Saturday, February 22, 2020

Flashback 1993: A Star in PR—Perlstein an Old-Style Success

Nate Perlstein, left, and Sen. Bernie Neistein at the Cambridge House in 1993.
(Photo by Robert A. Davis, used with permission)

     Before I snapped a photo of the filing cabinets in my closet for yesterday's column, I did pause, and consider whether. should whisk away the Marilyn Monroe pin-up that has been there, gee, forever, so as not to get caught up in the jaws of some kind of unimaginable social media blowback over a 70-year-old slice of cheesecake. But I decided that was being skittish. The photo is tame, relatively, and I should take the risk. Only one person remarked upon it—my old pal Bill Zwecker, noting he had the same copy, and we both got it from the same person: the late, great publicist Nate Perlstein. Which inspired me to dig up this profile I wrote about him, 27 years ago. Perlstein died in 1995. Neistein died in 2003. He was also a character; I think I'll print my eye-opening obituary of him tomorrow. The Cambridge House, at Ohio and St. Clair, closed in 2006. It's a different world.

     The Pucci suits have held up well. Red and white plaid elbows that once jostled celebrities in Booth One, bold linings once glimpsed by hotshots at the Chez Paree hide the decades nicely. Quality tailoring will do that.
     And Nate Perlstein, owner of the pricey suits, plus the white loafers, and the flashy pocket squares, and even a few silk ascots, is doing nicely, too. His legs aren't what they used to be, say when he was 80, so he no longer walks the 10 blocks from his Lake Shore Drive apartment to his office. 
But Perlstein, at 85, still gets around. As the oldest full-time publicist working in Chicago, if not the country, Perlstein makes his daily rounds, seeing old friends, subtly and not-so-subtly promoting clients, and in general holding the banner for a winking, handclasping, tell-'em-Charlie-sent-you world that once dominated Chicago business.
     At his age, a routine is vital. Every weekday about 4 a.m. Perlstein does stretching exercises—leg lifts, arm lifts. Gets the blood going.
     By the time he has showered and dressed—today a beige cashmere jacket, checkered slacks, a sweater vest—the sun is peeking over the lake.
     His living room is small but with a lot of history. Two framed montages of black and white publicity photos of Perlstein with all the greats: Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor; Jane Russell, Cary Grant, Bob Hope. They clown in ways that celebrities never do today. There's Perlstein wearing an Indian headdress, a Tyrolean hat, a Hawaiian shirt. All the bottles in the pictures are Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Perlstein represented Pabst for decades. Coined the slogan "What'll you have?"
    It's 7 a.m. Perlstein is out the door. Someone is waiting for him next door, at 1040 N. Lake Shore. The Carlyle.
     There in the elegant lobby, settled quietly in a chair, waiting for Perlstein, is retired Sen. Bernie Neistein. A big shot. Everything about him says it—the big cigar, unlit, never leaving the mouth. Big gold Rolex. Big cufflinks. Monograms on the cuffs, rings on the pinkies. This guy is big.
     Usually they are joined by Kup, but today he phones his apologies. A cold.
     The Cadillac appears outside. A black Coupe De Ville. No one is in a hurry. Eventually they drive to the Cambridge House on Ohio Street. The senator parks right under a "Tow Zone' sign. Big. They sit at the counter. They don't order. Food just comes. Perlstein has oatmeal. The senator, a melon with lemon.
     Nine a.m. The senator drops Perlstein off at the corner of Michigan and Wacker. Perlstein walks into Paul Harvey's eye-popping suite of offices like he owns the place. The staff says hello. The famous radio broadcaster rises to greet him.
     They are the oldest of friends. As they talk, Harvey, without missing a beat, takes a comb and straightens Perlstein's unruly hair.
     "Every day it seems we have something of substance to discuss," says Harvey. Perlstein would never—he points out, never—take advantage of a friendship, but sometimes what he has to say ends up on Harvey's show. It is the way public relations used to work.
     He is coy with Harvey, but Perlstein knows how to pitch a story when necessary.
     "He pushes," says another radio friend, Orion Samuelson, WGN's farm reporter. "He doesn't let go. He can push pretty hard."
     Perlstein was born in 1908 on the Near Northwest Side, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. As long as he can remember, Perlstein wanted to be a publicist.
     "All my life, I had a feeling about being creative," he says. "I would see an ad, and I would come up with a better idea."
     Perlstein got his break at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, convincing Walter Winchell to ride to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Casino in a horse-drawn surrey. It took a bit of, umm, truth management to pull it off.
     "They weren't going to let the surrey into the fair," says Perlstein. "I said, 'Do you know who that is in there? It's Walter Winchell, and he's on his way to meet the president of the United States.' They let him in."
     For 17 golden years, Perlstein lived in the Ambassador West Hotel when he wasn't circling the world, squiring big-name talent hyping Pabst beer. He lunched with Cary Grant. He drove Al Jolson around in the Cadillac convertible that Perlstein kept on the West Coast for just such a purpose.
     "He was like a cult figure in our family," says his nephew, Michael Perlstein, of his lifelong bachelor uncle. "He was the guy who would bring you a magic set, something unusual. Uncle Nate was always traveling. He was in Europe. He was in Hawaii. He was here, there and everywhere and always with a couple of showgirls on his arm."
     There are too many stories to tell. Perlstein arranging for Marilyn Monroe to pose for a 1950 Pabst calendar, which led to her appearing in Playboy. The time Groucho Marx got an actor into a card game so he could go out with the guy's wife. How Tallulah Bankhead once auditioned to announce New York Giants baseball games, using a salt shaker as a mike while she described an imaginary game.
     The present is less colorful, but by no means harsh. Perlstein has an office at Porter/Novelli, with a view of the NBC Tower. He does pro bono work for charities, and Porter/Novelli gives him work as a consultant.
     The Cadillacs are gone. The starlets who once held his elbow are grandmothers, or gone. But Perlstein is still very much here. He has a job, and friends, and wouldn't dream of retiring. He loves his life too much for that.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1993


  1. Chicago characters from a bygone era. Who is the modern equivalent of Perlstein? Or is there one?

    1. Probably Danny Newman was the last one. When he started out being a publicist he probably would have been called a press agent. Do even rich guys wear"Big cufflinks" any more? Or buy shirts with French cuffs?


  2. "They don't order. Food just comes." Impressive. But they seem like role models for roles that have disappeared...fortunately perhaps.


  3. 1967 delivered inter office mail and press releases for ABC. Harvey at the Stone Container Bldg, only saw the back of his head. Hand delivered Kup's cups and a portable TV to Zsa Zsa, I think as part of her appearing with Irv. I probably crossed paths with Perlstein at some point. Anyone write a book about the guy? Neisten's hat resembles the one Roger Stone wore at his sentencing, which reminded me of the one Michael Corleone wore to his congressional hearing. Coincidence or Comedy?

  4. Wonderful story. I’m 74 and dabbled in politics (occasionally against the senator), they were all great characters.

  5. I don't know what made me think of Nate Perlstein today, but was overjoyed to find the photo and blog of him. I was fortunate to be in Chicago, Lawry's the Prime Rib, in the early 1990's and got to know Nate and hear the stories of Norma Jean and so much more. He introduced me to Kup and WGN personalities and really did give me the Chicago insight from his amazing life. Thank you.


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