He'd represented Harry and Leona Helmsley separately and together for 30 years when the couple was charged with tax evasion. He did what he could, notably encouraging Leona to light up the Empire State Building, but she went to jail anyway. En route, the Queen of Mean fired him for delivering papers to her by messenger instead of coming in person. "That was a 30-second firing, that was pique, that was all," he says. "She was upset that her P.R. was terrible. Of course it was terrible."
"Do they ever get it, that it's them, not you?" I ask. Rubenstein won't even address the question. "I'm not dealing with that one!" he barks. "It's not them. It's me! I take the blame." He laughs and returns to more comfortable ground: plugging. "I'm sad about Leona and what happened to her. She gave a million and a half to the churches in the South that were burned down. She won't let me publicize it. I haven't given up. You've got to bide your time sometimes."
As Rubenstein approaches his forty-fifth anniversary in the business -- which he'll celebrate, as he does every five years, by giving away a bag of money himself and tossing a big boldfaced bash at Tavern on the Green in September -- employees, competitors, and clients are biding their time, too. "I have no desire to leave, because it's exciting, I can give something," Rubenstein says. "But there certainly will be a Rubenstein Associates without me."
Competitors are quick to disagree. They think his senior staff and big clients will cut and run. "He will make no partners," says a sniper. "There is no sharing glory. He has Pekingese handling clients. He gets away with murder." And when there is no more Howard? "It'll be Yugoslavia, ripe for the plucking," chuckles another competitor. "Howard's the magnet. There's nothing else."
"Maybe I have to hire a P.R. firm," Rubenstein jokes in response.
Richard and Steven Rubenstein, his two sons, are the presumptive heirs. Howard seems to relate better to Steven, 29, who says he hopes to become just the sort of honest broker his father is and has already started cultivating future power people. Richard, 33, a rap-loving clubgoer, is more of a hustling showbiz P.R. man; he's had a longer but more difficult tenure at his dad's firm. Richard chafed at being the resented first child in the company. But in the past few years, he's said to have found his feet by gaining independence of a sort.
Richard has two businesses of his own, with separate staffs and separate client lists. They are not completely separate, though. They share quarters with their father's firm. And sometimes it's confusing who is repre-
senting whom. When Rubenstein's pal Jack Newfield wrote a blistering attack on club owner Peter Gatien, who'd been identified as a Howard client in Neal Travis's column in the Post, Howard told me Gatien was actually a Richard client. Then he told me Richard would be quitting the account. I, unfortunately, was the one who told Gatien. Later, Richard said he would still help Gatien out but would no longer take his money.
"It took a while till he figured out his love for independence," Howard had said of Richard a few days before. "I don't tell him what to do. And I don't think I've met many of his clients."
Rubenstein likes to take credit when things go right, but as in his dealings with Gatien, he distances himself from problems. When he suspects clients aren't forthcoming, he'll be sure their statements are in their own words (which may be why, when Naomi Campbell denied a suicide attempt confirmed by others, Rubenstein's statement attributed the denial to her). And when clients are simply an embarrassment, he'll either forget them or foist the blame on one of his employees. He uses both techniques when I ask about his representation of the group dubbed the Gang of Four, who bought Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island with government loans and a promise to keep it operating, but were then embroiled in scandal when they suddenly reversed course, closed the track, and sought to develop it for a huge profit. "I've never worked for them," Rubenstein says at first. "I couldn't even name their names." But he soon amends that. "I wasn't personally involved, but my company could have been."