YOU MAY NOT KNOW Bobby Zarem, the Savannah-born, Ardsley Park-based, long-time New York City publicist who launched the careers of dozens of celebrities from Broadway to Hollywood throughout the second half of the 20th century. But you certainly know his work.
Zarem was born here in 1936. At 38, he started his own publicity agency, shaking up the PR world with his long, personalized pitches. He represented Cher, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Diana Ross, Michael Caine, Michael Douglas, Sophia Loren — the list goes on — and photos of these icons line every surface in his living room, along with snapshots of a mustachioed Tom Hanks and a selfie with a grinning Bette Midler (taken by the Divine Miss M herself), among many others.
Zarem’s publicity for films like Dances with Wolves, Scarface, Rambo and Saturday Night Fever cemented them in American cinema history. His work for his client, the City of New York, helped lead to the iconic “I Love New York” campaign. His placement of a leading New York Post item thrust John Berendt’s local interest book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, into the national spotlight, sealing it as emblematic of — and inescapable for — Savannah. Without him, even Jimmy Carter may never have won the presidency… but that’s another story.
Zarem went off to prep school just before he turned 14, then to Andover College and on to Yale, but he was never away for long, and today he lives in the very house in which he grew up. I ask him what his favorite Savannah spots were, expecting his first answer will be his beloved long-time haunt, Desposito’s — the fish shack on Isle of Armstrong that has been teetering on the brink of closure, and that we have our fingers crossed is indeed just closed for renovations.
Instead, he says without even pausing to think, “the Sapphire Room.”
“You mean the Sapphire Grill?” I ask, thinking of the spot that closed a few years ago on West Congress Street, an old favorite of my husband’s, who is a longtime friend of Zarem.
“No! The Sapphire Room.”
Before the Hilton DeSoto Hotel (now Sotherly’s The DeSoto) at Liberty and Drayton, there was an older iteration: The original DeSoto Hotel was built in 1890 on the site of the Oglethorpe Barracks, a masterpiece of esteemed Boston architect William Gibbons Preston, whose other Savannah projects include the Savannah Cotton Exchange and the old Chatham County Courthouse. The grand building was torn down in 1968 by the Hilton corporation, but before its demise, the Sapphire Room, Zarem says, was the only real night club in Savannah. It was elegant. It had an orchestra. It hosted the likes of Kathryn Hepburn, Babe Ruth and a number of American presidents. And Zarem recalls a night in 1956 when Elvis Presley was turned away at the door because he didn’t have a tie.
A great publicist keeps his name and likeness out of his work, so Zarem’s decades of influence have unfolded, by nature, behind the scenes. But he was always somewhere in the background, making the scene. For a “Salt of the City” column, it doesn’t get much saltier, and I’m not just talking about his occasional zingers: Zarem has added more flavor to 20th-century American pop culture than we can measure.