The ultimate test for any publicist is spinning her own dismissal, and this Leslee Dart has done masterfully. On November 14, she was told by PMK/HBH chairman Pat Kingsley that her contract wouldn’t be renewed. By the next day, when she walked into the New York offices she’d presided over for 23 years to announce that she’d been fired, her clients were already lining up behind her. Dart, who’d always been the agency’s New York–based good cop to Kingsley’s blunt Beverly Hills sentinel, suddenly seemed to have one of her clients, producer Scott Rudin, as her press agent. Harvey Weinstein, Sydney Pollack, and Wes Anderson made public declarations of loyalty to her publicity magic, too. By last week, a source close to the players says Pollack and Anderson, as well as Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Brian Grazer, Conan O’Brien, and, of course, Rudin, had fired PMK and will follow Dart out the door, potentially leaving their Oscar–hungry product, including Closer and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, in the lurch (though studios have their own publicity arms).
“I can’t understand why Pat would do this,” says Lois Smith, a former partner in the agency who retired a couple of years ago. “If it were economics, there are other ways to solve it, not least of which is Pat saying, ‘I’ll take $1 a year until it gets sorted out.’ ”
“It was like a 2-year-old having a temper tantrum,” says another former employee.
Of course, the spat was mutual: After the company was sold to the marketing conglomerate Interpublic five years ago, and later merged with the Hollywood PR firm HBH, the PR pooh-bahs had become increasingly estranged, hardly speaking for the past two years. “Tensions had started to mount,” admits Kingsley.
Still, for a personnel dustup at what is essentially a boutique business—PMK/HBH has billings of a reported $14 million a year—it couldn’t have played out on a grander public stage. “If movies don’t gross more in their first weekend than we do in a year, then they’re considered a failure,” says Kingsley. Both she and Dart have spent their careers hovering in the background for megacelebrities who pay the firm $5,000-a-month retainers—when they need them. The PMK story has loomed so large because the firm provided the thing New York media couldn’t produce on its own: celebrity content. “It’s a much bigger schism in the press than in the company,” insists Simon Halls, who joined from HBH. “Yes, it surprised me, and it didn’t. There are two women who didn’t really get along for whatever reason. It’s like a marriage. There’s estrangement, and eventually there’s a divorce.” Halls is a player in this succession drama, with many saying he’s trying to position himself as the next chairman. After all, Kingsley is 72, and Dart, who’s 50, wanted her job. Halls insists, “I’m not in line for anything.” And besides, “I don’t think Pat’s going anywhere anytime soon.”
Dart, with her nearly unerring ability to manage talent (and journalists) inspires loyalty to the point where it sent many reeling to imagine her no longer there. Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Universal Television Group, says flat out, “It surprised me only in that the wrong person was let go.” (He’d once banned PMK’s clients from Today after Kingsley tried to punish the show for asking the wrong questions.) “Leslee was a class act, and her partner wasn’t.”
That’s not an unusual perspective. Even “Page Six” editor Richard Johnson likes her: “I think she’s the best of the bunch.” As for Kingsley? “I wouldn’t say she’s nasty, but she’s hard as nails.”
And perhaps because her PR senses were tingling that she was becoming overexposed in her role as victim, Dart refused to comment for this piece. Meanwhile, Kingsley’s still on-message. “There was one job, and two people wanted the job,” she reiterates. She praises Dart and says it makes sense that her clients would want to go with her. It’s just, as they say, business. “It wasn’t a philosophical question. It was a question of who would be CEO.” Besides, her contract is up, too, and her renewal hasn’t been signed.
Meanwhile, the business is changing, Interpublic is becoming more demanding, and PMK/HBH’s profits, says one who should know, are slipping. Another company insider says this is more than a high-profile catfight. “Pat and Leslee are not in control of the company—a corporation is,” he says. The two are said to make “in the Zip Code of $500,000.” Which makes them “expensive people in this business.” Kingsley says, “I am very conservative on expenses—very conservative—and as long as we do that, they leave us alone.”
In any case, “I always expect to be crucified,” Kingsley says. “If I had a thin skin, I would’ve left this business so long ago. We’re not in a business of being liked.” But Dart seems to be.