NEW YORK — Several women were accusing former Vice President Joe Biden, about to announce he was running for president, of touching them inappropriately. Sy Presten had a newsy item for the gossip columns.
“Listen to this,” Presten said.
He was sitting on a leather sofa in the living room of his apartment on West 26th Street. His wife, Joanne Binder, was out to lunch with a neighbor. “Years ago, I handled something called ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ It was the first nude musical,” Presten said. “I’m getting to the item. You got it? The first nude musical.”
Presten was dressed for loafing, a few days growth of beard on his jawline. “I did publicity for Norman Kean, who killed himself because his wife wouldn’t give up a guy she was going with,” he detoured, referring to the “Oh! Calcutta!” producer who, in a 1988 murder-suicide, stabbed his actress-wife to death one morning before jumping off the roof of his Riverside Drive apartment building.
“Anyway,” Presten resumed, “there was a party at Tavern on the Green. Some anniversary of ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ Joe Biden was an acquaintance of Norman Kean. I met Joe Biden. Joe Biden would not go to ‘Oh! Calcutta!’”
Presten had arrived at the item’s punch line. “It’s a nude musical,” he repeated, his pitch rising. “The news hook is what he’s accused of now!” He downshifted. “You don’t see it,” he observed, and wanly: “I’m glad you’re not a columnist.”
Sy Presten turned 95 on May 23, further adding to the legend that he is the oldest living press agent in New York City. Presten prefers to be called a publicist, but the connotation no longer suits him. A publicist is a joyless and disembodied gatekeeper, unfamiliar with you or your publication but “looping in” others.
Presten made his bones as a solo act, in physical reality, often getting paid by his ability to hustle an item into the paper, in the gone-baby-gone New York media world immortalized in “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
The columnists’ names — and their publications — still roll off his tongue. The uber-alpha Walter Winchell of The Daily Mirror, but also Frank Farrell on the World Telegram, Louis Sobol in the Journal American, Dorothy Kilgallen at the Evening Journal. And on and on until Liz Smith came and went, and The Daily News killed Rush and Molloy.
Presten, however, cannot be stopped. “We’re sending out stuff all the time,” he said of Sy Presten Associates, which consists of Presten and Binder, who met in 1985 at an informal swim club atop the Holiday Inn on West 57th. “All the sources we got are what you call bulletproof.”
Presten got into the game in 1944, selling topical gag lines to a public-relations man, Carl Erbe. In the late 1950s, Café St. Denis on East 53rd Street was getting enough play that Sherman Billingsley, owner of the Stork Club a few doors down, hired Presten to drum up juice for his famous but fading nightspot.
Billingsley then recommended Presten to Jules Podell at the Copacabana. One night when Sammy Davis Jr. performed, Presten recalled, “in comes Eddie Fisher with a girl, and after Eddie Fisher comes Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.”
Taylor and Burton were back from filming “Cleopatra” in Europe; Taylor was also still married to Fisher. “Naturally, all the press wanted to come in and see this,” Presten said. “And Jules Podell, he was recognized as the toughest nightclub owner in the world, he said, ‘Sy, just leave ’em in the lounge, and afterward you tip ’em off when they’re gonna walk out so they can take pictures.”
Today, one imagines, this anecdote would end differently, with the stars Instagramming a typo-addled group selfie to their social media feeds (“awesome night out w/friends 2 see the amazing Samy Davis jJr!!!”).
‘Some Kind of Sparkle’
Ask Presten to discuss the demystification of celebrity gossip in the 21st century, and it would be the shortest TED Talk ever. He has taken a pass on technology, save for the Aiwa AM/FM portable cassette recorder he keeps at hand to listen to Benny Goodman. But his memory is electric.
Some of his clients over the years sound torn from the pages of a Stanley Elkin novel: Lowenberg the celebrity dentist, Baccus the 17-year-old lawyer, Salem the hosiery scion who sold awfully large pairs of stockings and bras.
Alongside these were restaurants (see: Nirvana, the since-closed Central Park South Indian restaurant with a penthouse view and a reliable stream of boldfaced diners), a legit pornographer (Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione), and a celebrity divorce lawyer (Marvin Mitchelson) who helped usher in the legal concept of palimony.
It was Presten who read a pre-publication profile in Sport magazine of the newest Yankee star, Reggie Jackson, who boasted of his arrival in the Bronx: “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.” Presten highlighted the quote and circulated it to all the papers, giving rise to one of the most famous lines in New York sports history.
More recent alumni of gossip desks recall how Presten’s period key appeared to have punched a hole in the paper. Presten said he recently gave his last manual typewriter to his superintendent; he was hampered not by the tremors in his hands, he said, but by two bent fingers.
