Opinion

Howard Rubenstein, a man who defined NYC

He represented countless influential New Yorkers.

Howard Rubensten at the 2010 Time 100 Gala.

Howard Rubensten at the 2010 Time 100 Gala. David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In 1999, when I was the publisher of a chain of community weekly newspapers in Manhattan, I decided to resurrect an event called the OTTY (Our Town Thanks You) Awards, to honor 30 great East Siders for their achievements the previous year.

I racked my brain for a high-profile emcee who would bring credibility and attention to this event. Finally, I arrived at the perfect choice: Howard Rubenstein, the legendary public relations impresario who was one of the best known New Yorkers at the time. His client list ranged from the rich and infamous, like hotelier and convicted tax cheat Leona Helmsley, to small nonprofits, which benefited from Howard’s political connections. He represented former Gov. Hugh Carey, former New York City Mayor Abe Beame and everything from government agencies to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

Rubenstein graciously accepted my invitation and asked for only one thing: please send the script for the event at least one day prior to the ceremony so he could study up about the winners.

That first year, at an elegant East Side restaurant, a who’s who of the city’s power brokers attended the OTTY Awards: then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, legendary real estate titan and civic champion Lew Rudin, and Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, among other bold-faced names. They all came to accept their OTTY from Our Town newspaper and from Rubenstein, who knew them all and was able to inject personal anecdotes to the script for many of the honorees.

In fact, a few days after the first awards ceremony, The New York Observer, then the preeminent chronicler of the East Side elite, published a snarky item pointing out that 22 of our 30 honorees happened to be Rubenstein public relations clients. “Maybe next year they should rename it ‘The Howard Awards,’” sniffed the pink weekly broadsheet.

When I called Howard to point out this item in the Observer, he laughed in his self-effacing, good-natured way, and said: “I didn’t know that. But half of the East Side are my clients so I guess it’s going to be hard to avoid this.” Indeed, Howard did represent lots of New York’s best-known gentry, who turned to him to get them out of their embarrassing and headline-grabbing crises.

Every year for the next decade, Howard was at the lectern at our awards ceremony, lending his good reputation and sunny disposition to our event. Our honorees were always glad to pose with Howard for their post-award photo and to shake his hand. 

I thought of these fun evenings with Howard almost two decades ago when I read his long, laudatory obituary in the New York Times last week. It chronicled his career as a scrappy public relations maven from Brooklyn. He grew up in Bensonhurst, the son of a police reporter, and made it to the Ivy League, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and attending Harvard Law School. But he dropped out and set up shop in PR, reaching the pinnacle of his profession representing New York’s rogue characters like late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and a brash young real estate developer named Donald Trump, whose marital infidelities captured the front pages of the local tabloids, especially Howard’s client, the pugnacious New York Post. New Yorkers of a certain age can remember seeing Howard quoted weekly in the local press on behalf of one client or another. Larger-than-life figures like him are part of what makes New York the great city it is. 

Being the consummate straight talker, Howard knew when to tell his clients who were in trouble to take their lumps and publicly apologize for their misdeeds. In crisis management, he famously said, the first thing is to figure out the right thing to do and then develop a strategy from there. His tactics were emulated throughout the industry as he whisked his clients out of raging imbroglios into the safer harbor of confessional press conferences or comprehensive statements that tamped down potentially embarrassing headlines.

Rubenstein was a whiz in dealing with the press and knew how to cultivate young reporters, editors and gossip columnists, so that one day when he had to call in a favor, he could phone a friendly voice in the newsroom. I remember sitting next to then-Page Six Editor Richard Johnson in Howard’s New York Yankees box at a playoff game in the early 2000s. We were among many New York journalists who enjoyed Howard’s invitations to Yankees games or to dinners at the legendary Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger, which was owned by Howard’s wife’s family. Journalistic ethics in those days were a bit more flexible and Howard knew how to butter up the media.

His passing last week seems like the end of a bygone era – when public relations pros like Howard, journalists like Johnson and Jimmy Breslin and business titans like Rupert Murdoch and Steinbrenner made New York a colorful place worthy of big tabloid headlines and behind-the-scenes gossip that reverberated around the city. 

There will be a new generation of New York civic power brokers – like Howard’s impressive sons Steven and Richard Rubenstein, who went into the family business. They can pick up the mantle and light up Gotham in the coming years, as the city finds its way back after the calamities of 2020.

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