Whoa! Bobby Zarem Turns 70
At his 70th-birthday party at Elaine’s on Saturday, Bobby Zarem was the happy recipient of several joints. He discovered weed right about the same time he quit drinking, in 1969.
“Liquor shut me down and closed me up, and pot opened my mind and relaxed me and great ideas came to me,” he said. He wore New Balance sneakers, an untucked blue button-down and a well-worn blazer. “All the greatest things I’ve done, especially the visual things, I did while I was smoking.”
Mr. Zarem is the original New York publicist. Over the course of nearly four decades in the business, he’s worked with scores of celebrities—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, Ann-Margret, tons more—and helped promote dozens of movies. Now, in the autumn of his career, he’s the celebrity—certainly among the perennials at Elaine’s.
“I didn’t talk about smoking back in those days,” he said. “I didn’t do interviews for a long time because I didn’t want young people to think that I woke up in the morning and started smoking.”
Stoned or not, the wiry-haired, pot-bellied, foul-mouthed legend has a good memory for his own hits. “Nearly every movie that I worked on became a huge success as a result of how I verbalized the picture or the concept to the press, including Tommy, Pumping Iron, Saturday Night Fever, Scarface, Rambo, China Syndrome, The Omen, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Dances with Wolves, Absence of Malice,” he said. “And I would spend nine months to a year working on each film.
“With everything I did, I always felt it was my duty,” he said. “It was my duty to turn Ann-Margret from being thought of as a cheap sex kitten into a glamorous star like a Rita Hayworth or a Betty Grable. I felt it was my duty, because I knew that there was something fantastic there that other people couldn’t see.”
The feuds are still fresh in his mind, too. “I’m the one who found out that Liz Smith was anonymously writing another column,” he said. “There were ugly things in it about everybody, you know, that she eventually wanted to be friends with, like Barbra Walters and Warren Beatty. From then on, she set out literally to try to destroy me. She wouldn’t write about anything that had anything to do with me.”
His assistant interrupted to pass him a cell phone. It was his good friend Jack Nicholson calling. Mr. Nicholson ordered a bottle of the best champagne for the birthday boy’s table, as a gesture. (He did have about six Diet Cokes—his staple—that night.)
Mr. Zarem and Ms. Smith get along now. For a long time, he wouldn’t speak to Dustin Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman had been his client for a year in the early 70’s. The week before their contract was up, Mr. Hoffman had asked him to “score him some dope.”
“I spent hours down in the Village, and I went and dropped it off through his mail slot. And I never heard from him again,” Mr. Zarem said. “I was hurt. But that’s really standard procedure in the business. I’ve learned not to expect much from people in general.”
He was not prepared for the birthday bash. “I had no fuckin’ idea,” Mr. Zarem said. A throng of gushing guests showed up to surprise him.
“He’s glorious. To me and to my husband, he’s an icon,” said Donna Dixon, seated in the corner table. Her husband is Dan Aykroyd. “There’s not a mean bone in his body. He has a tremendous love for mankind and he wants everyone to be successful, which is grand.”
Matthew Modine: “To call him a publicist is like likening the air to something that we only breathe. He’s an organism. He’s ubiquitous. He’s like a hub, an airport hub, where the whole world comes in and out of. His ability to communicate and reach out to people is Presidential.”
Director Taylor Hackford: “When I first met him, he had on this 10-gallon hat. He’s a whole bundle of contradictions—he’s got the Southern accent, which he’s never lost even though he’s been in New York for forever; he’s a Yalie; and, you know, he can school you at almost every level. He’s great.”
Men’s Health editor David Zinczenko: “He gave me his card while I was using the john. He’s a social animal!”
At least half of the publicists in this city have worked for him at one point or another, Mr. Zarem said, including Peggy Segal, who stole his little “handwritten black book” before leaving.
“I mean, people would come and work for me, like Peggy, and never understand the process of actually making somebody a personality, or a movie a hit,” he said. “They didn’t understand the long-term process of establishing an opinion or a concept or a point of view, and that’s what I did.”
Mr. Zarem said he’s never taken on a client he wasn’t excited about. A few years back, he was asked to meet with Paris Hilton. He wasn’t feeling it. “I’ve never worked with somebody where there was absolutely no merit or talent there,” he said.
Since age 3, Mr. Zarem’s been obsessed with the movies and movie stars. When he graduated Yale, he didn’t even know what a publicist was. After a brief tour in the National Guard, he moved to New York and eventually got a job working for the producer Joe Levine. Mr. Levine made him his chief publicist of print. From there, he went to Rogers & Cowan for a stretch. Then, in 1974, he founded his own company, Zarem Inc.
“I was either the first publicist or the publicist in the turning point of the lives of a lot of key people,” he said.
