Sy Presten: Press-Agent So Old-Fashioned He Was News

From a New York Times obit by Alex Traub headlined “Sy Presten, Press Agent So Old-Fashioned He Was News, Dies at 98”:

Sy Presten, a press agent who supplied gags and gossip to newspaper columnists for so long — three-quarters of a century — that he finally became his own best material, died at his home in Manhattan.

Mr. Presten came to call himself a publicist, but that word failed to capture what made him special. The label that fit Mr. Presten best came from an era that, with his death, recedes fully into the past. He was, The New York Times wrote in 2019, “the last, best press agent.”

The coin of the realm for press agents was the “item” — a short, discrete section of a gossip column. The item gained its value from newspapermen like Walter Winchell, who in the 1940s and ’50s wrote a syndicated column read by a large fraction of the U.S. adult population, granting him the power to make or break reputations in sentence-long wisecracks.

This was an era when national attention was focused on New York theater, sports and nightlife. Millions of newspaper readers cared less about what happened in the Senate and the White House than in the Stork Club and the Copacabana.

The proprietors of both those nightclubs used Mr. Presten as their press agent, and working with a business partner he helped gin up publicity for other major figures of the day, including the singer Kate Smith, the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and the union leader John L. Lewis.

For the sake of their glorification, Mr. Presten sent Winchell 12 pages of material a week. The exchange rate: Four or five free items — mainly topical quips and juicy morsels of gossip — earned you one item mentioning a client.

In 1969, Mr. Presten gushed in The Poughkeepsie Journal, his hometown paper, about his status in the big city.

“Despite the fact that down through the years I’ve met hundreds of notables, it’s still a great thrill to meet one,” he wrote. “Poughkeepsians often ask me what the celebrities are like. I tell them they are human.”

But the age of black-tie New Year’s Eve parties at the Stork and Elizabeth Taylor watching Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copa came to an end while Mr. Presten was still a young man. In the 1970s and ’80s, New York became rougher and grimier, and he changed with it.

Then the best-known New York institution Mr. Presten represented was not a world-famous nightclub but the local coffee-shop chain Chock Full o’Nuts.

His client list turned him into a vaudeville impresario: There was Baccus, the 17-year-old lawyer; Salem, a merchandiser of ladies’ hosiery to cross-dressing men (a “male-order business,” Mr. Presten said); the Broadway show “Oh! Calcutta,” which Mr. Presten trumpeted as “the first nude musical”; and Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine.

Mr. Presten often found himself wearing a suit and tie with slicked-back hair surrounded by young women in bikinis.

“My type of publicity is not the ivory tower stuff, you know what I’m saying?” he told The New York Times in 2002.

Mr. Presten dolloped out a few big scoops to the press, including the 1984 publication by Penthouse of erotic photographs of Vanessa Williams, the first Black Miss America. Reporters, with fondness and exasperation, described him as tireless.

“I had a really deep, intimate relationship with Sy Presten,” Maura Moynihan, who wrote for The New York Post’s Page Six in the 1980s, told Vanity Fair in 2004. “He had three clients: Penthouse magazine, Chock Full o’Nuts and Morgan Fairchild. He’d go, ‘Morgan Fairchild walked into Chock Full o’Nuts with a copy of Penthouse under her arm.’”

Still buttering up print columnists, banging on typewriters and burning up a fax machine in the 21st century, he helped, item by item by item, to propel the real estate brokerage tycoon Barbara Corcoran into reality TV stardom as a panelist on “Shark Tank” in 2009.

That was an outlier to the trend of growing obsolescence. In Mr. Presten’s final years, his client list dwindled to the single figure of the author and occasional TV talk-show guest Bruce Littlefield.

There’s no upside to being a dinosaur if you go extinct, but Mr. Presten discovered that by sticking around, he could become his own final vaudeville character: the press agent from the Mesozoic Era.

From 2002 to 2020, he was profiled by The New Yorker, The New York Post and The New York Times (twice). Reporters delighted in his antique vernacular: “You’re killing me here,” “Listen to this,” “For Christ almighty.” When young curious types visited him, Mr. Presten reeled off the names of the A-, B- and C-list celebrities he represented in decades past, searching his visitors’ faces for flickers of recognition.

Richard Johnson, the editor of Page Six for more than 20 years and currently a columnist with The Daily News, said in a phone interview that he recalled Mr. Presten telling him stories about the gossip column’s glory days — working with Winchell, hanging at the Copa.

“He was the last one of a dying breed,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s any publicist around who comes close to his history and his knowledge of what was a very fascinating business — which is less fascinating by the minute.”

Seymour Herman Prutinsky was born in Poughkeepsie. When he was 13, Seymour attended a dedication ceremony of the new Poughkeepsie post office. President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone. Seymour was mesmerized — by a newsman in attendance, the CBS radio announcer Mel Allen. He got Mr. Allen’s autograph.

Seymour soon paid 35 cents for a small silver notebook that he sent around the U.S., obtaining the autographs of figures like Gov. Herbert Lehman of New York and Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior.

While studying journalism at New York University, he saw a flier on a bulletin board offering $5 a week for writing gag lines on behalf of the public relations man Carl Erbe. He got the gig, and began his career, in 1944. The two men continued working together for 40 years.

Seymour graduated from N.Y.U. in 1945 and soon legally changed his name, seeking a moniker that would fit better in the nightlife scene he worked in.

In the mid-1980s, he frequented a pool on top of a Holiday Inn on West 57th Street. One day in 1984, he showed up with an advance copy of the issue of Penthouse featuring Ms. Williams. The crowd of pool regulars wanted to take a look, among them a woman named Joanne Binder, who thought to herself that this Mr. Presten she had seen around turned out to be an intriguing fellow. The two soon began sitting together poolside.

By 1985, they were dating. By 1986, they were working together. By 1988, they lived together. In 1995, they married.

Until the end of his life, Mr. Presten remained haunted by a rare lapse in his never-ending hustle.

He did not miss opportunities to buy the affection of important gossip columnists. At Christmas, he sent them gifts like silver trays or brass lanterns. A meal with a columnist meant a precious opportunity to woo and coax.

About 10 years ago, the gossip columnist Liz Smith invited him out to lunch at a nice restaurant near her home. She refused to let him pay.

According to the doctrinal system of a zealous press agent, the event constituted blasphemy.

“He was talking about it to his dying day,” Ms. Presten said. “He wanted to pick up that check.”

Alex Traub works on the Obituaries desk and occasionally reports on New York City for other sections of the Times.

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