Nowadays, he rhapsodizes, and Binder Googles. The emails go out to whomever and whatever is left of the gossip game as Presten has long understood it.
True to form, the home office of Sy Presten Associates is a riotously cluttered newsroom-like dugout with an abundance of battered file cabinets, located off the living room of the otherwise tidy and spacious two-bedroom loft apartment that Presten bought in 2001, when the building he had lived in for many years went condo.
There is no photographic tribute to Presten’s Zelig-like presence in the New York night life scene. The closest to all that color is oblique: an arrangement of modular, blinking lights hanging in the living room, bought from an old lighting store on their block.
In the office, various tabloid clippings taped to the walls feature a trademark red slash over the item that he landed that day: the older clippings yellowed, the more recent ones still gray.
The New York Sun carried this item in 2004: “When the late celebrity lawyer Marvin Mitchelson would come to New York from Los Angeles as a guest of his friend and music producer, Phil Spector, they would stay in separate suites at the Plaza Hotel, according to Mitchelson’s longtime publicist, Sy Presten.”
The punch line: Instead of calling Mitchelson in his suite to make evening plans, Spector would call his secretary in Los Angeles who would call Mitchelson at the Plaza.
As Mitchelson had just died and Spector was about to stand trial for murder in Los Angeles, that would be an example of a “gratuitous item” — meaning Presten received no payment for the placement. But the circa-2000 item in The New York Post in which Mitchelson, back in the saddle after serving time for tax evasion, was overheard telling pals at Nirvana that he should sue actress Robin Givens for nonpayment of fees in her divorce from Mike Tyson?
A double Sy Presten.
Binder, a former legal assistant for Judith Kaye, the late chief justice of the New York Appellate Court, is his second wife and second aide-de-camp. They remain very much a team, down to the matching Holland America cruise line robes, monogrammed “Sy” and “Jo,” hanging in the bathroom.
It was Binder who, shopping for a treadmill at the exercise equipment store the Gym Source in the 1990s, noticed a letter on the wall from Henry Kissinger.
Binder reported this to Presten, and Gym Source items started showing up regularly, in The Daily News (“President Bush’s crew picked up a new Cybex Arc Trainer from the Gym Source for the gym at Camp David”), The New York Times (“Billy Crystal wanted barbells. In his hotel room.”) and The New York Post (“We hear ... that TV’s Ricki Lake, who once had a weight problem, keeps the lard off by working out at home on a treadmill she rented for a year from The Gym Source.”).
Presten said that his Gym Source items ended around a decade ago, when celebrities complained about all the fitness-equipment leaks.
And how much did losing the Gym Source cost him? Presten ably beat back attempts to clarify his fee for placing items. “I don’t give rates out, for Christ almighty,” he said. “I’m like Trump. You can see we’re not on food stamps.”
Barbara Corcoran, the Manhattan realtor turned entrepreneur and “Shark Tank” judge, also would not reveal Presten’s fees. She started using his services around 1990, when she was looking to grow her firm, the Corcoran Group, into more of a player for high-priced properties.
“One of my star salespeople, Ron Rossi,” connected her to Presten, Corcoran recalled. “I was well aware that public relations companies were paid large fees per month that were well out of my reach. Sy only charged you if he landed the placement.”
For Corcoran, Presten once enlisted celebrity dog trainer Bash Dibra to conduct a seminar on how to train your dog to pass an interview with a co-op board. “He was always banging them out, and I was always getting bills from him,” Corcoran said. “And, by the way, happily paying for them.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
That pipeline has dried up as Corcoran’s TV personality soared, to Presten’s continuing bemusement. Other than favors for old pals like Sean Landeta, the punter for the Super Bowl Giants, the only “regular client” nowadays, Presten said, is Bruce Littlefield, the co-author of Corcoran’s first business book, “Use What You’ve Got: And Other Business Lessons I Learned From My Mom.”
See Page Six from last year: “... THAT was Charlie Rose dining, not with a beautiful woman, but a priest at La Goulue, according to spy witness Bruce Littlefield ...”
“It’s unlike other posts I do on social media,” Littlefield said of the item. “Maybe it’s just a New York City thing, but it’s got some kind of sparkle to it.” Though Littlefield wouldn’t reveal what he pays Presten, he did offer a glimpse into the press agent’s unique invoicing system. Presten, Littlefield said, signs off his emails, “Cheersy.” If he is billing, that salutation becomes “Cheer$y.”
