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.
Appearances are everything in the P.R. trade, and Rubenstein appears an exemplar of carefully cultivated civic virtue. Yet anyone familiar with his client list knows that he is just as conversant with civil villainy. That list boasts more subjects of controversy – tycoons like George Steinbrenner, Ronald O. Perelman, Donald Trump, and Rupert Murdoch; divas Naomi Campbell and Leona “Queen of Mean” Helmsley; companies in crisis like Long-Term Capital Management and Waste Management, Inc.; bite boys Mike Tyson and Marv Albert – than fill “Page Six” on a good day (and oh, by the way, Rubenstein also represents the New York Post).
Rubenstein’s unique reputation as a cultural and political go-between took decades of cultivation. And he has made some very deft moves to sustain it, but none more telling than his switch from dedicated operative for the city’s Democratic party to proponent of the ideology of self-interest. He currently supports and raises money for both Rudolph Giuliani and Al Gore, a political position that can truly be said to run the gamut. With such ecumenical political clout and his crazy quilt of clients, Rubenstein can claim to be the key gatekeeper to today’s access culture, whoever happens to be in power. “Howard’s the consummate survivor,” says a City Hall observer. “He’s very wily.” A pause. “But he’s devoid of any principles.”
Indeed, Rubenstein has been involved in some singularly vicious tabloid battles. In sports, he is renowned for carrying out the orders of Steinbrenner, who first hired the P.R. man in 1988 during his war against star hitter Dave Winfield. “The Yankees’ owner vengefully slimed” Winfield, wrote Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post at the time; it was charged that the slugger had given Robin Givens’s mother venereal disease, and that his charitable foundation was in disarray. “It was ‘Destroy Winfield,’ ” confirms someone privy to Rubenstein’s first conversations with Steinbrenner. “I was with him way before that time,” Rubenstein says. “He didn’t hire me for that reason.”
Rubenstein’s hand can be seen in many other conflicts that have enlivened the city in recent years – often on both sides. Though he’s a mainstream Jewish leader and longtime adviser to many Hasidic groups, he also represents a radio-station group that has a history of anti-Semitic broadcasts. Though he’s known for representing unions, he took the side of the Harvard Club against its striking waiters and busboys. His firm simultaneously represented the Tobacco Institute and a cancer hospital, Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump when they were at each other’s throats, and a number of competing educational institutions, including N.Y.U., a longtime account that let him go in a reorganization that happened just after his signing Columbia University as a client.
He’s also been accused of raising money for elected officials while at the same time working as a lobbyist for clients who appear before them. But he preempted that criticism by announcing his decision to stop fund-raising at a very public hearing about lobbying elected officials in 1988 where he and clients like the Bernstein brothers (famously the fronts for Ferdinand Marcos) were asked to testify. “We fixed upon Rubenstein as someone with incredible conflicts of interest,” says lead lawyer Richard Emery, who came away admiring the P.R. man. But his recent return to fund-raising gives Emery pause. “If that’s true, you’ve got a good story,” he says.
It is true: The New York City Campaign Finance Board reports that in 1997, Rubenstein raised money for Giuliani from 24 contributors, including clients Donald Trump, Daniel Tishman, Raoul Felder, and a number of development companies. Rubenstein says that his lobbying is minimal. But City Council-member Kathryn Freed says, “He can still get things done; it’s just not as blatant as it used to be.”
All of which explains why one competitor has had a field day wisecracking about Rubenstein’s modus operandi. John Scanlon, the burly, bearded flack who represented Ivana Trump in her divorce from Rubenstein client Donald, has said Rubenstein “has more conflicts than downtown Beirut,” once described him as “the greatest carrier of water on both shoulders since Rebecca at the well,” and has been known to joke that Rubenstein’s doctor has given him “an ethical bypass.”
For every opinion in Rubenstein’s new York, there is an equal and opposite opinion. “He’s a first-class citizen of the city,” says Lew Rudin. “He’s got a very high level of credibility,” says Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch calls him “a friend and a useful adviser.”
Sarah, Duchess of York, calls from England to tell me that initially, Rubenstein refused to even see her, let alone represent her. But when her literary agent, Marvin Josephson, tricked Rubenstein into meeting her, he came around. “Poor man,” she says, “he represents Murdoch. Why on earth would he want to represent me? Like everyone else, he believed my press.” Besides burnishing her image and arranging her endorsement deal with another of his clients, Weight Watchers, Rubenstein brokered a détente with Murdoch. “The thing about Howard is, immediately people listen when you mention his name,” Sarah says. “I like to be taken seriously. Howard has taken me seriously. He’s like my uncle. My samurai uncle.”
