson why he had called Sessions 73 about Puente. “Chris [Hulbert] suggested that I give them a call,” Mr. Wilson said, though he denied Mr. Hulbert had delivered the cocaine item on the condition of mentioning Sessions 73.

Mr. Hulshizer, when contacted by The Transom, said that he remembered Tito Puente in his restaurant twice, on one occasion dining with a group that included the magician “The Amazing Kreskin.”

Mr. Rodriguez had another theory why Mr. Hulbert may have wanted the item in Page Six: extortion. The morning after the Page Six item came out, and the day that El Diario printed Mr. Hulbert’s allegation that Mr. Rodriguez was Page Six’s unnamed source, Mr. Rodriguez said he received a phone message from Mr. Dechert, Mr. Hulbert’s former business partner.

“‘Jimmy, this is Doug,'” Mr. Rodriguez recalled Mr. Dechert saying into his voice mail. “‘Jimmy, you have a P.R. nightmare! Call me.’

“So, I’m thinking, this is his partner!” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Why would his partner be calling me to tell me that I have a P.R. nightmare?” Mr. Rodriguez called Mr. Dechert back, and allowed David Granoff, his publicist, to listen in on the call. According to Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Granoff, Mr. Dechert said that the mainstream press, specifically the New York Daily News , was planning to run a story about Mr. Rodriguez’s role in the Puente cocaine item. He said that he and Mr. Hulbert were no longer partners, but that he, Mr. Dechert, knew “some things that could diffuse the situation.”

“How much is it going to cost me?” Mr. Rodriguez said he asked.

According to Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Dechert allegedly told him that $10,000 would do it: $5,000 up front, and $5,000 if Mr. Rodriguez was satisfied that the story was dead.

When The Transom asked Mr. Dechert about this, he said, “I don’t know what to say to that. It’s difficult for me to comment on that.”

Mr. Hulbert referred questions about any alleged extortion to Mr. Dechert.

On June 4, hundreds of mourners lined up for hours to view Puente’s body, dressed in a white suit and surrounded by white orchids, at Riverside Memorial Chapel. He was later buried in a private ceremony in Nanuet, N.Y.

When The Transom asked Mr. Hulbert if Puente was indeed a regular at Sessions 73, he replied, “Tito’s been there quite a few times, I don’t know how many. It would be nice if you could take a quote from Hunter. It would help me. He could say something along the lines of what was in the Post . I’m going to try to get him on the phone right now. I have a quote from him already if you want it. Can I give it to you? Or I can get him at home, where he’s reachable, and we can get a quote from him over the speaker phone.”

The Transom Also Hears. . .

…Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce let slip at the New York Foundation of the Arts benefit on June 26 that she has a secret yearning for a certain man who plays a black private detective in a current hit movie. During the dinner at the Bryant Park Grill, Ms. Peirce, who is one of the few openly gay directors working in Hollywood, kvetched with Lee Grant and the benefit’s honoree, Barbara Kopple, over the challenges of working within the Hollywood “patriarchy.”

But, after dinner, Ms. Peirce seemed to let her blue-streaked hair down, retiring to an esplanade table with an under-the-weather Parker Posey, who all night complained of “these flakey snot things,” along with Ms. Posey’s date, documentary producer Kevin McLeod, and a well-kempt Miamian with a pierced tongue, Bianca Alonso-Mendoza, who was herself complaining about how sleepy a burg New York is.

Ms. Peirce, who wielded a digital camera until her batteries ran out, kept taking picture after picture of Ms. Alonso-Mendoza, each successive image on the screen less and less flattering to the chatty Floridian. “Stop!” she cried, when Ms. Peirce showed her a shot on the little screen that Ms. Alonso-Mendoza thought made her cheeks look especially chipmunk-like.

“Chin down, eyes up,” Ms. Peirce said, demonstrating the jaw-lengthening, fat-neck-preventing star pose. “Chloë taught me that.”

(Chloë Sevigny. Duh. )

The subject of Samuel L. Jackson came up. Ms. Peirce piped right up. “I think it would be great to have Sam Jackson’s baby,” she said. The whole table looked at her, wide-eyed. Ms. Posey oohed. “What?” Ms. Peirce yelped. “So I’ve got a thing for Samuel Jackson. What can I say?”