“There’s never an amount,” Littlefield said. “I don’t know, I just send him out a check.” He added, by way of metaphor: “You know those honesty jars that you’ll see at some little stands on the road at certain times when there’s no one tending the booth? They just have a little jar there, that honesty jar?”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
The Male-Order Business
The sole survivor on the receiving end of Presten’s items sounds somewhere between awed and exasperated that they still come her way.
“He is a kind and wonderful man,” said Cindy Adams of The New York Post, who, at 88, has prevailed as the city’s last doyenne of the printed gossip column. Last year, with the release of “Green Book,” Presten fed her some timely anecdotes about the film’s main character, Tony Lip, a onetime bouncer for the Copa.
Couching, she termed this material “not a lead, but filler.” With reluctance, she used a dreaded phrase to describe herself and Presten: “dying breed.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
“I don’t like it, I don’t want to, I was trying to help you and be nice,” Adams said.
Richard Johnson, who retired last month as the longtime editor of Page Six, had a less complicated appreciation. Asked to name a few of the more memorable tips Presten gave him over the years, Johnson couldn’t immediately call one to mind.
Then he phoned Presten, who reminded him. “He gave me this great story when Andre Agassi was at the top of his game and he had this long flowing hair down to his shoulders,” Johnson said. “Sy knew someone who was getting transplants at the same place. Dropped a dime on him.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of Russian immigrants (his father had a tailoring business), Presten — born Seymour Herman Prutinsky — foreshadowed the twin poles of his career by both stringing for the local paper and sending his autograph book to notables in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. J. Edgar Hoover’s response: “In accordance with your request, I am very pleased to place my autograph in your book, which was received in this bureau on January 22, 1937 ...”
Presten attended college at New York University and has barely left the city since. While at NYU, Presten answered an ad from Erbe, the Madison Avenue P.R. man and nightclub owner. Presten would ultimately become Erbe’s business partner.
“He was quite a mentor,” Presten said of Erbe, whose clients included singer Kate Smith, labor leader John L. Lewis and Revlon founder Charles Revson.
Other than a one-year ban from Kilgallen’s column (long story), Presten managed to steer clear of the columnists’ lordly egos and arcane grudges. By Presten’s estimation, he would send Winchell, the kingmaker and feared ideologue, some 12 pages of items every week.
“You’d have to give him four or five free items,” Presten said, in hopes for a treasured Winchell plug, which appeared in his Wednesday column. “That was the payoff column.”
Presten married Meredith Anderson (she died in 2016) and settled for a time in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens. By the early 1970s, both the Copa and the Stork Club were gone.
But, as Presten likes to say, listen to this: One day, Anderson went into a small shop on Madison Avenue and 58th Street called Salem Hosiery. The owner’s son, Michael Salem, had started an offshoot of his family’s hosiery business by selling undergarments to closeted, cross-dressing men who came in to buy lingerie for their “wives and girlfriends.”
Salem ultimately advertised in Penthouse magazine and introduced Presten to the son of the publisher, 19-year-old Bob Guccione Jr., who would go on to found Spin magazine. Then, he was peddling a three-page poster magazine called Rock Superstars.
Presten sent the younger Guccione to speak at a school in Harlem and put him on Barry Farber’s radio show. He turned the affable Salem into a clip machine, with his titillating “male-order business.” And he became a go-to outside P.R. man for Penthouse and the elder Guccione for years.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Presten was there for the release of the X-rated “Caligula” (1979), financed by Guccione, and the sweeping media blush of 1984, when Penthouse bought and published nude photos of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America. Reliably, there were the “Pet of the Month” parties at Guccione’s Upper East Side double townhouse, which contained Judy Garland’s gold piano, a silver-tiled sunken pool and the owner’s posse of Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
For all the stories, personal devastation has not eluded Presten. He described his marriage to Anderson as tumultuous. In 2003, Kary Presten, a banking executive and the older of Presten’s two grown sons from his first marriage, committed suicide at age 44.
“Those are the breaks, man,” Presten said, his voice heavy for a change.
In 2002, a wall collapsed at Nirvana, and the owner, Shamsher Wadud, couldn’t pay the new lease. The next year, Guccione’s publishing empire, General Media, filed for bankruptcy.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
It was surprising to learn that, because of a fear of flying, Presten said he has never been to Los Angeles or Chicago. At least once a month, he and Binder head to Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Presten’s game is Let It Ride.)
During a follow-up interview in his living room, the press agent came with notes. “I talked about the spouse club, Secret Service, ‘Who Do You Trust,’ Marvin Mitchelson and the diamonds, Reggie Jackson ‘I’ll kill you,’ Susan B. Anthony, Baccus, Cat Davis was the fighter.”
Presten ticked off the items and drank in the variety. The colored lights blinked. “My God,” he marveled.