NEW YORK — Al Pacino sent flowers. Jack Nicholson called from Los Angeles.
And well-wishers from the worlds of film, theater and publishing flowed in to sip wine and munch on fried shrimp one chilly New York night last week at Elaine's, the Manhattan eatery where Bobby Zarem had thrown so many parties.
But this one was for Zarem himself.
His is not a household name, but entertainment insiders, especially those of a certain age, use words like legendary to describe Zarem, who over four decades in the publicity business has also been dubbed "Hype master," "the original New York publicist," "last of the old school," and "Superflack." In the 1990s, Daily News columnist Joanna Molloy called him "more connected than a set of Deluxe Lego."
Soft-spoken yet relentless, known for flowery pitch letters and equally flowery tirades when something isn't going his way, Zarem was instrumental in the careers of stars like Sylvester Stallone, Dustin Hoffman, Ann-Margret, Cher and Michael Douglas. He engineered landmark PR events like the premiere party for the movie "Tommy," for which he rented out an entire New York subway station.
He counts among his feats conceiving the "I Love New York" slogan and introducing Woody Allen to Mia Farrow. He's been profiled by The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times. There was apparently even a movie character based on him: the press agent in "People I Know," played by his friend Pacino.
And now, at 73, Zarem has moved on – or more precisely, out. Out of his upper East Side New York apartment, with his beloved view of the East River, to the warmer climes of Savannah, Ga., his hometown, which he loves even more, and where he arrived on Sunday.
There, he plans to keep his company, Zarem Inc., going with the help of his New York assistant, and to return from time to time. Still, many saw his departure this weekend as the end of an era.
"There's only one Bobby Zarem, and there will never be another," says Richard Johnson, editor of the New York Post's Page Six gossip column, home to countless Zarem items over the years. Johnson was a guest at Zarem's farewell party, which of course had to be at Elaine's, where he's dined twice a week for some 40 years, since the 1960s.
Friends and associates describe two sides to Zarem. There's the amiable, slightly disheveled guy who's collected scores of high-profile friends over the years because he's fun to be with.
"I think celebrities just like to hang out with him," says Johnson. Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine's, agrees: "He's a great storyteller," she says. "So he's fun. He should've been a writer."
Then there's the Zarem whose single-minded passion for his work can spill over into near apoplexy.
"He once called me from London – an item he wanted on Page Six had been delayed for a couple of days," Johnson says. "And he launched into this withering tirade, full of so many four-latter words it would make a sailor blush."
Having a talk with Zarem about his career is an investment in time. Each client is a story, punctuated by chuckles and a wistful, "Boy, I'm really going WAY back, here. Am I boring you?"
Like the time he says he came up with the "I Love New York" concept, during a sad walk down a deserted city street. An ad firm took over and added the famous heart symbol, he says, leading to conflicting claims later over who actually came up with it. But he knows it was him: "I was walking home from Elaine's on a Saturday night. You could have rolled a coin down the street and nobody would have stopped it. The city was dying. Something had to be done."
Or the time he introduced Woody and Mia – at Elaine's, of course. "It was at a dinner given by Michael Caine and his wife. Mick Jagger and his wife were there, too. Woody was at the next table. I went over there and said, 'Mia Farrow would like to meet you.' The rest, I guess you could say, was history."
Zarem grew up in Savannah, attending Andover and then Yale. After graduation he worked in finance for a while, but soon discovered his big love was the world of celebrity.
After a stint for the producer Joe Levine and then one at Rogers & Cowan, the entertainment public relations firm, Zarem formed his own company in 1974.
One of his first celebrity clients: Ann-Margret, the Swedish-born actress who gained fame in "Bye Bye Birdie."
"I broke my back working for Ann-Margret," he says. "Everyone looked at her as a cheap sex kitten. But I knew she had the kind of glamour the stars of the '40s had." Zarem says he persuaded the actress to do the 1975 film "Tommy" while sitting on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. (The film earned her an Oscar nomination.)
Zarem's client list has also included Jagger, Michael Jackson (briefly), Alan Alda, Kevin Costner, Diana Ross. In recent years he came to represent fewer celebrities. He's heavily promoted the Savannah Film Festival, and, on his own, helped plug John Berendt's besteller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," set in Savannah, because he loves his hometown so much.
"New York will always be a central part of my life. But I'm so excited to be in Savannah," he says.
Kaufman isn't sure Zarem's really gone. "He'll be back and forth a lot," says the restaurateur. "He says no. I say yes."
Whichever it is, some think New York won't be the same without him. "New York without Bobby Zarem?" wrote the Hollywood Reporter after the farewell party. "It's unimaginable. Like New York without bagels. Or taxis."