R.I.P. Lee Solters: Heaven has a great new press agent
I always knew when it was Lee Solters calling on the phone, since I'd pick up the receiver and hear him say, in a raspy purr, "J.J., this is Sidney." It was Solters' sly reference to "Sweet Smell of Success," the greatest movie ever made about the newspaper racket, in particular the complex relationship between publicists and newspaper columnists. Solters, who died Monday at age 89, was one of the last remaining links to the Damon Runyon-esque era where you could slip an item to a columnist over drinks at Toots Shor's. Solters represented everyone in his day, from Frank Sinatra and Claudette Colbert to Barbra Streisand, Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson. Better still, he had great stories to tell about all of them.
As a young reporter, I marveled at the idea that I could have lunch with a guy who'd actually been around long enough to have planted items in Walter Winchell columns. Solters remembered coming back from a screening of "Sweet Smell of Success" with a bunch of other PR guys, when they suddenly spotted Winchell--clearly the inspiration for the film's J.J. Hunsecker character--coming their way. Everyone scattered. "Nobody wanted Winchell to know we'd seen the movie, much less enjoyed it," was how Lee recounted the story. Solters even claimed that he'd tutored Tony Curtis, who plays the press agent Sidney Falco in the film, how to angrily toss away a crumpled newspaper after discovering his item hadn't made Hunsecker's column. "I told Tony, 'Be more vehement,' " he explained.
It was Solters, when he was working for Broadway impresario David Merrick, who helped come up with what was surely one of the Top 10 PR stunts of all time. In 1961, when the Merrick-produced show "Subways Are for Sleeping" was tanking, a victim of bad reviews, Solters and Merrick devised the idea of running ads with rave reviews from men they'd found in the phone book who had the same names as the leading Broadway critics of the day. "We wined them and dined them and gave them the quotes we wanted, like 'Best Show in Years!' " Solters told me. "David had wanted to do it for years, but he had to wait till Stanley Kauffman took over at the Times from Brooks Atkinson, because there wasn't another Brooks Atkinson in the phone book."
In his own way, Solters was a great educator, passing along the tricks of his trade--along with a savvy understanding of how the media operated--to generations of younger publicists, many of whom became industry titans. Film producer Sid Ganis, the Oscar kingpin who has presided over the motion picture academy, got his start as an office boy in Solters' PR firm. Danny Goldberg, who went on to run Warner Bros. and several other top record companies, began his career as a young Solters assistant. And Lee's son, Larry, is a successful publicist and crisis-management consultant in his own right.
Though he would've never used such fancy language, it was Solters who perhaps first grasped the essence of modern-day publicity: Perception is reality. In the early 1970s, when Solters represented Led Zeppelin, he was convinced that Goldberg, who'd been given the task of handling the Zeppelin account, wasn't getting the band enough publicity. One day Solters gave Goldberg a newly written press release, headlined: "Led Zeppelin Denied the Right to Play Shea Stadium." Goldberg was taken aback. "I said, 'Lee, when did this happen?' Of course, it wasn't true and I was worried about my credibility. So Lee put the release out himself. The next morning it was on Page 3 of the Daily News. He came into the office, waving the paper, saying 'See!' " For Solters, results were results.
I'm going to miss his phone calls, funny anecdotes, bad jokes and old-fashioned hand-written notes, urging me to find room to write a few kind words about clients like Carol Channing, who once got great coverage by executing a classic Solters stunt: dropping a beach ball-sized matzo ball into a vat of chicken soup at the opening of the Carnegie Deli here. Lee Solters knew a good story when he saw it. In his era, an era now almost entirely consigned to legend, whether the story was true or not wasn't half as important as whether it was a good read from beginning to end.
Photo: Lee and Larry Solters: Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times