Rubenstein does pro bono work for many civic and charitable causes. “He’s been very generous financially, and his advice is very good,” says District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who was co-chairman of the Holocaust Museum with Rubenstein. “You can call him any time, day or night, and we don’t pay him anything.” Adds Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League, “We all need brokers in our lives. He is able to put folks together and resolve issues.”
Reporters and editors admire Rubenstein, too. Or at least, they’re willing to take his calls. His clients “will probably get a hearing,” says Joyce Purnick, Metro editor of the New York Times. “I’ll listen. Will that affect our coverage? Hard to say. It shouldn’t. But in a city this size, a Rubenstein can’t hurt.”
“He’s never lied to me,” adds the muckraking New York Post columnist Jack Newfield. “I call him EMS. Somebody’s bleeding to death and Howard gets him to the hospital before we can kill him off. I don’t always approve, but that’s what P.R. people do. So I came to respect him and discovered I could separate him from his unspeakable clients.”
Jack Rosenthal, the former editor of the Times editorial page, recalls how Rubenstein brokered a lively and heated breakfast meeting where the newspaper’s editorial board and John Cardinal O’Connor aired their views on the subject of abortion. “No minds were changed, but both sides profited, a certain amount of good will was fostered, and I credit Howard with creating that climate,” Rosenthal says.
After Rubenstein reached out to Mayor Giuliani and “made a great effort to work with” him, says Cristyne Lategano, his closest aide, even she became a fan. So, I ask, do his civic virtues outweigh his political vices for the mayor? “You can say that, sure,” Lategano says. “It’s simple: If you’re nice, we’re nice. You can’t help but be friendly with the guy. If you hold grudges in this town, you won’t get very far. “
It’s December and Howard Rubenstein, master P.R. man, is on the telephone representing his best client – himself – by trying to stop a story, the very one you are reading. “People have told me you’ve said you’re going to get me,” he tells me. “I’d be upset if I thought you’d beat me up.”
A few days earlier, he’d been castigated in the Daily News for leaking damaging and exaggerated gossip about the ailing New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry on team owner Steinbrenner’s behalf. But we’ll get back to that. “Interview around me, and then I’ll give you an interview,” he says abruptly. “Will you tell me who you interview?”
I’d written about Rubenstein clients before and couldn’t help but be aware of the flack’s presence over my shoulder. This time, that process begins with our second phone call, when he offers me the first of several lists of people he thinks I ought to talk to. This one includes two top editors of the New York Times, the owner of the Daily News, the New York Post’s editor, Cardinal O’Connor, former mayor Beame, former governor Cuomo, and the police commissioner. And tucked in the middle is the name of a principal shareholder of the company that owns New York Magazine. “He sponsored me for my country club,” Rubenstein says quietly.
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.
Howard began attending meetings of the board, and his association with commercial real-estate kingpins like Harry Helmsley, the Rudin family, and Alan Tishman began in those meetings. “Howard knew strategy,” says Lew Rudin; “he was very astute, very decent, not pushy. Respect developed between he and I.”
Rubenstein cemented those relationships when he helped the landlords form the Commercial Properties Association in the late sixties. Many of its members became clients. “They’d ask my opinion, my political opinion,” Rubenstein says. “How do I think this new mayor will deal with real estate? What do you think the City Council’s attitude is? To this day, that’s how they use me.” Then the bottom fell out of the city’s commercial-real-estate market. “We were worried about keeping people in the city and paying rent,” says Rudin. So in 1970, he and Rubenstein renamed the landlord group the Association for a Better New York, its admittedly self-serving mandate “to maintain and promote the city’s position.”
“That was really the beginning of my understanding of crisis issues,” Rubenstein says. Not coincidentally, ABNY’s efforts to restore New York’s luster brought its P.R. adviser more clients. “If you trusted him to save the city,” says Rudin, “you had to trust him with your own business.”
Abe Beame did. “I used to treasure his advice in the political arena,” says the ex-mayor. “I learned to depend on his thinking.” After losing his first mayoral bid, in 1965, Beame paid the P.R. man $17,500 to handle his primary runoff in 1973. That November, Beame became New York’s first Jewish mayor.
Rubenstein spent the next four years as Beame’s closest unpaid adviser. He vowed not to abuse his position, and insists he never did. “I don’t sell that, and I’ve never sold it,” he says. “I don’t tell people, ‘I’m wired; hire me.’ ” Regardless, in Beame’s first year in office, when city lobbyists were required to register for the first time, Rubenstein’s firm ranked first of 67.
