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Obituaries

John Springer, 85; Press Agent to an Illustrious Array of Entertainers

November 02, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was there during Marilyn Monroe's brief marriage to Joe DiMaggio in 1954, and when Monroe died in 1962, he helped DiMaggio make his ex-wife's funeral arrangements.

He was there when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were generating scandalous headlines on the Roman set of "Cleopatra" in 1961 and when they were twice married and twice divorced.

And he was in Myrna Loy's Manhattan penthouse in 1988, a reassuring presence for the 83-year-old screen legend, reminding her that, yes, she was driving down to Washington to receive a Kennedy Center Award that weekend.

John Springer, who was considered one of the legendary show business press agents, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure in New York City. He was 85.

In a 50-year career that began in the New York offices of RKO studios in the late 1940s, Springer handled media relations for an illustrious--and seemingly endless--list of celebrities that included Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Mia Farrow, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and dozens more.

Clients viewed Springer as their friend and protector as much as their press agent.

After Taylor and Burton split, the joke in Hollywood was, "Who's going to get custody of John Springer?"

"The difference between him and all the rest was that, from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, he was a gentleman," actor Tony Randall, a client since the 1960s, told The Times on Thursday. "He was an authentically decent human being, and he just treated people with respect all the time."

Randall laughingly recalled the time in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" was published and Randall's name was on it.

"The day it appeared, my phone never stopped ringing," he recalled. "Finally, John got through and he said, 'Tony, what am I going to tell my other clients? What am I going to tell Shirley MacLaine? What am I going to tell Elizabeth Taylor? What am I going to tell Hank Fonda? They're not on it!"'

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Springer was the son of the head of industrial relations for Eastman Kodak Co. He received a journalism degree from Marquette University, a Milwaukee institution run by the Jesuits, in 1939. By then he had already written movie reviews for the Catholic Courier newspaper in Rochester and interviewed celebrities who passed through town.

At 14, the star-struck Springer won a national contest sponsored by Paramount Pictures that awarded him a weeklong trip to New York City.

Ensconced in a Times Square hotel, he spent his evenings meeting stars backstage at the Paramount Theatre then went out to dinner with them. The first two stars were Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, who later became his clients. As did two others he met on the trip, Ginger Rogers and Sylvia Sidney.

Sidney, in fact, became a lifelong friend of Springer's, and he represented her until her death a few years ago.

"My father did what he did because he was a fan," said Springer's son Gary, who was named after Gary Cooper, another of his father's clients and friends. "He loved the people, he loved the mystique of the industry, and that's why he was able to do what he could do and people trusted him. They knew that; it was just innate in my dad."

After serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, Springer began his public relations career in 1946 as head of magazine publicity for RKO Pictures in New York. He was magazine publicity director for 20th Century Fox in New York from 1957 to 1960, then began Arthur Jacobs & John Springer Public Relations Co. in New York. He opened John Springer Associates in 1963.

Among the films Springer represented were "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde," "A Man for All Seasons," "Midnight Cowboy," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Carnal Knowledge."

In 1972, Springer launched a series of successful shows featuring top film actresses at New York's Town Hall. Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell were among those who had onstage conversations with Springer, interspersed with film clips and audience questions. Davis later borrowed the idea and did her own touring version of it, as did Cary Grant and other stars.

Ever the movie lover, Springer wrote numerous articles for everything from Photoplay to Films in Review. He wrote a handful of books, including "The Fondas," "They Had Faces Then" and "All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!"

But for all the Hollywood secrets he undoubtedly knew, there was never any celebrity tell-all in the offing.

"Trust is what it is all about," Springer once said of his role as press agent. "I grew up with the nuns and Jesuits, and I feel my obligation is something like the seal of a confessional."

Gary Springer joined his father's firm in 1980. And although John Springer partially retired in 1992, he continued as a consultant for what became Springer/Chicoine Public Relations.

The day before Springer died, he told his son to call columnists Liz Smith and Robert Osborne to let them know he was in the hospital.

"Tuesday morning, the day he died," Gary Springer said, "when my mother walked in, he whispers, 'Do you know if Gary called Liz and Osborne?' So he was a publicist to the end."

In addition to his son, Springer is survived by his wife, June; daughters Alicia and Cynthia; and five grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Manhattan.

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