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Publicist puts a new spin on life

February 02, 2005|Kim Masters | Special to The Times

Publicist Bumble Ward says there was no blowup with a client -- no degrading demand or invective-filled altercation -- that catalyzed her decision to do what so many in Hollywood say they wish they could do: quit the business.

Instead, there was a quarrel with her husband over the holidays. "He said, 'I don't want to fight with you. This is not a dress rehearsal,' " says Ward, one of Hollywood's more popular personal publicists. Something about those words resonated with her and she decided it was time to act on a long-held desire to pursue different work. "Even if I [stink], I just want to try it before my mind is entirely addled," she says.

What she wants to try before the mind goes is writing novels. For this she will give up an enviable roster of big-name directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary") and "Finding Neverland's" Marc Forster.

In a phone conversation before leaving town for a short vacation Ward says she is reluctant to discuss her decision to leave. "There isn't any big reason other than -- I'm done," she says.

Ward's decision has stirred some envy in Hollywood, where many understand the corrosive effect of working for those who can be demanding and abusive. "I admire it," says DreamWorks marketing executive Terry Press. "To be able to walk away and say this is what I want to do -- how many people do that?"

To those who had read a 2002 profile of Ward in the New Yorker, Ward's decision did not come as a total surprise. Ward famously told the magazine of her dismay at watching powerful publicist Pat Kingsley standing at attention (in that dreaded spot) on the red carpet. "Some of my moments of clarity have come from seeing Pat Kingsley -- this very strong, proud, older woman -- waiting and waiting and then opening the limo door," Ward said then. "The idea of being caught in the swirly vortex of publicity until I'm Pat's age is so horrific."

At that point, the then-39-year-old says, she was already working on a novel, adding that she did not want to be doing publicity at 40. She is now 41.

The Oscar ceremony Feb. 27 will mark her official departure from the biz, though she will consult with Coppola on her upcoming production of "Marie-Antoinette," starring Kirsten Dunst.

Sounding just wistful enough to be diplomatic, Ward says it was "a bloody hard decision" to leave. But she was clear that she's had enough in a business that sometimes involves dealing with unpleasantness. "I had the best clients in the business and still, it's utterly soul-destroying," she says. "How many publicists do you know that you think are great people? I can count them on one hand. It's a weird business where you are absolutely the bottom of the barrel and you get humiliated.... No disrespect to anybody but standing on a red carpet waiting for a client is no fun."

Raised in the English village of Aldbury, Ward worked for a number of publicity firms before starting her own, out of her garage, in 1994. Tarantino once declared that Ward "helped make me one of the most famous directors in the world."

Indeed, Ward and Tarantino helped each other. "She broke some serious ground with Quentin," says Miramax publicity chief Amanda Lundberg. "You noticed her work because you didn't see directors being handled that way.... She got him such mainstream press that people knew the name."

Having helped to create Tarantino's fame, as the New Yorker piece pointed out, Ward then had to "soften stories about his weight gain, his breakup with Mira Sorvino, the terrible reviews he got as an actor, and his penchant for bar fights."

Anyone who read that story knew Ward was suffering from battle fatigue. It described what most publicists take to their graves: trying times with abusive, narcissistic clients who dumped on her for such infractions as failing to get them a coveted invitation to an industry party or paying attention to her children -- sitting in the back seat of her car as she drove and talked on her cellphone with them.

Early in January, Bumble Ward & Associates moved into new offices. Various problems with that space led her to work at home and she found that she liked being there. "There's no more amazing feeling than being home when your kids come home," she says. (Her children are 14 and 9.)

Although some of her erstwhile competitors have told her she's crazy, others have a different response. "People are saying, 'I'm really jealous, but well done -- and by the way, can I have your clients?' "

Some competitors as well as several studio executives who are not trolling for Ward's clients have praised her. Among them is Kingsley. "She did extraordinary work for the people she represented," Kingsley says. "If she wants to go out and go out on top, she's actually doing it."

(Asked how she feels about being the specter that helped drive Ward out of the business, Kingsley laughs. "I still find it fun," says Kingsley, 72. "You don't literally open limo doors.")

"She's supremely intelligent, which is a hard-to-find commodity in this business sometimes," says Stephanie Klust, senior vice president of publicity at Universal Pictures. "And she works with people that she cares about, which I think makes a big difference."

Others who have struggled to cope with demanding talent expressed sympathy. "It's like being a mommy whose children never grow up," one says.

Ward declines to look back on her experiences, saying, "I'm almost not far enough away from it to reminisce." Whether those experiences become fodder for a roman a clef remains -- perhaps anxiously, by some -- to be seen.

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