Eddie Jaffe, a New York press agent with a Runyonesque charm and a list of clients ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Rosita Royce the Dove Dancer, has died. He was 89.
Jaffe, who was equally adept at self-promotion and once billed himself as "the world's ugliest press agent," died Tuesday of undisclosed causes in a hospital in the Bronx, where he had been hospitalized since November.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Jaffe boasted a client list that included the Andrews Sisters, Count Basie, John Wayne, Joe Namath, Jimmy Hoffa, Martha Mitchell and Claus von Bulow. He also promoted everything from major corporations and government agencies to boxing matches.
His former two-room apartment on the top floor of a building on West 48th Street became a legendary hangout in the 1940s and beyond for an assortment of out-of-work actors, songwriters, chorus girls, hustlers and politicians.
A small, slightly built man with wiry hair, a nasal voice and a ready grin, Jaffe displayed an endless supply of energy and imagination in a profession whose early years required large doses of it.
Jaffe was part of a bygone breed of Broadway press agents who honed their promotional skills at a time when clients still came from the ranks of vaudeville and burlesque, and when placing a client's name in Walter Winchell's column was considered the ultimate success.
Starting his career in the early 1930s, Jaffe had no shortage of clients guaranteed to generate some press. As he recounted in a 1984 Associated Press interview:
There was Zimmy, a legless man who swam from Albany to Manhattan while eating bananas. "With no legs, he floated just like a cork," recalled Jaffe.
There was Think-a-Drink Hoffman, a magician who conjured drinks mentally summoned by the audience. "He carried on his person 190-proof alcohol and flavorings," Jaffe said.
And there was Rosita Royce the Dove Dancer, a stripper who was undressed by 39 pigeons. "I got space for her in the papers when her birds collapsed with a nervous breakdown," he said.
As Jaffe said, those were the days when "the papers welcomed the imagination."
A couple of times, Jaffe lost clients before they hit the big time.
He recalled being thrown out of every booking agency in New York trying to sell piano-playing comic Borge Rosenbaum's act. But a year later -- after leaving Jaffe and changing his name -- Victor Borge hit it big.
Jaffe also promoted an overweight New York club comic whose career was going so badly that his phone was disconnected because he couldn't pay the bill. He also couldn't pay his press agent, who filed suit against the unknown Jackie Gleason.
In his prime, Jaffe sent out an average of 1,750 separate items a month to columnists from New York to Los Angeles. As he told Associated Press: "A publicist loves space more than money."
In the process of getting his clients publicity, Jaffe scored some memorable hits and misses.
He successfully planted a story that Zorita the Snake Charmer had fallen in love with one of her snakes. To keep Zorita's name in the papers after that stunning disclosure, he hired a psychiatrist to diagnose Zorita's condition. But the promotional gambit backfired when the psychiatrist said that the only thing wrong with Zorita was her press agent.
Another time, Jaffe promoted an album he claimed was recorded live in the Holland Tunnel. "At one point, three-quarters of the way through the record, you can even hear someone trying to make a U-turn," he told columnists. Jaffe, it turned out, was pulling their legs. But the story garnered exposure for his two struggling songwriter clients.
While promoting his clients, Jaffe became something of a legend himself. His name was frequently mentioned in newspaper columns, along with his clients'. He even generated headlines of his own such as "The Little Monster" and "Jaffe, Press Agent of Hopeless Causes."
A case in point: He once sent a national magazine pictures of himself with a group of stripper clients along with a note that said, "From the world's ugliest press agent, the world's most beautiful strippers."
"Sorry," the magazine's editors responded. "Can agree with only the first half of your statement."
The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Jaffe was born in Duluth, Minn., in 1913. The family moved to Hibbing, Minn., when Jaffe was 4. After his mother died while giving birth to a daughter, his father, a tailor, sent him to live with relatives. At 13, he was sent to an orphanage in Cleveland.
When he was 16, Jaffe moved to New York City. He attended high school in the mornings and worked afternoons and evenings as an errand boy in the advertising department of the New York Telegram, where he also began earning extra money covering school sports.
At 20, he left the paper to became a press agent.
Burlesque queen Margie Hart was Jaffe's first client. He dubbed her "the Poor Man's Garbo," Winchell printed the item, and Jaffe was on his way.
Jaffe is survived by his daughter, Jordan Jaffe of Alexandria, Va.