Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Unseen Side Of Celebrity

Star-struck. Awed. Nervous. Giddy. These are a few of the words that come to mind when I think back on my early encounters with celebrities. From the time I was six years of age, I have had the unique privilege and good fortune of a wide array of celebrity sightings. Some were by chance at restaurants, airports, a parking garage, and on the streets of New York City. Others were planned at autograph signings, and later at countless events that I organized professionally. I remember every one of them as if they occurred just minutes ago. But it is one extraordinary brush with an icon that forever changed my perception of celebrity mythology. One that humanized the whole lofty experience.

Lonnie Ostrow presents Jackie Chan with his postage stamps
          It was March of 1997. I was employed as the director of marketing and publicity for an agency that created postage stamps for governments around the world. A few years earlier, I had stumbled upon the phenomenon of placing living legends on legal tender for a handful of counties across the globe. It had become a worldwide media sensation. Already, I had the pleasure of working with such luminaries as Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Elle Macpherson and Bob Hope. Now, I was being courted by celebrity publicists on both coasts, seeking to honor their famous clients as the next living postal icon.

          My interactions with the stars I had worked with up to that point ranged from brief, goose-bump raising meetings to extensive and direct planning (and celebrating) with other heroes. Some were remarkably insulated by assistants and PR reps. Others freely shared private phone numbers and were surprisingly accessible. But in my mind, no matter how professionally I learned to act on the outside, there was always a twinge of giddiness at the thought of being in the presence of such beloved public figures.

Legendary publicist, Warren Cowan
          Warren Cowan was no ordinary celebrity publicist. When he first phoned me in January of ’97, he introduced himself as the “representative of Hollywood’s greatest legends.” And this was no hype job. Mr. Cowan had been publicizing the biggest names in entertainment going back to 1946. He was a founding partner of the powerhouse publicity agency, Rogers and Cowan. Some of his impressive list of clients once included Paul Newman, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne (to name a few). In 1994 – two years after he sold off the agency – he was lured out of retirement by a handful of his celebrated clients. He quoted Elizabeth Taylor as saying: “Warren, it’s you that I want representing me, not the Rogers and Cowan name.”

          Within months of opening Warren Cowan Associates in Beverly Hills, Mr. Cowan again represented a vast majority of Hollywood’s most iconic names of yesteryear. They all gravitated back to him.

          It was Kirk Douglas that Mr. Cowan first approached me about for a postage stamp tribute. We were creeping up on the 40th anniversary of his landmark film, Spartacus. The veteran publicist called to pitch me on the idea. A month later, he was to be in New York for a pair of client events. The first was a book launch party at Le Cirque restaurant by the renowned author, Sidney Sheldon, to which he invited me. Two days later, he phoned my office, asking me to meet with him at his suite at the St. Regis hotel.   

          The sheer opulence of the hotel immediately grabbed my attention. I had previously been inside some impressive Hyatts and Marriots. Even once the Four Seasons for a meeting with David Copperfield. But the classic luxury of this chic retreat on East 55th Street was truly captivating. Up in the room, I was immediately led by one of Mr. Cowan’s staffers to a waiting area that resembled the most impressive living room I’d ever seen in person. I sat patiently (and rather comfortably) on a button-leather couch, next to a shinny marble coffee table beneath a huge crystal chandelier. Far across the room, I watched Mr. Cowan and his associates in action, pitching the news media on coverage for an event they had run the night before. For a young publicist like me, it was breathtaking to see their skills of persuasion on display.

          Mr. Cowan finally sat to join me and offered to order up some tea and finger sandwiches from room-service. Then we got down to business. For thirty solid minutes, we talked about his incomparable list of clients, trying to match them with my list of governments who might consider a postal tribute to them. He spoke about Paul Newman’s charitable work; Kirk Douglas and some playgrounds he was building for underprivileged kids. He even floated the idea of a joint postal celebration for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for their many co-starring projects. We were midway through our productive conversation when the unforgettable happened.

