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Howard J. Rubenstein, PR manager, dies at 88

Howard J. Rubenstein, who has softened life’s blows and polished tarnished images of the rich, famous and imperfect for over 65 years on becoming New York’s chief public relations manager, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 88 years old.

A spokesperson, Nancy Haberman, confirmed the death. No cause was given.

In a profession often viewed with skepticism, Mr. Rubenstein, the founding chairman and chairman of Rubenstein Associates, was sometimes referred to as a spin doctor, a charlatan or worse. But with a little help from his friends in the news media, he publicized the triumphs of many achievers, and when crises hit celebrities, politicians, businesses, or cultural institutions, he was a fixer. choice, called at any time to control the damage and restore reputations.

His hundreds of clients were among the city’s best known names: Donald J. Trump, Rupert Murdoch, the late Yankee owner George M. Steinbrenner 3rd, Columbia University, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and Constellations of artists, civics and religious leaders and Wall Street tycoons, their signed photos lining the walls of Rubenstein Associates in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.

His business was lucrative. Client companies often paid fees of $ 10,000 per month, while the largest paid $ 750,000 or more per year, according to Rubenstein’s senior partners. He has not publicly discussed his company’s billing practices or earnings. Estimates ranged from $ 30 million to $ 75 million in revenue per year. In any case, they enriched Mr. Rubenstein. He would earn between 4 and 7 million dollars per year.

With gentle manners and a soft voice, Mr. Rubenstein was the antithesis of the swaggering press agent caricatured in films like “The Sweet Smell of Success” and disparaged in the editorial staff as a “flack” or “spokesperson. “. He didn’t live in nightclubs for gossip. He lived on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where even in the 60s and 70s, he enjoyed jogging every day. He has often dined with business, cultural and political leaders.

He employed hundreds of people, preached ethics in public relations speeches and articles, and impressed his clients as diplomats and trustworthy people, though some rivals accused him of using underhanded tactics. He had been the friend of all the mayors, governors and senators of the United States of New York since the 1970s, and had made flawless non-partisan transitions between Democrats and Republicans.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” said former mayor Edward I. Koch. “It could be Caligula.”

Indeed, with his extensive contacts in government, business, news media, and the arts, Mr. Rubenstein was often more of a power broker than a public relations man, making connections between people and institutions. for mutual benefit. He has advised politicians, devised corporate strategies to shape public opinion, represented real estate interests, and brought business leaders, government and unions together to strike deals.

His power was hidden in countless favors, large and small. But his most visible stock in the trade was trouble – a marital brawl, a star scrambling a racist remark, a drunk drunk. His personalized rehabilitation plans often involved a simple public confession or apology, then silence to contain the mess. The task, he said, was not to prevent bad publicity. He controlled his flow, tone and volume. He cautioned against lying, though his selective “truths” favored clients: people were never fired; they went to look for new opportunities.

“When you have a seizure, you first have to ask yourself what is the right thing to do and say,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “It’s not the kind of reaction that we can do, but what’s the right thing to do. You don’t let the facts slip away. Sometimes you do this by holding a press conference. Other times, you do it with a written statement, depending on how the client feels or the client’s ability to behave in a difficult situation.

For sports broadcaster Marv Albert, a predicament arose in 1997, when his alliances with a transvestite and a prostitute-dominatrix were exposed through his guilty plea to an assault charge for biting a woman in a relationship. sexual. After speaking to Mr Rubenstein, he submitted to a press conference and a week-long talk show tour – Larry King, David Letterman, Katie Couric and Barbara Walters – elaborating on his denials. Then he refused to talk about it any further. Almost nothing new about this has emerged, other than the perception that Mr. Albert had defended himself strongly and that after a period of withdrawal and rehabilitation, his career resumed practically intact.

In 1996, talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford was caught in a scandal after a human rights organization reported that child labor in sweatshops in Honduras was being exploited to make a clothing line. to his name. Rubenstein’s prescription in his case was deviation and rehabilitation. Ms Gifford took to national television to say she was not involved in the factory’s management processes, then called for inquiries and campaigned for new laws against sweatshop conditions. She even appeared in the White House with President Bill Clinton to support initiatives against child labor abuse.

