It's a little like watching someone play 32 games of neurotic, simultaneous chess. "Can you hold one second?" "Will you shoot me if I go away?" "Can you wait a teeny, teeny minute?" "Let's make it 8 o'clock at Studio 54, okay?" "But there aren't that many good people who do restaurants." "Are you in a booth?" "Yeah, hello, right, Ken, howareya, uh, working Hahahaha."
The sign on the door says Zarem, Inc. The place is five floors above Madison Avenue. Inside, six people are wedged into two rooms. Clutter is everywhere. Phones ring nearly nonstop. There's a bubble of drinking water; no cups. Behind a small wooden desk, framed by splashy French poster art and a nosegay of flowers, a man sits with a phone in his ear. In a moment, the man will have a phone in each ear. Over on the sagging sofa, a third phone blinks insistently.
A Rolodex is on the floor; so is the stereo. On the window sill are volumes by Graham Greene and Rex Reed and Georgia O'Keeffe. Old varieties and folded-over cues haunt the corners.
This is the lair of Bobby Zarem, New York's prince of pitch. Bobby Zarem is a press agent. His business is brokering dreams, though he would just say he's communicating information. Like Roy Hobbs, the home-run hitter in Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," Bobby Zarem knows "without heroes, we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go." Bobby helps Zarem supply heroes.
Hello. This is Robert Zarem. Z as in zebra, a, r, e, m.
Bobby Zarem is the man who once rented the 57th Street subway station and invited 700 guests to dinner in black tie to promote a rock movie called "Tommy." Bobby Zarem is the man who turned out Jackie O and Andy Warhol and Paulette Goddard and George Plimpold Schwarzenegger and his low-budget documentary "Pumping Iron." Bobby Zarem is the man who took over the Four Seasons restaurant to hype the move, "The Ritz." He had the band play from the pool. By the end of the party, Rita Moreno was in there splashing, too.
There is now in New York City something known as "the Zaram event." It is chock-a-block with celebrities. Getting celebrities is Bobby Zarem's genius, his and the party's payoff.
Shelly? Bobby. Say, listen we're going to walk in one of Jann's pair tonight, okay? And we might want to tell Mick - I know he's gotten more relaxed about these things - he can get there as late as quarter after and still see Diana come in. And if he wants to go backstage after and say hello I mean, that would really be nice, though of course I'm not pushing it. yeah, okay, seeya, bye.
He is clad in a body-hugging green sweater. He's al ready done his situps; meditation to come, "I can't shake hands," he says in a vaguely southern accent. "Got fried chicken on my fingers. Alma made it." Alma is Bobby Zarem's maid and cook. Twice a week she tries restoring order to his two-room walk-up, a couple of blocks around the corner.
Zarem's face seems contorted - not in pain, in concentration. As he talks into the instrument stuck in his ear, he alternately rakes at his throat, bites at his lips, unscrews the caps of vitamin bottles, jolts up to balance his slightly pudgy body on an old penny loafer (complete with pennies). All the while, of course, miming directives to secretaries who have come in to say Miss Radziwill is on one, Jamie Wyeth is on two, and Mr. Wenner will call right back.
If Cole Porter were writinga song about Bobby Zarem, he'd put it this way: Zarem's the top, the Tower of Pisa, the smile on the Mona Lisa. He's even the pants on the Roxy usher.
Or you could go straight to Johnny Mercer. Mercer was a friend of Bobby Zarem, grew up in the same leafy, magnolia-scented town as Zarem, Savannah, Ga. One of the last tunes Johnny Mercer wrote before he died two years ago was "You're My New Celebrity." Mercer wrote Bobby Zarem into that song.
Somehow, Bobby Zarem has transcended his job description. At 42 and enormously successful, he is no mere superflack in a gabardine suit peddling pap to showbiz columnists. Bobby Zarem is a Somebody. he makes columns. These days the photo editors don't crop him out of the picture. He could use an agent himself.
Yes. I can get you Lorna Luft's number. But why?
