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Shadow Warrior: Howard Rubenstein's Life in Conflict

You can find him just offstage during many of New York's most vicious tabloid battles, and whispering in the ears of mayors and megadevelopers. Howard Rubenstein has amassed as much power as a P.R. man can have. But power in the service of what?


You're Patricia Duff. You're divorcing Ronald O. Perelman and it's taking longer than your marriage. And now, you wake up on November 15 to this in a Daily News gossip column: "A court-appointed psychiatrist issued a report last week that is more favorable to Perelman than to Duff." The report was supposed to be confidential. You're mortified and angry; you fight back.

Three weeks later, your lawyers win a motion to open your child-custody trial to the public. The next day, Perelman's lawyer raises the stakes, telling the New York Post that the report deems you "histrionic, paranoid and narcissistic." The thing that really burns you up about the ensuing mudslinging match is that whenever the subject of who slung first is raised, you've taken the blame, even though one of your lawyers insists, "Perelman turned the guns on us."

Perelman's chief hired gun, Howard J. Rubenstein, 67, eminence of public relations, lawyer, political adviser, information broker, damage controller, and crisis manager for the wealthy and well-known, gives your advisers conniptions. "I'd call it more damage than damage control," says one. Another calls him an "evil, duplicitous samurai." Says your spokesman, Jim Haggerty, a lawyer and P.R. man just like Rubenstein, "You see enough leaks and enough smears and you see a pattern develop, a litigation strategy. And in this case, the P.R. strategy -- the smears and distortions and attacks -- has been so integral to the legal strategy, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins."

Both Perelman and Rubenstein adamantly deny any role in your image disaster. And Mitchell Fink, who broke the story of the psychiatric report, says the leak didn't come from Rubenstein. Still, says Haggerty: "I believe Howard Rubenstein is an extraordinarily skilled publicist. It takes an extraordinarily skilled publicist to operate at this level. Connect the dots."

Finally, late in January, the storm of mud abates, as another scandal knocks you off page one of the Post; Michael Schulhof, the former head of Sony, is being charged in a lawsuit by a later employer with putting jaunts to sex clubs on his expense account. Reporters at other papers are tipped to the story, too. "Normally, lawsuits don't come with a press release," chuckles one, who adds that the suit's nastiest charges were highlighted for him by the official spokesman for the plaintiff.

You guessed who that is, right?

Welcome to the gray zone inhabited by Howard Rubenstein. Rubenstein has spent his entire professional life operating in the places where contentious constituencies -- money and politics, Jews and blacks, Republicans and Democrats, labor and management, celebrity and the press -- butt up against each other. In the process, he's become New York's last old-style power broker and a celebrity himself; he pops up in the papers almost as often as his famous clients. In recent weeks, when his name has been in the tabloids alongside Perelman and Duff; the Yankees and the Nets; Nederlander, Sklar, and Seinfeld; and Naomi Campbell, it's seemed Rubenstein is everywhere.

He is a small man with a large office with Hudson River views. Bespectacled, a little jowly, nebbishy despite his tightly controlled short hair and dark pinstriped suit, he is unassuming, eager to be liked, and house-proud as he takes me on an office tour. Every wall of his floor high above Sixth Avenue is an ego wall, filled with photographs of the proprietor, Zelig-like, with all the greats -- and not-so-greats -- of his age.

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