In the years that followed, Democratic politicians effectively took charge of real-estate development in New York. That made Rubenstein’s connections much more alluring for builders. Today, he downplays his lobbying efforts, perhaps because they quickly became controversial. Rubenstein went too far when he called Beame for one of his clients, who wanted to open an amusement park in Staten Island. Residents screamed fix, and he quickly resigned the account. “I probably didn’t pay attention to it or the resistance to it,” he says. “And that happens; that’s happened in my career.” (Indeed, it’s happened repeatedly. A few years later, he gave up contracts with four state agencies to head off conflict-of-interest charges. “Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to understand it,” he says. He was 50 years old at the time.)
All the controversy proved that Rubenstein had arrived. Though his four years as the unpaid head of Beame’s kitchen cabinet cost him short-term, it paid off when it became clear in August 1975 that the city was running out of money and hurtling toward default on $8 billion in short-term municipal debt. Rubenstein’s role in the crisis was small but decisive, and he calls it “the best time in my life.”
At the request of Judah Gribetz, an aide to Governor Carey who lived in the Rockaways near Beame and Rubenstein, Rubenstein carried messages, made bad news palatable for the mayor, and helped keep the fragile talks from being derailed by animosity between Carey, who’d opposed the Brooklyn machine, and Beame, who personified it. “Abe had many dark, dire nights,” says union adviser Jack Bigel. “Howard helped. It doesn’t sound like much. It was much more than that.”
The city was forced to live on an allowance and survived. Abe Beame’s mayoralty didn’t. Ed Koch ran against him and became mayor, and the night he was elected, an interesting conversation may or may not have taken place somewhere out in the gray zone. A story has been floating around for years that the night Koch won, Rubenstein called David Garth, Koch’s political strategist. “Congratulations,” Rubenstein supposedly said. “It’s your city now.”
Rubenstein denies the conversation took place and suggests I call Garth about it.
In fact, Garth confirms it. “I was so surprised to hear from him,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not interested. It’s not my city. I don’t intend to handle people who do business with City Hall.’ He says it didn’t happen? Bullshit.”
Though Rubenstein was nowhere near as close to Koch as he’d been to Beame, his influence lingered. “It had to do with perceptions,” he says, “with people seeing my name, seeing me in the context of the municipal crisis. I was still looking at myself as a kid from Brooklyn, but I was representing the mayor. I met all the unions then. I met David Rockefeller. I met Felix Rohatyn.”
Another reason his influence lingered was his new No. 1 client, Rupert Murdoch, who bought the New York Post and New York Magazine in 1976 amid swirls of suspicion and controversy. Murdoch hired Don Kummerfeld, who’d been one of Abe Beame’s deputy mayors, as the president of his company in 1978. Kummerfeld in turn suggested that Murdoch hire Rubenstein. “He felt I was a newcomer and needed some help when I was getting beaten up by everyone,” Murdoch says. “It didn’t worry me much, but it seemed to worry everyone around me.”
Ever since, clients have hoped Rubenstein could influence the Post’s gleefully provocative coverage. It can seem that way when Rubenstein’s clients, and the P.R. man himself, are regularly fluffed in the Neal Travis column, or when reporter Maggie Haberman, daughter of top Rubenstein exec Nancy Haberman, reviews an obscure small-press book that happens to lionize Sam Rubenstein, a book Rubenstein happens to have a stack of on his desk. “The Post carries his water,” a competitor insists. But Rubenstein clients are savaged as often as they are treated civilly. Just ask Ronald Perelman. “People get attacked in the Post, they call me,” says Rubenstein. “I say, ‘I don’t edit the Post. I didn’t place that story, and I’m not calling them!’ “
Still, Murdoch can do no wrong. “I’ve spent hours with him,” Rubenstein says. “I know him intimately. He’s a genius. He had a vision of communications. I’ve never met anybody before or since that has had that vision. And he was not motivated by money; he was motivated by communications. And he would spend a lot of time teaching me and explaining to me where he was going, and I loved him for it – and I became very loyal to him. Nothing would break me away from Rupert Murdoch.” Indeed, he stayed with Murdoch when the media magnate was forced to sell the paper in 1988. But Rubenstein introduced him to Peter Kalikow (another client), who bought it, and played a role when Murdoch got it back from Abe Hirschfeld in 1993. “He didn’t need me, but I knew the players,” Rubenstein says. “I helped save the paper. Did I show you the tie they both signed for me?”
