“Nobody knows what I do,” Bobby Zarem lies: Of course, anyone who moves in the entertainment business or in New York society or in journalism circles knows what Bobby Zarem does. He’s legendary for playing key roles in such flack hall-of-fame triumphs as the selling of Saturday Night Fever, Tommy, and Dances With Wolves, not to mention – he says – creating the famed i * new york campaign. He believes himself to be no less an auteur than some of the directors he’s shilled for. And he has a lack-of-respect complex that’s somewhere between Rodney Dangerfield’s and King Lear’s. “They’ve never had anything to compare me to,” he says. “Just the assholes of the world, the handlers.”
After nearly four decades working the press, and a tough year in which his obit has been prepared more than once, Zarem, 64, is sitting down to write his life story. Unfortunately, he’s having trouble recalling the name of every jerk – his own terms are more colorful – he’s ever traded blows with. Which explains the mountain of press clippings and pitch letters he had sent to his office in dozens of cardboard boxes. He’s been poring over them for the past six weeks. “It’s back-breaking labor,” he complains. “I’m dyslexic. I can only read about five pages in an hour.”
Digging through articles about Saturday Night Fever, he is reminded of his showdown with Paramount’s head of marketing. “He was trying to stop me from getting color pictures to the magazines!” Zarem recalls. “The studio thought they were going to get a couple weeks of business from high-school kids before the movie was ridiculed out of existence. I shoved the guy onto his couch, ran down the hall to the stills department, grabbed six pictures, and ran out of the building. After that,” he adds, savoring the memory, “I was physically barred from Paramount.”
When Jann Wenner was leaning against a Rolling Stone cover on The China Syndrome, Zarem says, “I yelled my head off. I said, ‘This is my reputation, and you know I’m not going to get fucked.’ ” Wenner caved.
Zarem is proudest of his pitch letters, personal analyses of the films he works on intended to make journalists see a project through his eyes. Vincent Canby’s reviews, Zarem insists, often mirrored the handwritten pitches, “concept for concept, expression for expression.”
Finally, lost in his reveries at the end of a long day of reminiscing, the P.R. auteur uncovers a repressed memory. “I’m the guy who kept it out of ‘Page Six’ that name withheld was giving head to name withheld under the table at Elaine’s,” he says. “Are we still on? Oh, shit! Oh, God, that sucks! Maybe I shouldn’t do a book.”