Howard J. Rubenstein, New York’s most influential public relations guru of the past half-century, died on Tuesday in his Manhattan home at 88. He was a power broker with grace — a true prince of the city.
Brooklyn-born Rubenstein was technically a publicist. But he was much more — a political kingmaker and a behind-the-scenes macher in the corridors of power. He was a close counselor to mayors, governors, athletes, celebrities and dealmakers of every stripe – especially when they got into trouble. A media magician, he steered larger-than-life figures such as George Steinbrenner, Leona Helmsley, Donald Trump and Kathie Lee Gifford through heavily publicized legal and social traumas, usually allowing them to come through their ordeals unscathed.
New York Yankees president Randy Levine and the Steinbrenner family said in a statement, “Howard was a trusted friend and confidant to George Steinbrenner and his family for more than four decades. His contributions to the Yankees took many forms over the years and his positive effect on our franchise cannot be understated.”
Clients counted on Rubenstein to make the impossible happen. He helped forge the alliance of politicians, Wall Street moguls and labor union leaders that famously saved the city from bankruptcy in the 1970s.
He was even instrumental in creating the “new” Times Square. Representing the proposed project’s original developer, Rubenstein saw that it was in trouble because politicians and the public hated the real estate man’s designs, which looked dark and stark with none of Times Square’s historic glitter.
“So I told him, ‘Go put some lights on the buildings,’ ” Howard related to me over a long, boozy dinner. Quickly-revised plans resembled the bright old Coney Island. Critics raved. And although other developers later took over, their new cheerfully-lit towers looked just like the ones Howard had envisioned.
Soft-spoken, polite and impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, Rubenstein wore the mantle of power lightly. He spun a magic web of miracles from his gracious Fifth Avenue apartment, to his wife Amy Forman’s Peter Luger restaurant and to boardrooms in between.
He was nothing like vicious and ruthless spin-doctors of legend. Rubenstein loved the city, the press and his work. He had a rare wit about the way he juggled them.
When large glass shards fell from a client’s building in the 1980s, The Post trumpeted the story on Page One of its first edition, which was delivered out of town. Rubenstein thought it was overkill for an accident that harmed no one. He gently complained to the then-editor who yanked the story from subsequent editions.
A few days later, a reporter for another paper told Rubenstein he was following up a tip that glass had fallen from a midtown high-rise. Howard messengered a copy of the Post’s little-seen early edition with a note, “Are you kidding? This is an old story.”
Rubenstein was a close friend of The Post and its parent News Corporation. We were fortunate to have him in our camp in 1988 when owner Rupert Murdoch needed to sell the paper due to a government directive, but there were no buyers in sight.
The Post needed all the public’s help it could get. Reminded that Post founder Alexander Hamilton lay buried in Trinity Church courtyard, Rubenstein came up with the idea of a candlelight march to our office a few blocks away. “I’ll get the unions to do it,” he said as if it was the easiest thing in the world. It never happened only because another Rubenstein client, real estate king Peter Kalikow, came along just in time to rescue the paper.
Rubenstein is survived by his beloved wife Amy Forman, sons Steven and Richard and daughter Roni. Steven said, “He loved New York, our family and what he did for the city. In his last days, he said, ‘I only wish I could do it again.’ ”
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