Howard Bragman: Publicist Who Helped Clients Come Out

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Howard Bragman, Publicist Who Helped Clients Come Out, Dies at 66”:

Howard Bragman, a publicist who, like many in his line of work, often helped the famous and the reluctantly famous navigate embarrassing or volatile spotlight moments, but who also had a specialty of advising clients who were coming out of the closet, died in Los Angeles.

Mr. Bragman was a familiar face in news coverage and on television shows like “Good Morning America,” whether talking about particular clients or about the art of public relations and damage control. Over his career he handled plenty of garden-variety public relations chores — promoting products, announcing engagements or deaths — but clients often made use of his services because they were in crisis mode.

In 2008, when Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s onetime sidekick on “The Tonight Show,” faced possible foreclosure on his multimillion-dollar home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Mr. Bragman was there to help handle the news media. In 2010, when a JetBlue flight attendant named Steven Slater had an onboard meltdown that went viral and landed him in court, Mr. Slater engaged Mr. Bragman to deal with the fallout. In 2017, after Anthony Scaramucci was dismissed as Donald J. Trump’s White House communications director just a few tumultuous days into the job, he hired Mr. Bragman to help orchestrate his political afterlife.

Often in those situations, Mr. Bragman’s answers to journalists’ questions were more deflective than informative — “Not in the habit of confirming my clients or their strategies” was his oft-quoted response when asked what specifically he was telling Mr. Scaramucci — although behind the scenes he would advise clients on things like which interview requests to accept and what to say during those interviews.

But for another type of client, a gay man or woman going public, Mr. Bragman was more open and more of an activist. He was gay himself — “the gay guru,” he was sometimes called — and he was both a counselor and an admirer of actors, athletes and others who were coming out.

“These people are heroes, because coming out is the single most important act any gay person can do,” he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2011. “Because every bit of research that’s ever been done says if you know more gay and lesbian people, you are going to support our rights.”

Among the celebrity clients he worked with in this capacity was Dick Sargent, who some two decades after he played the husband of Elizabeth Montgomery’s character on the classic sitcom “Bewitched” announced on National Coming Out Day in 1991 that he was gay.

In 2009, when Meredith Baxter, who as a star of “Family Ties” in the 1980s had been one of America’s best-known TV moms, started getting inquiries from the tabloid press after going on a lesbian cruise, her manager advised her to contact Mr. Bragman, who gave her blunt advice.

“We have to take control of the story or you will have no say in it at all,” she recalled him saying in her autobiography, “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering” (2011). He booked her on NBC’s “Today,” where she told the world she was a lesbian. Mr. Bragman, she said, gave her the courage to go through with the interview.

“He said as soon as it’s done, you’ll be free,” Ms. Baxter told NPR. “And we walked out that door of NBC studios in December, and it was the most freeing thing I had ever experienced.”

Mr. Bragman performed a similar service for the country singer Chely Wright in 2010, when, though well into the gay liberation era, a gay performer in country music was still a rarity.

“Historically, country music would rather an artist be a drunk — they even encourage that one,” Ms. Wright told The Los Angeles Times at the time. “They would rather you were a drug addict than be gay.”

Mr. Bragman also worked with the former N.B.A. player John Amaechi when, in 2007, he came out, and with Michael Sam, an N.F.L. prospect, when he announced in 2014 that he was gay. Mr. Sam would become, in a brief pro career, the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.

Howard Benjamin Bragman was born in Flint, Mich. “I was fat and Jewish and gay in Flint, Michigan,” Mr. Bragman told NPR. “And that makes you a bit of a Martian, because there’s not a lot of peers, there’s not a lot of role models, to really look to.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology from the University of Michigan and soon landed a job at a small public relations concern in Chicago whose clients included Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser and other beers.

Mr. Bragman was soon turning up in newspaper articles. When Stevie Wonder and Kai Millard Morris had a child, Mandla, in 1979, it was Mr. Bragman who announced that the newborn weighed 7 pounds, 8 ounces. When Tom Earhart, a snowmobile racer sponsored by Budweiser, set a new speed record of 148.6 miles per hour in 1982, Mr. Bragman told the world.

He was a founder, in 1989, of Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, which quickly became a major public relations player. One of his first acts there was to offer pro bono help to Joseph Steffan, who had been kicked out of the United States Naval Academy in 1987 after acknowledging that he was gay.

“Sometimes causes need publicists, too,” Mr. Bragman said in 1990. “I felt it was important that he have all the help he can in fighting his battle.”

Mr. Bragman, who lived in Los Angeles, is survived by his husband, Mike Maimone, whom he married this year, and a brother, Alan.

Bragman Nyman Cafarelli was sold in 2001 to Interpublic Group. Mr. Bragman, after teaching public relations for five years at the University of Southern California, founded a new firm, Fifteen Minutes PR, in 2005, and another, La Brea Media, in 2019.

In 2008, he put his public relations knowledge into a book, “Where’s My Fifteen Minutes: Get Your Company, Your Cause or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve” (written with Michael Levin). In the book, he cited the biblical story of Moses, who was reluctant to deliver the messages God wanted delivered, and so God told him to bring along Aaron, his brother, who was more eloquent and could do the talking.

“So a lot of us in public relations believe that Aaron is actually the first practitioner of our craft,” Mr. Bragman wrote, “thus making public relations the third oldest profession, slightly behind spycraft and prostitution.”

And, he added, “we get accused of both of those as well.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Times Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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