Howard Rubenstein: Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker Recipient
Jotham Sederstrom Jan. 17, 2012, 2:30 p.m.
Manhattan real estate moguls talk about his “Solomonic wisdom,” according to The New York Times.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called him the “dean of damage control.” His public relations firm, Rubenstein Associates, once simultaneously represented both Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump.
So it’s no exaggeration to say that nothing of importance happens in New York City without somehow involving Howard J. Rubenstein.
A REBNY member since “forever,” in his words, Mr. Rubenstein, the city’s ultimate spin doctor, has been honored with this year’s “Harry B. Helmsley Distinguished New Yorker” award for his contributions to the civic welfare and the real estate community.
“I’ve been involved with the real estate community for over 40 years,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “I’ve enjoyed it immensely. They’ve built the city that allowed me to do so much in my career. Harry Helmsley was one of my very first accounts.”
Mr. Rubenstein, 79, grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the son of a police reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania and then came back to Brooklyn. In 1954, with not much money in the bank and working at his parent’s kitchen table, Mr. Rubenstein started the public relations firm that’s spilled oceans of printer’s ink, negotiated hundreds of thousands of scandals and tenaciously stood by New York City even in the worst of times.
“It all started very modestly with $100 in the bank and an idea,” he said. Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm was his first client. “I wrote speeches and they wanted to see if they could get them in the papers,” he said. “I called my father and he called everyone he knew.”
His clients started getting into the newspapers and his reputation grew. The idea, said Mr. Rubenstein was not just to promote a single client, but to put that client—be it person or development—in the context of the city. “I had a vision to tie any one building to a vision of New York,” he said. “It wasn’t one building, it was a conglomeration of different factors, economic, social.”
While Rubenstein Associates was still a fledgling enterprise, and before Mr. Rubinstein took on clients like Rupert Murdoch and the New York Yankees, developers Helmsley and Lewis Rudin helped him build the business. “One of the people who helped me the most was Lew Rudin. He was one of my first accounts. I was so interested in politics and real estate, we just hit it off.” It was with Rudin that he helped start the Association for a Better New York, a civic group founded in 1972 to address some of the city’s social ills.
“We had a commercial property owners association and we were just jawboning, telling landlords not to raise their rents too precipitously for fear of bringing in rent control,” he said.
At the same time the city was going in a downward spiral, said Mr. Rubenstein. “We decided someone had to do something about it, so we changed the name to the Association for a Better New York. Our point was that in good times and in bad times this city had strength like no where else in the country.” It was a time when crime, municipal union strikes and budget woes were ruining the quality of life in the city and making it the butt of a few late-night talk-show jokes. “Johnny Carson used to make fun of us and we picketed him,” he said.
When trash and litter around Manhattan’s business districts started to pile up, the great PR man hit on an idea that some of the city’s real estate titans take to the streets to fix the problem personally. “We took brooms to the sidewalk and we started to sweep,” he said. “You can just picture Harry Helmsley, Lew Rudin and Robert Tishman out there sweeping. They’re all very rich and they’re sweeping. We got a lot of press for that.”
Today, Rubenstein Associates has over 200 employees in New York and over 400 clients—you’ve heard of most of them. Two of his sons started their own firm under the Rubenstein Associates umbrella.
“Most real estate people have a view of the future,” said Mr. Rubenstein, who serves on the executive board of REBNY. “They are projecting strength despite the downturn in the economy. They never give up. They’re always talking positively. They look at New York and their investments in a long-range view.”
That’s why he said he was honored to receive such an accolade from REBNY. “My family and I were so pleased with this award. I never sought it and don’t own any real estate, but I’m extremely grateful to receive it,” he said.