Howard J. Rubenstein — the giant of New York City public relations who died Dec. 29 at age 88 — used to say that he never worked a day in his life, a claim that his son, Steven, found puzzling before following in his father’s footsteps at the firm bearing the family name.
“As a young man, I found that odd that a person who woke up at 4 a.m. every single day to do paperwork and go through the news and then head out for a jog with a Dictaphone in his hand would say that he never worked,” recalled the younger Rubenstein Feb. 16 during a virtual memorial service for his father attended by nearly 500 people. “He worked all the time, but he meant it, work was a joy for him. He woke up every day excited. He loved his family. He loved what he did and he loved New York. He always said, ‘I choose to live on the sunny side of the street.’ Well, that was true, he was happy.”
Steven recalled three pieces of advice he received from his father, the first being, don’t worry when things go terribly wrong. “Worrying was worthless and being negative was truly worthless,” he said before detailing the other two: hold on to family traditions by spending time together and “get engaged fast.” So he did, eventually marrying playwright Bess Wohl. “Bess was perfect, and I would be wise to follow my heart and get moving on with our lives together and build a family.”
He then went on to provide a synopsis of his father’s life, waiting tables while attending the University of Pennsylvania, graduating third in his class, attending Harvard Law School but dropping out during the first semester, and eventually launching a career in public relations. “At that time, my dad liked to say PR was not an industry and it was seen more as a collection of hucksters,” said Steven. “Our dad never forgot where he came from. He may have lived on Fifth Avenue later in life, but both he and our mom are all Brooklyn at heart. Brooklyn gave him a shot, our city gave him a shot, and he believed that if New York did well, he would do well.”
Steven added that one of the nice things about a Zoom tribute was being able to scroll through the attendees and see people from so many parts of his father’s life. Among those spotted by THR were Rupert Murdoch, Leonard and Judy Lauder, Michael Ovitz, former New York Gov. George Pataki, ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann, lawyer Orin Snyder and real estate mogul Rob Speyer, among others.
“It took me some time to really understand what my father meant when he said, ‘I choose to live on the sunny side of the street.’ That it wasn’t corny, it wasn’t naivete, it wasn’t blind optimism, it was his bedrock belief in his family and in his city. He believed he could help make things a little better, that we all could help make things a little better simply by showing up, pitching in, saying the right things and, most importantly, doing the right things.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.