When the American Jewish power broker and public relations maven Howard Rubenstein, who died on Dec. 29 at age 88, wanted his clients to look especially sympathetic, they sometimes unexpectedly claimed ties to Yiddishkeit.
Rubenstein represented many Jews during his long career, including the publisher Robert Maxwell, businessman Ron Perelman, sportscaster Marv Albert, and real estate entrepreneur Leona Helmsley; he also advised many non-Jews, from Rupert Murdoch to the latter’s protégé, the current occupant of the White House.
Yet in 1989, after the Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi, implicated in the Iran–Contra affair, was indicted for fraud and other charges, Rubenstein arranged for Khashoggi to give an interview to The New York Post. In it, Khashoggi professed his love of New York and Jewish food, and claimed to have a Jewish grandfather, possibility to convey his haimish qualities to a future jury pool.
Whether or not this ancestry was accurate, the following year Khashoggi was acquitted of racketeering and fraud by a Manhattan jury.
In 2006, “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards presented nightclub routines containing anti-black and antisemitic racism, reportedly telling a Los Angeles audience member, “You’re a f—-ing Jew. Your people are the cause of Jesus dying.”
Richards hired Rubenstein, who explained to the press that Richards was merely “role-playing” and wasn’t antisemitic at all since he was Jewish. Fact-checkers pointed out that Richards had been born to Catholic parents of Italian, Scottish and English origin, and had never converted. Whereupon Rubenstein explained that Richards had told him that he identifies as Jewish, adding that his client was unavailable for further comment.
Among the splashiest of such cases was when the English architect Richard Rogers, who had been hired to renovate New York’s Javits Center, among other projects, became ensnared in a scandal. Rogers had lent his London office to an architects’ group who discussed the possibility of boycotting architects and construction firms involved in constructing West Bank settlements in Israel.
The resulting fallout led Rogers to request a meeting with Rubenstein. To the image maker, Rogers confided that his wife and grandparents were Jewish, that he had designed buildings for Israel and was opposed to boycotting the Jewish state.
Rubenstein arranged a slew of meetings with local politicians and community leaders, and Rogers tzimmes cooled off.
This deft handling of connections to power and Yiddishkeit was inherited by Rubenstein from his father, Samuel, a crime reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and publicist.
According to reporter Jeanne Toomey the elder Rubenstein, known as Ruby, graciously “brush[ed] off antisemitic remarks” from journalistic colleagues who “resented” his ability to earn money as a press agent.
Sam Rubinstein told his son late in life: “I had a great life. I covered 2,000 murders and went to 5,000 fires.” This peppy attitude was immortalized in the marble lobby of his Rubinstein’s office where a statue of his father sits on a stool behind an Royal manual typewriter.
Rubenstein’s father set him up in the public relations game, introducing him to his manifold contacts as well as securing the young man his first job in the field, writing press releases for the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm, a Brooklyn nursing home.
He soon built up a list of contacts, through distribution of favors, to a point where even friends were startled by his connectedness. The daughter of a client, the real estate developer Lewis Rudin, told The New York Times in 1999 that Rubenstein was “like an octopus… his tentacles reach out all over politics, entertainment and sports.”
Editor Martin Dunn used a different natural history metaphor when describing Rubenstein to the American Jewish journalist Ken Auletta in 2007: “[Rubenstein] sits at the middle of a very complicated web of relationships and manages to join up various parts of that web.”
Whether spider or octopus, Rubenstein differed, Auletta asserted, from other Jewish publicists past and present: “Wearing dull suits and dull rimless glasses, this gentleman… has none of the swagger or élan of the public-relations men of an earlier era, like Ben Sonnenberg or Edward Bernays; nor does he frequent Elaine’s, like Bobby Zarem, or guard the door at movie screenings, like Peggy Siegal.”
With a low-key, soft-spoken demeanor, which he claimed he learned from his father, Rubenstein protected his clients, even if they lacked overtly sympathetic qualities.
One example was Lizzie Grubman, an American publicist and socialite who served a short jail sentence in 2002 for intentionally backing a Mercedes SUV into a Hamptons crowd, injuring 16 people.
During a much-publicized trial, Grubman was charged in a 26-count indictment with felony crimes including second-degree assault, driving while intoxicated and reckless endangerment. Following his usual, highly effective approach, Rubenstein damped down the drama by announcing, “It was a tragic accident that [Grubman] truly regrets. But it truly was an accident.”
Whether or not such statements stretched the truth, like other clients’ claiming to be Jews, Rubenstein delivered them without a trace of irony. This apparent sincerity doubtless also helped him make firm friendships with countless politicians, among them New York mayor Abe Beame, Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut, and a host of others over a half-century.
His companies occasionally performed traditional publicity stunts, such as having a replica of the Statue of Liberty sculpted in chopped-liver for the Carnegie Deli.
But mostly, Rubenstein polished an unsurpassed network of friends and associates, including Rudy Giuliani, so in 1999 when New York’s then-mayor cut city funding and began eviction proceedings against the Brooklyn Museum of Art for displaying art from the collection of Charles Saatchi, the English businessman of Iraqi Jewish origin, Rubenstein severed his ties with the Brooklyn Museum, a client, in their hour of need.
As it turned out, a federal judge ruled that Giuliani had violated the First Amendment by censoring the exhibition, “Sensation,” just because he considered it offensive and sacrilegious.
Apart from Rubenstein’s friendships, one of his most lasting connections was with the Jewish people; he helped to establish New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. and as a staunch supporter of Israel, he phoned the Metropolitan Museum to cancel his membership in 1982 when the Met decided not to show an archaeological exhibit from Israel because some artefacts originated from the West Bank and might therefore supposedly present a security risk.
On the other hand, in 2005 Rubenstein represented Columbia University president Lee Bollinger when that institution became ensnared in a quarrel between some Jewish students and a group of professors opposing Israel, giving the impression that Columbia was a center of academic antisemitism.
Sometimes Rubenstein was charged with playing both sides of a controversy, as after the Crown Heights race riot of 1991, a dispute between African-American and Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, when he arranged a meeting of New York rabbis with Mayor David Dinkins.
Yet, it was pointed out, Rubenstein also represented the African-American radio station WLIB, which had attracted criticism for its call-in shows where speakers voiced anti-Semitic sentiments.
If he sometimes appeared to defend both sides of an argument, Rubenstein was undeniably a power broker of rare acumen, inspired by a family tradition of strong Jewish identity.