In this new interview series, acclaimed New York City writer Joshua David Stein sits down with an interesting guy to eat cheeseburgers and talk, in a segment we like to call “2 Guys, 2 Cheeseburgers, Talky Talk.”
I had met Bobby Zarem, as any reporter in New York City over the last 40 years probably had, at a party. His name was invariably prefaced with “Superflack” or “the original Superflack.” Zarem, a PR guru who repped everyone from Al Pacino to Stevie Wonder to Jack Nicholson, was the New York City macher, a ballsy, blustering, powerful man who could charm or damn in his gruff Southern drawl. But in 2010, aged 73, Mr. Zarem returned to his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, to the home in which he was raised, a graceful charmer on a tree-lined street. Here he stays busy with the Savannah Film Festival, whose 15th season starts October 27, and working on his memoirs.
Though Mr. Zarem suffers from diabetes, he gamely agreed to sample the Rustico burger from Green Truck Pub, undoubtedly the purveyor’s of Savannah’s best burger. (See also: 9 Great Things To Eat and Drink In Savannah.) In his living room, every horizontal surface covered in pill capsules, every vertical surface in movie posters — including a giant one of the original Lolita — we ate burgers and discussed everything from growing up in Savannah to classic actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Good evening, Bobby. You look like you’re doing pretty well?
We’re in good shape. Knock on wood.
You moved down here full-time in 2010. Do you make it up to New York often?
I have been back once since I moved down here. Savannah is the most fabulous place in the world. I always knew it was special. Even when I was six I was aware how special it was. It frustrated me when I got into my teens and went to Andover and Yale that the rest of the world didn’t know about Savannah.
How did a boy from Savannah become so enmeshed in Hollywood?
I was obsessed with movie stars when I was four. I used to walk around this neighborhood pretending it was Beverly Hills and imagining that a star lived in each house: Betty Grable. Lana Turner. Rita Hayworth. Gene Tierney. Paulette Goddard. Claudette Colbert.
Mr. Zarem, who is sitting in an easy chair, extracts the burger from its cardboard box. He struggles to wrap his fingers around its generous proportions. The burger — a 1/3 pound grass-fed burger from Hunter Cattle Company with goat cheese, roasted red pepper, basil and balsamic caramelized onions — is formidable. Gaining purchase, he takes a bite. He chews.
Have you been to Green Truck before?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hate their ketchup. I’ve told people that if I ever go there again, I’d stop at Red and White and buy a bottle of ketchup to take with me. Everybody I know feels the same way about their fucking ketchup and people I know have said things to them.
What do you think about the burger?
So you knew you loved movie stars?
Yeah. I used to write off [to them] for photos and autographs.
Did they ever write back?
A lot. My family got The New Yorker and every summer, they would list which stars would be at which summer theaters. In those days, stars would book like an eight-week tour of eight summer theaters and make a lot of money for them. I would write them to the playhouse, knowing that they would be there for a week and that there was a good chance they would read my letter. I never thought about if other people were doing the same thing or not, but I got long letters back. I eventually became a close friend of Paulette Goddard.
What did you study at school?
Political science, because I knew it was bullshit and no one could say if you were right or wrong. My seminar instructor was Bill Buckley [William F. Buckley] and I disagreed with every single thing he felt or thought, and I got the highest grade in the class, which I admired him for. In later life, we became friends – his wife Pat was one of my best friends. They both died a few years ago.
Did you ever think about settling back in Savannah as a young man?
No. There was nothing here that had to do with Hollywood or stars. The theater drove me to New York – my father had a wholesale shoe company and would go to New York four or five times a year with my mother. They’d see every play, bring me back the programs and autographs. They brought me Betty Grable and Lana Turner – one from the Copacabana and one from the Stork Club. And Frank Sinatra’s from a restaurant from across the Waldorf. I eventually became friends with Sinatra.
Were your parents really proud of you?
My father died when I was 14 and that had a tremendous effect on me. We were never paupers but when my father died, the insurance company insisted that for him to have cancer when he was contracted, he must have had it when he took out his insurance policy. They didn’t pay a cent of the quarter of a million dollars of expenses, which is equal to 10 million today. Things were tight.
How about your mother, was she proud?
She liked the entertainment world, but the day that both Time and Newsweek came out with pieces on me, I called her to tell her and she already knew. She said, “Why don’t you come back to Savannah and work for Uncle Ben in the jewelry business?” She didn’t know how fantastic it was that Time called her son a genius.
How was it to move back to Savannah, considering all the legendary things you have accomplished in New York?
I never bought an apartment in New York and didn’t want to be thought of as a New Yorker. I knew I’d come back. Savannah is character — it defines character. I never wanted to be established as a New Yorker. I was aware of what I was doing — I had obsessed over the glamour of New York since I was five or six.
Did New York let you down?
No. I think I had one of the greatest lives of any human being. I stayed obsessed and I acted out my obsessions.
Who was the first star you ever met?
When I was 11, Tallulah Bankhead was coming to Savannah in Private Lives with Donald Cook, her co-star. My friend and I became obsessed, because the more my mother and her friends talked about this horrible horrible woman who shouldn’t be allowed across the state line, the more I wanted to see her.
I couldn’t see the play but my friend and I snuck out of Sunday school and took the bus down to the Savannah Hotel. One of the guys that worked in my father’s warehouse during the week worked as a bellboy at the Savannah Hotel. He told us her room number and we walked up eight flights. We didn’t want the elevator operator to ask us any questions. We knocked on the door and she said, “Who is it?” We told her that we wanted to get her autograph and she said, “Go away! I don’t sign autographs!”
We waited until the maid came with her breakfast on a roller cart, got behind her and crawled in. I stood up and said, “We want your autograph!” She was reading the Savannah Morning News, which she threw at us and said, “Get out of here, you motherfucker cocksucker!”
So we went back to Sunday school and both of our respective parents picked us up and brought us to our homes for dinner, and I asked what “motherfucker cocksucker” was. My father beat the shit out of me and sent me to my room.
Do you keep in touch with people from your past a lot? From your childhood?
I made a point of connecting with young actors and actresses. James Franco is one of my best friends and Jude Law is a really good friend. So is Natalie Portman. I made a point of meeting and developing those friendships.
But now you’re down here. The people you see every day are your friends.
I’ve stayed in touch with all my childhood friends here. First of all, my best friends all came to New York at least once a year. I would also come down here for 10 days at a time, three weeks at a time. I stayed in touch with most of my childhood friends and have made a lot of new friends working with SCAD and at the film festival.
Do you miss New York now?
Not one bit. The thought of walking down the streets that I used to walk down all day, every day is repulsive to me.
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