For the next two months I hear from him often by phone and fax and, as the reporting proceeds, almost daily, usually first thing in the morning (he's notorious for starting his day at 4 a.m.). He relentlessly flatters and subtly directs and continually stresses three themes -- his integrity, his philanthropy, and his highly placed friends. And he's always letting me know who's called after talking to me. "If somebody says a negative, do you use a positive too?" he worries. "I worked 45 years on my reputation, and I have a good reputation, and a reputation is fragile."
In the marble lobby of Rubenstein's office sits a half-size statue of a newspaperman on a stool behind an old Royal typewriter next to a hat rack with a battered fedora. The statue is a tribute to Sam Rubenstein, Howard's father. It commemorates his days as a reporter at the Herald Tribune.
Sam Rubenstein worked in the Brooklyn cop shack, a warren of offices across the street from Police Headquarters, calling in crime stories to the paper's rewrite desk in Manhattan -- his son will rhapsodize about Sam's deathbed injunction not to mourn him because he'd covered 5,000 fires. But Sam Rubenstein also had a sideline -- the P.R. business he ran out of his hatband. Back in the day, it was an accepted bit of business for underpaid reporters to moonlight in plugola.
Rubenstein guards his father's reputation as fiercely as he does his own. During two days of interviews, the only time he became angry was when I brought up a charge Jimmy Breslin once made in a column suggesting that Sam Rubenstein was fluffing for a Brooklyn district attorney he should have been covering objectively. Sam Rubenstein also engaged in less controversial flackery for a local restaurant, community groups, and a number of pols from Brooklyn's Democratic machine. "He knew everyone," Howard says, still impressed but also defensive. "You ask any City Hall reporter, they'll know all the public officials. That was usual. That was normal."
Whatever Sam was or wasn't doing, it wasn't paying his son's bills. Howard had to work his way through college. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, "Phi Beta Kappa, third in my class," he says, he'd gone on to Harvard Law -- the next step in his mother's master plan for him -- but discovered within weeks that he hated conflict, which made pursuing the law a problem. So he called his father to say he wanted to drop out and return to Bensonhurst. "I was a failure, a mess," he admits. "And my father took me under his wing."
The Harvard dropout needed a job. He had a talent for art, so he started painting and hand-lettering testimonial plaques, the kind that a union might give to a retiring official. And that's when Sam stepped in and said, "Look, I can help get you an account." In fall 1953, he began introducing his son to his friends. "Howard started with a great credit," says former governor Hugh Carey. "Everybody loved his dad."
Sam gave Howard a crash course in publicity. Then "he introduced me to Raoul Felder's mother at the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged," Rubenstein says. "Raoul Felder, he's a client of mine. She paid me $100 a month to write some speeches. I called my dad and said, 'How do you write a speech?' Then without telling me, I'm pretty sure he called every friend he ever had, and he said, 'My son will send you a press release; would you treat it kindly?' I said, 'Oh my God, what an easy business.' "
Howard was still hedging his bets; at his father's urging, he enrolled in St. John's Law School at night, graduating in 1959 near the top of his class. "I wasn't sure I would succeed as a press agent," he says. "The attitude was, if you're a press agent, you're lower than any professional in town."
He also had a new family to support. He'd married Amy Forman, whose father owns a factory, real estate, and Peter Luger's Steak House, and at his insistence made a brief, last stab at lawyering as an assistant counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. Then he finally committed himself to full-time flackery, and moved his office into the landmark Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan. "I moved for image. Nothing else," he says. "I was a nonentity."
He wouldn't be for long. In the sixties, he added real estate to his portfolio. Rubenstein's father had also introduced him to Bunny Lindenbaum, a politically connected Brooklyn real-estate lawyer, who in turn brought Rubenstein his first developer client, an outer-borough builder named Fred Trump, and then introduced him to Rex Tompkins, head of the Real Estate Board of New York. It was the mid-sixties, the Herald Tribune was out of business, and Sam Rubenstein now worked for his son. "His father was the receptionist, file clerk, and everything else," says Tompkins.