Zarem denies his newfound celebrity. It would be unseemly not to. No matter the twin stories in Time and Newsweek last year (and the one this year in Advertising Age slamming him). No matter that small framed photo on a table at home, a photo of himself and Betty Bacall smiling beautifically in their top-hat clothes. Miss Bacall is just someone he greatly admires. He'd like to think they're good friends, maybe best friends. He says this, too, using almost the same words, about Le Radziwill.
Okay, you can count on a pair. But on one condition, gorgeous: You gotta love the show. Hahahahaha.
No matter, either, that he's so apparently at home in the clubby, kinetic air of Elaine's Restaurant. New York's metaphor for chic. Hard to say how many nights a week after a show Bobby Zarem will glide up to Elaine's for some good talk and fresh veal. Nothing for him to linger past 2 o'clock rubbing with the famous and the would-be famous.
Zarem was going to Elaine's 14,15 years ago. Elaine Kaufman, a great, blunt, Jewish mother to her nightly brood, is one of Zarem's best friends. Of Bobby, Elaine says: "He's so good. He's so dedicated. He works like nobody else. He's alos a big baby. He can't even cuss well." Elaine, like just about everyone else who knows him, says Zarem is freightfully insecure. "When the babt comes out, it's bcause the baby is frustrated." It was Elaine who convinced Zarem to go on his own as a publicist 3 1/2 years ago. She thought he was being lost in a big agency.
"I'm not sure what it means, celebrity," Bobby Zarem says. For just an instant, he is off the phone. His hands are pressed together, prayerlike, at his mouth. He is at pains to get this right. The words are coming out tortured, preceded by a string of "uha."
"But if you told me I was one, I'd say, fine, but it doesn't change anyting inside my head, or the way I do business. You take Ryan O'Neal . . . who has taken me to fights. Or Burt Reynolds. I mean, there was a time I would have been hurt to know Burt was in Savannah where I was there and he didn't call me up. These people don't need another celebrity. That's not why they get in touch."
Why people get in touch is because Zarem, Inc., has an uncanny ways of promoting careers. Selling them to the great media factory. "Doing press," they call it. How exactly Bobby Zarem does press no one seems to know. What people do know is that his record for getting feature spreads in papers and magazines, for getting his opening-night bashes covered by all the right cameras, is nearly unequaled.
"Maybe the average moronic press agent thinks he can influence a review, play one critic against another," says Frank Rich, Time magazine movie critic and good friend of Zarem. "Not Bobby. Bobby near even mentions my reviews. In fact, the effect of all his promo is probably to drown out bad reviews, should they occur."
The Zarem way is manifold. Journalists who have written favorably - in some cases even unfavorably - of Bobby's clients have been known to receive splendid little Gucci gifts in the mail. Business with Bobby is conducted on a personal level. Phone calls to friends, associates, interviewers, can come lat at nights. Letters, running to pages, get written in longhand: "I'm sorry that you didn't come to the luncheon yesterday. It was a lot of people there . . ." Bobby Zarem wants the world to be his friend. There is something ingratiating about his frazzled, harried life. The man is vulnerable - you keep wanting to pull him out of the rain.
Actress Joan Hackett, whom Zarem loves dearly and vice versa, would do anything just now to have Bobby do her press. "Oh, Zarem," she fairly pleads one night at Elaine's joking but serious just the same, "promise me you'll do press on my next film. I hate what they're doing to me. I'll pay you anything."
Nope, Bobby grins. Too busy. He handles only five or six "projects" at a time. The big projects right now are Diana Ross and "The Wiz," something he maneuvered 18 months to get. "I went up against every big PR firm in the country," he says. "I'm convinced Diano is the biggest entertainment story in the country."
Bobby Zarem and Diana Ross are like that, of course. It's more than just business.
"I have a theory," says Kathie Berlin, New York head of Rogers & Cowan, a giant showbiz PR firm where Zarem once worked. "By 8 o'clock every night, the beautiful peole of this town are all dressed up waiting for someone to tell them where they're going. And that someone is Bobby Zarem."
