I quickly figured out how the game was played: We had a bucketful of stars and a reasonable number of superstars, and anybody who wanted to regularly fill a magazine cover had to cross swords with us (or people like us) or head back to their previous job at Weekly Reader. We made our biggest clients available only when we wanted to, and making them inaccessible increased their allure. Pat also served our clients by offering the kind of sage advice that prevented publicity debacles (indeed, milliseconds after Tom Cruise fired Kingsley, he was mid-flight over Oprah’s settee). When disaster did strike, we were around to sweep up the mess with blandly manicured statements, Clintonesque dodgeball, and even the truth, if it was expedient.
The majority of what we did at this publicity firm was to strategically turn down most of the requests for our clients. Still, the relationship that agency publicists had with the media in those days was generally congenial. If you are booking The David Letterman Show, you know who is right for the show, and so does a first-rate publicist; in fact, it wasn’t unusual for publicists to move over to top jobs in the media, and vice versa. The greatest misunderstandings were with publicity executives at some studios and distribution companies who pursued one-size-fits-all approaches to publicity, unlike our more strategic method. For each release, they created a phone-book-sized memo to show their superiors that every media outlet had been approached, and no stone had been left unturned. These documents are chock-a-block with hilarious boilerplate comments like “Claire promises to watch her screener soon,” or “left several messages for Bernie,” or my favorite, “Sarah is thinking it over,” which usually means, “no, but I don’t want to tell you that yet.” After such time-consuming mishegas, the studio publicists were bewildered and stressed when they secured assignments and then the mean old personal publicists turned them all down.
Simply passing requests for Goldie Hawn to Pat Kingsley imbued me with a synthetic muscularity that lured top editors and talk-show bookers into my clutches. Once I had them on the phone, I’d ask if they’d seen the side-splitting new comedy Under the Rainbow, starring Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and Billy Barty. As I said this, I felt like I had eaten a 50-pound bag of snot. Actually, I always felt like this. I was a midwestern rube who had fallen down a wormhole into an alien world I found shockingly cynical. I lacked the skills and emotional constitution for the job, and this caused me to be fearful and make mistakes. At the same time, I didn’t want to be the kind of loser who quit after a few days, so I chose to be the kind of loser who accepts that every day will be a living hell.
It seemed that I was now a publicist, so I decided to do what I had done in previous self-reinventions—I was going to find out what a publicist was and try to turn myself into one. I would still hate my life, but I would be incredible at my job, dazzling them with my encyclopedic knowledge of international cinema, and everyone would admire me. Of the three PMK partners, I was most drawn to Kingsley—she was just so damn smart. I loved listening to her consider the pros and cons of every decision. In publicity, you can’t do everything. Editors see other outlets as their competitors: It’s Vogue or Elle; it’s New York or New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. What is right for a particular movie or client? Pat was also a chess player—she didn’t think about what her client should do for just one movie, but also looked to the years ahead. If the client does a media blitz now, what is left for that personal project going into production next year? Nowadays, you can find dozens of young publicists who know how to say “no”—“no” is easy—but knowing when to say “yes” requires experience, wisdom, and in the case of Pat, a certain don’t-f*ck-with-me confidence that she could control the story. So, Goal No. 1 in my publicity education: Grow a brain, learn everything there is to know about the media, and try to become, in my own way, like Kingsley.
Teacher No. 2, Peggy Siegal, was not the kind of person I would socialize with, but she was extraordinary at her work, and was very generous at sharing her expertise with me. Peggy was unstoppable; if she was onto a story, and say there was something in her way—say, Chicago—well, you’d just have to move Chicago. So I told myself that I would strive to become as relentless as Peggy, and when necessary, as impregnable as a titanium ingot.