New York social chronicler David Patrick Columbia was just leaving Elaine’s. “The thing about publicists today,” he said, “is they’re mostly interested in publicizing themselves. And Bobby is not one of those people.”
“I’ve been accused of it,” said Mr. Zarem, “because I was the first publicist to have all these pieces done on him. The more I ran from ’em, the more they pursued me. Seriously.”
A movie was made about Mr. Zarem in 2002. People I Know starred Al Pacino as the naïvely idealistic publicist Eli Wurman, loosely based on Mr. Zarem.
“It gave me a sense of knowing that people knew what I had done, finally,” he said. “Because I never tried to get credit on anything—and felt it was my obligation not to. Including for the three years of my life I spent creating and executing the ‘I Love New York’ campaign.
“That fucking cunt Mary Wells Lawrence tried to take credit for it,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for credit. It was the last fuckin’ thing I was looking for. I wanted to save New York.
“The whole idea of the ‘I Love New York’ campaign came to me while walking home from a night at Elaine’s. You could roll a quarter down Second Avenue …. That’s how shut-down and quiet and bleak New York had become. I wanted to restore the glorious images I had had of New York since I was a kid.”
Mr. Zarem said he owed his newfound sense of accomplishment to a “wonderful psychiatrist,” a refugee from Czechoslovakia named Samuel Lowy, the world’s foremost expert on dreams.
“He said to me one day a few years back, ‘Mr. Zarem, anybody who saved the largest metropolis in the world can’t be as fucked up as you are,’” he said. “And I walked home that day feeling pretty good about my life.”
That’s a drastic change from the shy, incredibly insecure man he was. One night 30-odd years ago, he spent several hours standing next to Linda Ronstadt at a bar, trying and failing to get up the courage to speak to her. (They later became friends.)
“I probably went out with Gregory Peck and his family and other people seven times before I could admit to myself that he knew who I was,” Mr. Zarem said.
Around midnight, they brought out a birthday cake, and Mr. Zarem, with classic Bobby bravura, blew out all the candles.
“I feel better than ever,” Mr. Zarem had boasted earlier. “I feel like I’m 39!” By the end of the night, he reassessed and went with 29. Eventually, he came to his senses: “I guess 37 is more like it.”
Mr. Zarem didn’t leave till after 2 a.m. Loading his presents into the taxi required the help of two friends.
Weezie: Breezy, Beautiful
Calvin Klein said he looked forward to waving to his new neighbor, Louise T. Blouin MacBain, in the mornings, or whenever they might catch sight of each other, $20-million-penthouse fishbowl to $20-million-penthouse fishbowl.
“I just knew that one of my friends was going to take this apartment,” he said. “I’m so happy it was Louise.”
That was last week, in Ms. MacBain’s three-floor, four-bedroom, all-glass penthouse at 165 Charles Street, the southernmost and newest of the three Richard Meier buildings. It was a party for her magazine, Culture & Travel.
For some time now, Mr. Klein has been remodeling his place, in one of the original two towers to the north.
“In this building, Richard did every floor pretty much the same, which is fine,” he said. “But I wanted to do something different.”
Mr. Klein said his daughter had looked at one of the apartments at 165 Charles Street and had been turned off by the lack of closet space.
“Well, I wonder why that might be?” asked Ms. MacBain. She said that she had more than adequate accommodations for her own abundant shoes and gowns—but these days, the beautiful blonde occupies her mind with deeper issues.
“I’m writing a book now, and I write a lot about the concept of my foundation,” said Ms. MacBain. “I write a lot about ideas about magazines and positioning magazines, and so I enjoy thinking.”
She was the picture of elegance in a double-breasted white blazer, black slacks and heels.
“It’s like sculptures,” she said. “When you try to position a company, it’s like a sculpture: You try to position it in a place and a moment so that the puzzle sort of fits all together.”
She generally likes to do her writing and thinking in the mornings.
“I wake up, and I’m always sort of—I have to wait for inspiration; it doesn’t just come all the time,” she said.
Lately, she’s been absorbed with the relationship between “globalization, culture and the brain.” Her eponymously named foundation is hosting a summit, here in town in November, to address those issues.
She talked, in her slightly British accent, about the research she is funding on what the Internet is doing to the brains of children. She is Canadian, and 47, but with this pale, perfect skin. She was so focused that she didn’t seem to notice The Transom doing its best to gaze deeply into her eyes.
“I feel like the world today is in a movement, where like the sand is moving in every direction,” she said. “And we just have to sit there and say, ‘We should try to anchor it, and understand those movements that are happening.’ And the cultural component is an enormous component—enormous.”
Ms. MacBain said that the view in her new digs was her most cherished artwork. There are also James Turrell prints and a big silver sculpture by Tony Cragg.