          A door at the far end of the living room swung open. It connected to an adjoining suite which I hadn’t noticed previously. In walked an older woman in a white hotel bathrobe and a pair of matching white slippers. Her short-cropped curly hair was white and tussled. Her naked face was heavily lined and marked with age spots. Slowly, she approached the leather couch and paused at the foot of the coffee table. “Oh, Warren dear,” she said in low voice with the hint of an English accent. “Sorry to interrupt. I didn’t realize you had company. We’ll catch up later.” She raised her hand, flashed a brief smile and casually strolled back through the connecting door to her suite.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1997
          There was nothing glamorous about this brief intrusion. The woman from next door wore no makeup, no jewelry, or fancy clothing. She could have been anyone’s grandma, having just rolled out of bed in the early afternoon. But there was one unique detail that failed to elude my attention. As she turned around to head back in the opposite direction, I noticed her eyes. They were shining a deep blue, almost violet beneath the overhead chandelier. There is only one woman I’ve ever known to have such eye pigmentation. And she just happened to be the one whose fundraising event Mr. Cowan and his staff had hosted just the night before. Elizabeth Taylor.

          “Was that - ” I attempted to ask, before being hastily cut off by my host.

          “Yes,” he confirmed without uttering her name. “But she was never here and you saw nothing,” he insisted. “This didn’t happen.”

          Elizabeth Taylor was always synonymous with glamour. Many consider her to have been the most beautiful actress that Hollywood has ever known. She was a style icon, always decked out in the most exquisite gowns designed by the biggest names in fashion. She was forever covered in diamonds and colorful jewels from her many husbands and suitors through the decades. Even her signature fragrance was called White Diamonds. And yet here she was, just steps away from me, appearing as plain and imperfect as any woman her age (65 at the time). It was both mind-boggling, and yet oddly reassuring. She was human.

          Most of my interactions with celebrities have taken place in public settings. Never a hair out of place. Always impeccably dressed and camera-ready. Even during private meetings, it was rare for me to encounter any of these stars as anything less than what you would expect them to look like. Image consciousness is like a sixth sense to them. So to my utter surprise, here was my first time crossing paths with the world’s queen of glamour. And she appeared as ordinary as could be imagined.

          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, I do my utmost to portray both sides of celebrity. The myth vs. reality. My protagonist, Johnny Elias is a young man who has been seduced by the concept of music stardom since childhood. From his vantage-point as a fan, there is nothing more glorious than the life of a rock star. And then he hits the big-time… and hastily discovers the demands and responsibilities of life in the public eye – nothing at all like he envisioned. Sure, he experiences the loud ovations and a taste of privilege. But media intrusions and pressure from his record label and tour promoters threaten to swallow him whole.

          In reality, the life beyond the red carpet and the press conferences are vastly different than many imagine. Yes, there are some major perks that come with stardom -- wealth and admiration being two of them. Then again, even the highest paid entertainers are constricted by life’s limitations. They may be blessed with exceptional talent, but aren’t granted superpowers or immortality. Like all of the non-famous population, celebrities still need a decent night’s sleep, a healthy diet, and stable companionship at home. They may have stylists, publicists and fitness gurus to help sculpt their public persona. Then they step off-stage. Real life for them presents the same challenges that we all face every day. Aging, health, taxes, family and maintaining a home. They too have to figure out how to balance it all over the course of 24-hour days.

Paul Newman with Warren Cowan
          Just after Elizabeth Taylor tiptoed back to her suite, Warren Cowan shared with me a handful of incidents in which he encountered many of his most famous clients in less than flattering situations. There was the night he schlepped a case of tissues, cough syrup and gallons of chicken soup to the home of one of his actress clients who was battling the flu. He recounted an early morning when he had to run out and hand cash to a famous actor stranded at a gas station after discovering that he’d misplaced his wallet. And then there was an award-winning actress who he helped to move out of a hostile living situation under the watchful glare of her soon-to-be ex-husband. “Like you and me, they all have everyday problems. Theirs are just more magnified when the public catches on,” he explained.

Warren Cowan with Sophia Loren
          Throughout the course of my twenty years in working with celebrities, I’ve come to experience many similar incidents. I’ve booked emergency dentist appointments, arranged cleaning services, driven them to events and provided early-morning wake-up calls. And I’ve witnessed them in private moments of triumph, sadness, anger and hilarity. The same range of emotions that we all experience in our “real lives.” There’s a line a former employer of mine often used about celebrities; about how just like us, they put on their pants each morning “one leg at a time.”  Or, in the case of the late, great Elizabeth Taylor, we all roll out of bed each day equally disheveled and imperfect. It’s a common trait that bonds us as ordinary humans – some a bit more renown than others. 

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.


  1. I love how you tell your stories. You make me/us feel like we're watching from just behind you.