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Subject: Eddie Jaffe, the Press Agent of Broadway

the Bronx
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Date Posted: March 27, 2003 3:04:04 EDT

Eddie Jaffe, a press agent legendary for his lost causes, chutzpah and angst, who all but made Broadway his alias and held that the best kind of promotion was self-promotion, died on Tuesday at Calvary Hospital.

He was 89 and had been hospitalized since November, said his daughter, Jordan Jaffe of Alexandria, Va., his only surviving family member.

Until old age and complications from a hip operation confined him to his cluttered apartment on 52nd Street off Eighth Avenue, the spectral Mr. Jaffe was a familiar presence at Gallagher's Steak House down the street and the rapidly vanishing haunts of Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon.

Neal Gabler, Winchell's biographer, called Mr. Jaffe "the last of a breed — the do-anything, buccaneering press agent." Mr. Jaffe, he said in an interview, "marked the dividing line between that breed and all that came after, the public relations experts." Press agents like Mr. Jaffe, Mr. Gabler said, "flew by the seat of their pants and were willing to do anything for a client and at the same time themselves."

Robert Sylvester, a longtime entertainment columnist for The Daily News, devoted a chapter to Mr. Jaffe and his zany circle in a 1970 book, "Notes of a Guilty Bystander." Describing him as "a small wiry man with a shock of wiry hair," Mr. Sylvester wrote, "Underneath the hair is an imagination that knows no bounds, great energy and a basic nature so kindly that, thinking over everybody who is left from this act, I cannot name a single person who puts the knock on him."

At a time when fame was measured by orchids in Winchell's column, Mr. Jaffe held sway out of a raucous Times Square crash pad known as Eddie's Place and that became sometime home to Marlon Brando, Dorothy Dandridge, Julie Newmar, Jackie Mason, Gwen Verdon and assorted other rising stars, agents and journalists. His eclectic and ever-changing client list included Jackie Gleason, Vice President Henry Wallace, Victor Borge, Marlene Dietrich, the Shah of Iran, John Wayne, Martha Mitchell, Jimmy Hoffa and Claus von Bülow, along with movie studios, television networks, giant corporations and government agencies.

He got his client Joe Namath $10,000 to shave off his celebrated Fu Manchu mustache with a Schick electric razor. He helped Treasury agents reclaim credit stolen by the F.B.I. He counseled Jimmy Davis, the song-writing ("You Are My Sunshine") Louisiana politician in his successful campaign for governor. And he did publicity for scores of films — mostly clunkers, but good ones, too, like "King Kong," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Red Shoes," "Juárez" and "Mon Oncle."

But Mr. Jaffe was at least equally remembered for his failures. He called himself "the world's worst salesman," explaining, "I always see the viewpoint of the customer who turns me down."

Wispy and nasal-voiced, he was forever peddling an autobiography he wanted to call "How You Can Become Famous." Many of his stories, told with a self-effacing cackle, seemed to have the same downbeat ending: fate shortchanged him, fortune eluded him. As a stunt, he once bought an electric chair to promote a 1959 Mickey Rooney prison movie, "The Last Mile," but it was never delivered. No one would help him track it down, either. His advice to posterity: "Don't pay for an electric chair until it arrives."

Proving that the phrase "insecure press agent" was no oxymoron, Mr. Jaffe made no secret of his 2,500 sessions on the couch. As he wrote in one of many unpublished memoirs, one psychoanalyst called him "the unhappiest looking person I ever met," and, when he fell behind on his bills, threatened, "Pay up or I'll let you go crazy." He said he failed his analyst, too: "I thought my job was to amuse him."

Edward Jaffe was born in Duluth, Minn., on Oct. 22, 1913, the son of Isadore and Ann Jaffe. His father was a tailor from Lithuania who borrowed the money for a passage to America from a woman acquaintance who assumed he would then send for her and marry her. When he did not, she came over herself, tracked him down in Duluth and got a rabbi to perform the wedding.

When Eddie was 4, they moved to Hibbing, Minn., where his mother died giving birth to a daughter. He was sent to live with relatives and then, when he was 13, his father sent him to an orphans' home in Cleveland. "I was a paid orphan," he wrote years later, "the only one I ever heard of whose stay was financed by a parent."

At 16, inspired by a Richard Harding Davis story about the glamorous life of a copy boy, he left for New York and got a job in the advertising department of The New York Telegram, working afternoons and evenings and going to high school in the mornings. He also covered school sports for 25 cents a column inch, plus 50 cents for the score. He coached nuns to collect Catholic school results for him.

He drifted into publicity work, starting with vaudeville and burlesque acts that, he figured, had little to lose in hiring him. When Winchell published his column item calling the stripper Margie Hart "the poor man's Garbo," her pay skyrocketed from $250 to $2,500 a week. His career took off. Still, he said he learned that "a life spent praising others is not as rewarding as one devoted to blowing your own horn."

After a stint in Hollywood promoting films, he returned to New York and moved into a $100-a-month three-room walk-up apartment on the top floor of 156 West 48th Street. It became a perpetual party zone and refuge for aspiring starlets and actors, including Mr. Brando, who was just attaining stardom in `'A Streetcar Named Desire."

Mr. Jaffe continued to promote television and movies, with mixed results. He wrote that at NBC's behest, he went to Philadelphia and helped make Ernie Kovacs a star. He also acquired the rights to a 1955 G. W. Pabst film, "The Last 10 Days of Adolph Hitler," only to have the release blocked by a fearful studio executive who asked, as Mr. Jaffe later wrote, "What if Hitler isn't dead and comes back to make problems for us?"

Happily single, he married many years ago after his analyst warned he could become "a lonely old man." But, he recounted, after a month he told the analyst, "I prefer to be a lonely old man." His former wife, Pat Kelly, lives in California.

In the 1950's and 60's he promoted boxing and helped set up some of the earliest pay-per-view closed circuit television fights. One simulcast in the White Plains Convention Center in 1962 was so fuzzy that 10,000 viewers couldn't tell who was felled in the first round knockout — Sonny Liston or Floyd Patterson. (It was Patterson.) Menaced by irate fans, Mr. Jaffe recalled, he saved himself by yelling, "Let's hang the promoter!" Everyone ran off. He was the promoter.

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