Bobby Zarem, the exuberant press agent who fulfilled his childhood fantasies by catching rising stars and promoting them to stellar careers, died early Sunday morning at his home in Savannah, Ga. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by Bill Augustin, a longtime colleague, who said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
A gregarious and ingratiating Yale graduate, Mr. Zarem lasted barely 18 months on Wall Street before stumbling into a career as an indefatigable show business promoter.
A largely affable Barnum, he cannily cultivated a symbiotic bond with reporters, greeted favored guests at his parties by obsequiously dropping to his knees and kissing their hands, and gushed with joyful benevolence one moment only to unleash a vitriolic but lyrical X-rated tirade the next, prompted by a perceived slight or an underling’s lapse.
Mr. Zarem’s clients included (in alphabetical order) Alan Alda, Ann-Margaret, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Cher, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Jack Nicholson, Diana Ross, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
He publicized the films “Tommy” (by staging a gala party in a Midtown Manhattan subway station) and “Saturday Night Fever” (after stealing stills of the production from the studio, which expected the movie to flop and neglected to distribute photographs of John Travolta), as well as “Rambo,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 documentary about bodybuilding, which starred Mr. Schwarzenegger. For that film, Mr. Zarem arranged a meeting with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that helped elevate Mr. Schwarzenegger to global superstardom.
He also played a role in initiating the “I Love New York” tourism campaign — although just how much of a role is unclear; he was one of a number of people who claimed credit for originating the slogan (the logo was designed by Milton Glaser).
He was hired by William S. Doyle, the state’s deputy commerce commissioner, and said he recruited the Wells Rich Greene advertising agency to produce a television advertising campaign starring Broadway celebrities.
He also promoted his own birthplace, transforming John Behrendt’s true-crime book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1994) into a tourism magnet for Savannah. He helped launch a film festival there in 1998 and retired there in 2010.
Judy Klemesrud of The New York Times called him “Super Flack.” Spy magazine characterized him as “preternaturally energetic.” Marion Meade wrote in her biography “The Unruly Life of Woody Allen” (2000) that Mr. Zarem was “fueled by an inexhaustible tank of hot air.”
And Hal Erickson, likening him to the fading publicist he inspired who was played by Al Pacino in the film “People I Know,” wrote in his book “Any Resemblance to Actual Persons” (2017) that Mr. Zarem “never worried about getting into heaven as long as he could get his people into print.”
Like his theatrical clients, Mr. Zarem could deftly switch roles: from the choleric control freak grappling with the last-minute glitches in staging an event to the chivalrous host greeting every guest like a best friend.
He wanted badly to be liked, but he could develop a grudge when he wasn’t.
Mr. Zarem feuded venomously with the columnist Liz Smith in the 1980s after he discovered that she was writing a separate syndicated column under a pseudonym, Robin Adams Sloan, that denigrated his clients.
In contrast to many of his less gregarious colleagues, Mr. Zarem’s own boldfaced name punctuated gossip columns nearly as frequently as his clients’.
But despite his personal visibility, Mr. Zarem insisted in an interview with The New York Times in 2001 that his career “was for a long time hurt because I didn’t promote myself.”
“People don’t know half of what I’ve done because I’m not a bragger,” he had told The Times four years earlier. He added, though, that while most of his competitors were “handlers or caterers,” he himself had “elevated publicity to an art form.”
He regularly dined at Elaine’s on the Upper East Side (where he said he introduced Mia Farrow to Woody Allen), helped organize an annual Oscar-night gala (“Almost everybody here is somebody,” he said at one event), and, in an era of antiseptic tweets, was known for sending personalized handwritten notes.
Endowed with a discerning eye that could identify potential stars, Mr. Zarem delivered on his boyhood dreams.
“I sit here now,” he said in an interview with South magazine in 2017, “and I realize that everything I fantasized about became real.”
Robert Myron Zarem was born on Sept. 30, 1936, in Savannah, the youngest of three sons in an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Harry, owned a wholesale shoe company. His mother, Rose (Gold) Zarem, was a pianist.
“I’ve had major identity problems all my life because I’m obsessed with meeting stars,” he told The Times in 1997
When he was 8, he said, he and a friend cut Sunday-school classes to collect an autograph from the tempestuous actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was staying at a Savannah hotel.
They planned and executed an elaborate subterfuge — learning her room number from a bellhop who worked for Bobby’s father; walking up eight flights to avoid the elevator operator; knocking on the door and refusing to be cowed when she shrieked, “Go away! I don’t sign autographs”; and then sneaking in behind a maid’s breakfast cart, prompting Miss Bankhead to lob a newspaper at them.
Many years later, as a prominent publicist, he encountered Miss Bankhead and made one more fruitless effort. He was equally unsuccessful. “I still don’t sign autographs,” she said.
He would continue to collect them, though. Before his father died of cancer when Bobby was 13, he would accompany him when he came to New York for treatment at a New York hospital. They would stay at the Waldorf Astoria, where Bobby would forage for famous guests.
After his father died, he told Hamptons magazine, “I was scared to get close to anybody out of fear that that person, too, would disappear.”
Despite a lifelong struggle with attention deficit disorder that made reading demanding, he followed his two older brothers to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and then to Yale, where he graduated in 1958. (Danny Zarem, a fashion retailer, died in 2013. Dr. Harvey Zarem, a plastic surgeon, died in 2015. No immediate family members survive.)
After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, he worked for the United States Trust Company in New York; served briefly in the Air National Guard; was hired by Columbia Artists Management; and, starting in 1968, discovered his gift as a publicist while working for the producer Joseph E. Levine.
In 1969 he went to work for Rogers & Cowan, the public relations firm, where his client roster included Dustin Hoffman. He opened his own agency, Zarem Inc., in 1974.
Mr. Zarem, a workaholic, never married and didn’t drink, although he smoked marijuana to relax. He cultivated a devil-may-care style in untucked shirts and New Balance sneakers, but that style belied a fierce temper.
The publicist Peggy Siegal, who once worked for him, swore that Mr. Zarem lobbed a typewriter at her when she erred in taking a phone message. (He responded that he wouldn’t have missed at such short range.) Mr. Schwarzenegger recalled in his 2012 memoir, “Total Recall,” that Mr. Zarem “always talked like he was completely confused and the world was coming to an end.”
He bemoaned the current state of public relations, he told New York magazine in 2010, because the warp speed of digital media pre-empted what to a pro like him was a fine-tuned battle plan of leaks and exclusive stories.
About the state of the art as he practiced it, Mr. Zarem noted, “Nobody knows what a press agent does, and if you’re smart, you keep it that way.”
He claimed that he had gained self-awareness after more than three decades of analysis with Dr. Samuel Lowy, a psychiatrist who specialized in interpreting dreams. Mr. Zarem concluded that he promoted other people to magnify his own self-image.
“I think that’s why I did what I did,” he told Hamptons magazine. “Not feeling that I had anything to communicate, I felt that if I made the rest of the world accept Dustin Hoffman and Ann-Margret and Cher, and all these people, then I would be accepted.”
In retrospect, he said, he saw his role in the “I Love New York” campaign as a breakthrough.
“My therapist once told me, ‘Anyone who saved the single greatest metropolis can’t be that screwed up,’” Mr. Zarem said. “For the first time in my life, I don’t feel the need to jump out a window if someone cancels dinner on me. Now I know who and what I am.”
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