Zarem brought Berling to Rogers & Cowan. She holds no brief for or against him, she says. She just sucks in her breath at his contacts. "If I were opening a restaurant or hyping a movie, there's no question who I'd call."
Some people loathe Bobby Zarem and he them, though he has a hard time owning up to this. He has already had a nationally aired musling with impresario Robert Stigwood, whose "Saturday Night Fever" and "Tommy" Zarem handled. The fight was over money, Zarem says. He went to work on a verbal agreement, which Stigwood later tried to back out of. In a Newsweek piece last summer, Zarem called Stigwood a "fifth-rate low life," to which Stigwood rejoined, "He should live with his psychiatrist."
Says Fred Gershon, pnesident of the Stigwood organization: "It just became too agonizing to deal with him on a regular basis, even though the man undeniably has special gifts." One of those gifts, says Gershon, "is being able to superimpose youself on an event you're being paid to handle and use it for self-aggrandizement." Gershon insists Zarem was paid in full. He says there were at least four other PR firms working on "Saturday Night Fever" and the Bee Gees; somehow no one remembers the three other firms. "What he did for the Bee Gees was arrange a luncheon at Gracie Mansion. That's it." Zarem says he did much more.
On the underside of his honesty and sincerity and disarming likability is an alleged viciousness toward those who have wronged Bobby Zarem. He is said to hold bitter grudges, have the longest dirt list in New York. His scribbled put-down letters are reputed to be classics. "I am very, very strong person." Zarem says. "I am not out to hurt or destroy anyone. I do not like spiteful little people."
Says Liz Smith, gossip columnist: "He is without doubt my most enormous detractor in New York. I must know 500 press agents. It slays me two adults have to act this way." They snub each other in Elaine's nowadays, Smith says. She sayZarem personally kept her off the set of the "The Wiz." Zarem denies this.
"The real essence of it is this," says Danny Zarem, Bobby's brother, proprietor of a sleek men's shop on 57th Street called Andre Oliver."His instincts are to be really very kind. When people turn on him, he can't understand it and he reacts. Bobby will tell you people are basically s-s, but he doesn't believe it. To the people who love him, Bobby is an extremely important person in their lives."
Danny Zarem is 10 years older than Bobby. He, too, went to Yale. He, too, is something of a New York gadabout. He, too, has the Zarem gift of sincereity and likability. A third brother, Harvey, is in between. He is head of plastic surgery at the UCLA medical school.All three brothers are close.
For the first time in his life, Zarem says, he's getting a hold on all his problems, finding out who he really is. He links these discoveries to psychoanalysis. He's been deep into therapy for years, but the last six months, he thinks, have seen spectacular gains.
Zarem loves talking about his analysis. He practically buttonholes you with it. "I spent the whole session yesterday talking about laying off. You know: not pushing people to write stories, or whatever. Last week, somebody for the first time told me he thought I was trying too hard. he didn't exactly say 'pushing' . . ."
His pale forehead knits. "I don't think I was."
Bobby Zarem lives in shabby gentility. You walk up four floors, on creaky stairs. There is an Oriental rug, charcoal sketches on the walls, a lamp with a porcelain base. Piles of clothes are tossed on the divan. The kitchen is a disaster, the bed in the other room unmade and slightly askew of its frame. Above is roll-top desk is a huge picture of Mick Jagger. "The Maestro", Zarem says, grinning.
He is going out on the town tonight - a show at Carnegie Hall, then a cab up to Elaine's. Right now, sift some marijuana through a tea strainer, locate a clean shirt and the suede Guccis, wad some money into the safari jacket. Don't forget the muffler - it may be cold tonight. (It isnt, and he looks comic hurtling around Manhattan in a woolen scarf and his seedy Aquascutum - which gets rolled into a ball and put under the chair at Elaine's.) And, oh, yes, where's that cheese and Scotch he keeps for guests?