David Dinkins’s relationship with Rubenstein went back over twenty years, to the day when Dinkins rescued him from an angry Harlem crowd, demanding money from a client, McDonald’s, in exchange for community support of its restaurants. He vowed to return the favor, and less than a year after Dinkins’s election as mayor in November 1989, he got the chance. Time magazine had just run a cover story headlined the rotting of the big apple, citing rising crime, declining civility, and a black boycott of a Korean-run grocery. Rubenstein was invited to give his advice. A few months later, he was back. This time he called Dinkins.
On Monday night, August 19, 1991, a car in a rabbi’s motorcade in Crown Heights struck and killed a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato. A riot broke out, and a Hasidic student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed by black youths. The situation was still out of control two mornings later when Rubenstein called the mayor to express the Jewish community’s grave concern that it wasn’t getting adequate protection.
In October 1992, Lemrick Nelson was acquitted in state court of Rosenbaum’s murder. That night, a band of Hasidim marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in protest. A month later, a
multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit was filed by the Hasidic community against Dinkins, his police commissioner, and the city. And Rubenstein himself came under fire by a group of Jewish activists for his representation of WLIB, a black-oriented station which had been singled out as a symbol of anti-Jewish hatemongering.
That’s when Rubenstein brokered a meeting between moderate Hasidic leaders and Mayor Dinkins. He invited them and Dinkins to his home while he was sitting shiva – the Jewish mourning ritual – for his mother, thinking it “a perfect opportunity where neither side can do something either rash or violent,” he says. The Hasidim and Dinkins were proper, but stone-cold, with each other. “We sat for a good hour. I told them the hatred had gone far enough, and they are throwing gasoline on that fire if they continue the rhetoric.”
Soon after, in a public display of what can best be described as mere civility, the press was in attendance when Dinkins and a group of rabbis emerged from
a follow-up meeting with everyone’s spokesman Rubenstein at their side. “It wasn’t really totally solved, but I think I helped,” he says.
He helped the Hasidim much more when he told the official commission investigating Crown Heights about his warning call to the mayor and gave a deposition to that effect in their civil suit. “That was an irritant,” a Dinkins aide admits. Yet Rubenstein will not criticize Dinkins. “I’ll just let my actions speak for me,” he says.
Some Hasidim, too, still remember the events with bitterness. Isaac Abraham, spokesman for the Rosenbaum family, calls the Dinkins-Hasid summit “a well-publicized farce.” A leading rabbi in Crown Heights says Rubenstein was just shutting down the noisy and embarrassing protests on behalf of more-upscale Jews. Another Jewish community leader puts Rubenstein’s actions down to pure self-interest. “He sees his friend getting beaten up, so he engineers this meeting to protect his friend and project himself in the role of peacemaker and major player.”
These charges infuriate Rubenstein. “I’m so serious about it,” he sputters. “In the black community and in the Jewish community, I devote hours and hours. I’m chairing all kinds of events to raise money in both communities. I give hundreds of thousands of dollars away. I don’t publicize it. And that’s as significant to me as anything I do in my business.”
And certainly, Rubenstein’s immediate self-interest was not served by what happened next. Jews backed the Republican Giuliani in his race against Dinkins in unprecedented numbers.
Though nominally for Dinkins, Rubenstein wasn’t far behind. In 1995, he co-hosted a cocktail party that raised $200,000 for Giuliani. “Howard succeeds because he supports winners,” an ex-Dinkins aide notes dryly.
He doesn’t always, though. The most publicized aspect of Rubenstein’s businesses is damage control. Celebrity of any kind “is high-risk territory,” Rubenstein says. His lifesaving record is quite impressive – even if one eliminates clients who were actually handled by employees like Dan Klores, who managed many of the crises Rubenstein gets credit for (he has since started his own company; he represents New York Magazine).
Rubenstein won’t discuss specifics. “They are hurt, and they’re angry,” he says of his scandal clients. “They’ve had years of adulation – and then suddenly the applause turns to boos. I say, ‘Look, we’ll talk in confidence. I want you to tell me the truth. And if you don’t want to tell me the truth, don’t lie. Just say you’re not going to discuss it.’ I would say that 99 percent, maybe a little less, level with me. I like to think that a client who will tell me the truth can change his or her life around.”
Strategies differ. “You make an effort to humanize the client if it’s consistent with what the client usually would do. It depends on the client,” he says with a laugh.