“I have another idea,” Ms. MacBain said, of her empire. “But I’m not going to tell you today.”
Art magazines are not for everyone.
“They’re trade journals, and I don’t enjoy them,” said Brice Marden. He was the most famous artist there.
“I generally find them quite depressing,” he said. “This one, I don’t know—I mean, James is really good, so I hope it works out.”
Oh, James! “I somewhat share Brice’s depression about art magazines,” said Mr. Truman. He is the former editorial director of Condé Nast and the current C.E.O. and managing editor of Ms. MacBain’s art publications. “They’re like a room that never lets any fresh air in.”
Mr. Marden said he has been “too into my own stuff” to pay much attention to the work of young artists. This month, MoMA opens his 50-painting retrospective.
“I walk my dogs by here all the time, but this is my first time inside,” said Mr. Marden. “It’s amazing.” He was now leaning on the wrap-around balcony.
There was Amy Sacco! And Adam Moss! And Brian Grazer!
“I’ve seen no artists here,” said Anthony Haden-Guest. “And very few art dealers. It’s basically a publishing and media event.”
“Well, I’m definitely wearing the best jacket here,” said Mr. Haden-Guest.
And there was Michael Wolff—another writer.
“I think the only sensible kind of magazine to make in this day and age is an art magazine,” he said. “Because we need more art. It’s the cure for all our problems. Obviously. I mean, hello?! But also, James is the best magazine person in—I was gonna say ‘New York,’ but maybe in the world.”
Were there any young artists that Mr. Wolff had on his radar? “Oh, no,” he said. “I hate art.”
Sexy, Not Back
As it happens, not everyone is super-psyched about Justin Timberlake bringing the “Sexy Back” to dance clubs. Some of the dear souls behind the turntables report that the chart-topping single is driving an astounding number of frothing, “Sexy”-starved dancers to their D.J. booths to request it.
“Frustrating is the understatement of the century,” said Scott Melker of the phenomenon. In 10 years of D.J.’ing around the world, Mr. Melker said he has never experienced such demand for a single song. “It crosses every demographic, from race to gender to sexuality to height.”
In August, Mr. Melker returned to New York from a four-month stint spinning in Japan, only to find himself smack in the middle the “Sexy Back” craze. He spent the last six weeks D.J.’ing at Plan B in the East Village. “The D.J. booth there is very accessible, so it was relentless,” he said. “I had this one girl come up to me and tell me that she was at a bachelorette party, but that she had a kid at home and really needed to hear that song before she left. It was 1 a.m., and she had to leave by like 1:20, so she was like, ‘Can you slip it in by 1:15?’”
“It is annoying when people beg to hear the song within 10 minutes,” said Catherine Wentworth, a.k.a. D.J. Cat. Ms. Wentworth, who has a standing gig at Beauty Bar, agrees the song is one of most popular that she’s seen in recent history. “I was just in Miami, at the Shore Club, and guys kept coming up and being like, ‘Play “Sexy,” play “Sexy.”’ I’m like, ‘Learn the actual name of the song, then I’ll play it.’”
What’s more, clubs around the city have been using the song title on their posters, so that the already-hungry masses naturally expect to hear their favorite song. “I’ve seen it on multiple club posters. Things like, you know, ‘We’re bringing the sexy back tonight at whatever club,’” said Alex Sanchez, a.k.a. D.J. Alex Technique. “I think it’s the dumbest thing ever. It’s like, ‘What the hell are you trying to do? Now, of course, everybody is going to expect to hear the song!’ If you want to hear a certain song, listen to it in your car—don’t hassle the D.J.”
One distressing part of the song for hip-hop D.J.’s like Mr. Melker is that it plays at roughly 118 beats per minute, whereas most hip-hop beats come in at 92 to 103 b.p.m.
“People don’t understand that on a turntable, you can only adjust eight b.p.m.,” he said. “At certain points in a set, it’s just not possible. You know, you do the math.”
“It’s actually one of the easiest songs for me to D.J.,” said Steve Aoki, a.k.a. D.J. Kid Millionaire, an L.A.-based D.J. who currently has a residency in New York at Stereo. “Usually, by the time people are begging to hear that song, I’m already playing music at around that range. More than anything, that’s the kind of music that gets people moving when they’re drunk.”
According to Mr. Aoki, “Sexy Back” is by far the most popular song in the last five years, even “bigger than when ‘Crazy in Love’ was at its peak.” The umpteen requests are not an issue for Mr. Aoki, because he likes the song. “I’ll play it every fuckin’ time,” he said.
Mr. Melker, who hates the song and thinks the beat sounds like it was created on a 1984 Casio keyboard, has devised his own solution.
“Whenever people come up to the booth, I just say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna play “Sexy Back” in a little while,’” he said. “That usually gets them to go away.”