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July 17, 2008

Edgar Vincent, and Publicists in general

Edgar Vincent's death three weeks ago saddened me personally and professionally. Edgar was 90, and had been looking frail. He had many clients in the classical music world, opera singers especially. I knew him best through our shared relationship with and affection for Beverly Sills, and I can't help but think Beverly's death took something out of Edgar from which he never recovered.

As most of the deeply sympathetic obits and articles about him attested, Edgar had an old-world charm and a shadowy (as in the The Shadow Knows) aura of an International Man of Mystery. How could it have been otherwise with a full name like Edgar Vincent Julius Raffaelle Simone Pos? He was knowledgeable, discreet yet honest. He cared about his clients asnd he cared about the truth. His clients cared about him, and relied on him. He was a gentleman. When Beverly died, I spoke with him a few days later and he was in despair about her failure to attend properly to preventative medicine.

Edgar's death set me to thinkng about publicists. Ideally there should be a certain tension between press and publicists, but that relationship changes with the personality and position on each side of the divide. Press agents who represent famous clients spend more of their time warding off the press than hustling for stories, let alone Page Six mentions. Of late some of the big-name Hollywood press agents, those who demand copy and photo approval and guaranteed covers, have become awesomely obnoxious. Junior critics and reporters, or those working for marginal outlets (like, now, the blogs to which I contribute), can expect dismissive treatment from most press agents, who spend much of their time fending off requests for free tickets. Writers for major publications like the New York Times get fawned over, or at least treated courteously.

When I was Martin Bernheimer's assistant at the Los Angeles Times in the early 70's, I deeply appreciated, and never forgot, the friendly treatment I got from Sheila Porter, then head of publicity at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. No doubt she treated me nicely because of Martin, or maybe she had a certain sympathy for struggling critics because of her brother Andrew. Many regarded her, then and later in New York, as a dragon lady. I remembered past kindnesses.

I've always felt a key to any publicist's personality was how they handled the little guys. When I was first at the New York Times and Harold Schonberg was the chief classical music critic, he invited us junior critics to a lunch he hosted for a retiring publicist. Can't remember her name and it would be impolite to mention it if I did. She treated Harold well, and he liked her. He thought of her as a friend, and maybe she was. But she was a monster to us small fry (if anyone working for the Times can be considered small fry), and we (especially I) hated her. Harold wanted us to write admiring thoughts on a farewell card; but I churlishly refused.

In rock, the king of publicistrs in the 70's was Paul Wasserman, who had a simply amazing client list. As a friend of Linda Ronstadt's, I dealt with him often. But my closest contact was via the Rolling Stones. Paul's ability to juggle their demands and arrogance with the importuing press hordes was amazing. He was a clever, witty man, given to "purchasing": favored critics' friendships through a daily barrage of amusing and informative press clippings (access to the not-yet-invented e-mail would have made him drunk with power). Eventually he succumbed to cocaine and greed, but at his height he was a great representative of the PR breed.

Dave Reuben at the Metropolitan Opera was a very different sort, constantly criticized by Joe Volpe for being too recesssive, too mousily polite. I admired him for not trying to shove stories down my throat, for being helpful and informative when asked, and for a politeness that approached Edgar's. Ditto Susan Woelzl at the New York City Opera, who's still at it, bless her.

Past relationships carry over into the present, as with me and Sheila Porter. Thirty years ago, when my pal Ms. Ronstadt was in "The Pirates of Penzance" in Central Park and then on Broadway, I established a relationship with Richard Kornberg, a publicist for theater and now dance. Richard strikes some the wrong way, whiny and importuning. I like him; he's friendly and helpful, and transparent when he wants something. But my affection for him dates back to "Pirates," a happy experience for us all.

I could go on. And on. The sometimes acerbic but always intelligent Ellen Jacobs in dance. My pal Kim Smedvig (born Hessberg, now Taylor, as in James) at the Boston Symphony. And no doubt many others whose names don't leap immediately to mind.

While the basic tension does and should exist between writers and the representatives of the written about, it's not surprising that friendships and respect like this should arise. Young people who love the arts find no easy career path into the field. Some become writers, some publicists, some managers or agents or curators. They share a passion that often overrides any supposed division of responsibilities. And rightly so.

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July 17, 2008 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)

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