When Kathie Lee Gifford was accused of making clothes in sweatshops, Rubenstein turned the story on its head. “I don’t think she had the faintest clue that the sweatshops existed,” he says. “When I met with Gifford and her husband, Frank, they were willing to walk away entirely from their products. And I said, ‘With your fame, you could lead a crusade against sweatshops.’ So together with their lawyer, we mapped out a program that involved the union, the cardinal, the secretary of Labor. We met the governor, we met the president. They couldn’t break through the media clutter to tell the story. She was the horse that they could ride to a successful attack on sweatshops.”
Marv Albert hired him within 24 hours of his indictment on charges of biting and forcing oral sex on a lover. As new bombs – three-way sex, cross-dressing, transvestites, dominatrices, and hookers – exploded around the sportscaster, Albert gave a press conference (with his children in the front row), insisted he was innocent, and didn’t say another word until after his guilty plea for biting. Then he went on a TV tour skewed toward gentle interviewers.
Rubenstein was criticized for all of that, but it was done at Albert’s insistence, says someone close to the sportscaster. “He wanted to be heard,” the source says. “He’s a broadcaster. Marv thought he’d convince people he was right and only made it worse. He never said, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong, I have a problem.’ When he came back six months later, he’d been through therapy, and he did say it.” By that time, Rubenstein was out of the picture, but he expresses a grim satisfaction. “He told me it was consensual,” Rubenstein says. “I believe him. I don’t think he’s a criminal.”
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.”
Which brings us back, finally, to the embarrassing client Rubenstein can’t get away from. Yankees memorabilia is all around Rubenstein’s office, and he wears a huge team-championship ring, just like a player. Rubenstein won’t say much about his work for the Yankees’ owner, whose ability to attract attention and talent to the Yankees is almost matched by his talent for putting his foot in his mouth. “I don’t think I’ve ever discussed my strategy or Steinbrenner’s strategy,” Rubenstein says. “I just execute for George. George is his own man. Clearly. You ask anybody. Steinbrenner sets his own policies. Rubenstein is his spokesman. I am not his business adviser!” He laughs loudly. “They’re their own persons, all of the highly successful people that I work for.”
“Do they listen to you?” I ask.
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” he says twice.
“Do you ever say no to them?”
“You bet. I’m not fearful of giving them a straight answer. I am not a yes man. And that’s why I think George likes me and trusts me.”
“But he might disregard your advice?”
“Yes,” Rubenstein answers. “We have a discussion, and then I say what he wants me to say.”
On November 4, the Boss wanted him to say why the Yankees hadn’t exercised their 1999 option on Darryl Strawberry, who’d just had surgery for colon cancer. Mike Lupica, the Daily News sports columnist, had taken off on Steinbrenner for not giving the ailing slugger his $2.5 million. The Boss wanted it known that Strawberry owed so much in back taxes and alimony that his creditors would take anything the Yankees paid him – and not only that, Major League Baseball would hit the Yankees with a “luxury” surcharge if Strawberry got all that green. The Boss wanted to work things out for everyone’s profit. And he obviously didn’t want to say that to Lupica, who has a history of insufficient reverence toward him.
So the next day, Rubenstein called the Daily News and asked for Debby Krenek, the editor. “He said he had information about Darryl Strawberry that was hot,” she recalls. So she sent him where he should have gone in the first place, to the sports editor, who put him on the phone with reporter Peter Botte. “I thought they’d say, ‘He’ll take care of Strawberry,’ ” Botte says. Instead, he got an earful about Strawberry’s debts – which Rubenstein vastly inflated. “I asked him, ‘Is this on the record?’ ” Botte continues. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ ” A few minutes later, Lupica got a full report. But he and Botte thought the call so peculiar that Botte called back to be sure it had really been Rubenstein. The next day the News ran three pages of coverage, with stories by Botte and Lupica, a back-page photo of Steinbrenner, and the headline a new low. Good publicity.
Now, Rubenstein says the incident was “unfairly reported,” but admits, “Perhaps I was not as articulate as I should have been. Certainly I wasn’t consciously hurtful. It’s possible I was clumsy. But I would imagine if you asked the Daily News on balance whether I’m skilled or not, they would think I’m skilled. They can’t say I’m a jerk.”
Actually, Mike Lupica says worse, even if an acknowledgment is buried in his criticism. “It’s astonishing that such a big guy in New York, a guy who’s supposed to be so scary, could do something that monumentally stupid,” Lupica says. “It’s like in sports. Look at the field. You don’t need anybody to tell you when a pitcher has lost his fastball.”