Settled now, lit, happy, he says: "One of the luckiest things I can say about myself is that money is unimportant. It is really important. There was always money in our family - maybe that's part of it. Father had a wholesale shoe business. There was a time after he died, when I was at Andover and Yale and Danny was running the business, when things were going badly."
Father rode horses every morning. Mother was a pianist. Bobby was a batboy for a major-league teams drifting north from Florida. Once he went out to dinner with Ted Williams. There was always a sense of culture, of sophiscation in his family and in Savannah. New York never seemed that far away. Eddie, the family's black maid, raised him, babied him.
After Yale and political science ("God, I might have ended up in Nixonian Washington"), he came down to New York. Theater was his first love. Columbia Pictures offered him $42.50 a week in the mail room. He went to work instead with a briefcase at U.S. Trust Co. It was mostly a game, and he lasted a year and a half. Various publicity jobs followed, finally Rogers & Cowan, where he handled Ann Margaret, Dustin Hoffman, lesser lights.
Though it "wasn't a leveling off point." the job still fit: He was always a little star-struck. When he was 11, his parents brought him to New York and he sat in the Waldorf's Starlight Roof collecting signatures.
Now people collect his; the fan has fans.
He's more than just a partygiver, Manhattan's Perle Mesta of movie premieres. He doesn't want that on his tombstone. That may be one reason Bobby Zarem is so proud of his work on "I Love New York" campaign he has been retained to handle. Bobby Zarem loves New York in the way only non-New Yorkers, outsiders, can. The city has always held a special fascination, glitter. His PR campaign is aimed at the state, but Bobby is glad to help any way he can. He won't say it, but the campaign has given his line of work respectability.
"I've had migraines for years, period. And pinched nerves. And sore throats. His best friends tell him to his teeth he's a hypochrondriac.
On his firm and the money it makes, Zarem is hazy. he probably doesn't know how much he makes. You can believe him when you look at his apartment that money is unimportant. Newsweek estimated his agency, which is really himself and three account exectutives, grosses $200,000. he say that's a figure out of thin air. "If we're solvent, it's by $73."
One overwhelming need, he says, nodding slowly, as if on someone's couch: "To be loved and accepted. I don't think there's any doubt that's one of the things I've always wanted most."
Never any desire for children? "Sometimes, when I feel the world is pretty wonderful again, I want to have them. I don't know . . ."
He stops. "Two weeks ago I went to the opera to see Wagner. I had a date. For the first time in my life I could just sit there and listen and not be intent about whether I could get a contract with the Metropolitan Opera."
Out on the street now. Hail a cab. At Carnegie, working through the throng, Ron Galella, paparazzi photographer, comes up. "Hi, Mr. Zarem. I got Ali Mac Graw last night in front of Elaine's. Elaine doesn't like me. Tell her I'm okay." Zarem doesn't tarry.
After the show, beelining it for a taxi. He spots Freddie Silverman disappearing into the tunnels of a gray limo. "There's Freddie. We really don't know one another. I say we don't know one another. We did spend half an evening once across from each other at dinner."
Pulling up at Elaine's. Elaine herself is at the door. Hug. A wave to the back of the room. Discard the coat. In five minutes, hello to actor Michael Murphy, actor Richard Geer, Pete Hamill, Lee Radziwill, Dick Cavett. Jagger is in a room in the back. Zarem: "You know, I don't think he used the tickets I got him tonight. Jesus, I'd love to know. But I'm afraid to ask."
After food and cola (doesn't drink, just smokes), after good talk, after RECOGNITION, Bobby Zarem, 42, neurotic and undeniably successful says this: "You see, I feel we need color and drama and excitement in our lives.That's why I'm doing all this. When I took on Ann-Margaret years ago, I almost felt I had a duty to represent her. Bring her out for all of us. I know that sounds a little crazy. We're all crazy."
A flick of insight. "It's maybe being crazy that makes a lot of beautiful things happen."