Howard Joseph Rubenstein was born in Brooklyn on February 3, 1932 to Samuel and Ada (Sall) Rubenstein. Her father was a police reporter for the Standard News Association, which served New York newspapers, and later for the New York Herald Tribune. Howard and his sister, June, grew up in the Bensonhurst section. He graduated from Midwood High School and in 1953 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics.

At the request of his mother, he applied to all Ivy League law schools and was accepted to Harvard. But he gave up after two months and returned home, not knowing what to do. He declined his father’s idea of ​​a copier’s job but was more receptive to another. Like some reporters at the time, his father did a little PR work on the side, and he taught Howard how to write press releases and pitch story ideas to reporters. He also helped find his first client, the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm.

Howard moved to the kitchen table in 1954. But after his mother refused to answer the home phone with the message “Rubenstein Associates,” he rented an office. His next client was Vito Battista, an anti-tax Republican whose never-ending pursuit of office won him a seat in the New York Assembly. Mr Rubenstein hired a camel to hook up Mr Battista’s mayoral bid and draped it with a sign saying his back would be broken by another tourist tax.

Always drawn to the idea of ​​being a lawyer, he attended evening classes at St. John’s University and graduated with a law degree in 1959. Through Representative Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from Brooklyn who was Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Rubenstein became the jury member. deputy lawyer, but resigned after six months to resume her public relations career.

In 1959, he married Amy Forman. She survives him, with three children, Roni, Richard and Steven Rubenstein, and seven grandchildren. David, another child, died in 1971 at the age of 9.

Mr. Rubenstein has continued to be involved with his business in recent years, but his son Steven has overseen the day-to-day management of Rubenstein, as the company is now known, as chairman. Richard Rubenstein founded his own agency, Rubenstein Public Relations, in 1987.

The nominally Democrat Mr Rubenstein enlisted a host of politicians as clients, many of whom – like Abraham D. Beame, Hugh Carey, and Stanley Steingut – began careers that would lead to seats in power at City Hall in governor’s mansion and state legislature. Through real estate contacts, he recruited developers like Fred Trump (Donald’s father) and Lewis and Jack Rudin.

In the 1970s, he represented hundreds of some of the city’s most important figures and organizations. He has also served international celebrities including Sarah Ferguson, the divorced Duchess of York. Sometimes he had to give up clients – including four state agencies after Mr. Carey was elected governor in 1974, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 after his friend Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani condemned an exhibition there. -low. In both cases, he got caught up in a conflict and felt that his friendship and loyalty to officials was of the utmost interest.

Donald and Ivana Trump’s split in 1990 highlighted a clash of rivals in public relations, each with an eye on the results. John Scanlon, known as an aggressive crisis manager, described Ms. Trump as an integral part of the Trump business empire. Mr. Trump, coached by Mr. Rubenstein, has played down his responsibilities. So who won? His settlement exceeded $ 20 million. But Mr. Trump’s net worth at the time was estimated to be between $ 1.7 billion and $ 4 billion.

Mr. Steinbrenner, whose harsh treatment of Yankee players and managers was a publicist’s nightmare, has often let Rubenstein resort to “no comment.” Beginning a decade before Mr. Steinbrenner’s death in 2010, the publicist orchestrated a tactical retreat for “The Boss”. Reporters said he was protecting an aging man from public view, but Mr Rubenstein offered a more benign interpretation, saying Mr Steinbrenner’s lowered profile “just comes with maturity – he just doesn’t like it. not advertising like it used to.

Another difficult client was Leona Helmsley, the hotel and real estate mogul who was convicted of tax evasion in 1989. She became a symbol of arrogance when a former maid cited her in his testimony saying, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Mr Rubenstein visited Ms Helmsley in prison, and after her death in 2007 and left his dog, Trouble, a Maltese $ 12 million, prompting lawsuits and death threats against the animal, he is also became a spokesperson for Trouble, as interest peaked. in his life of luxury.

“The dog is well cared for in an undisclosed location,” he said tactfully.

After Mr. Trump became president, Mr. Rubenstein distanced himself from him. “Although I haven’t worked with him for over 20 years,” he told in 2017, “it was clear even then that he was a very astute communicator.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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