Remembering Jerry Finkelstein

The last of the old-style publishing and political power brokers in New York City left us for the great cigar bar in the sky last week.

Jerry Finkelstein, 96, a legendary newspaper publisher and political kingmaker, was my boss and mentor for 15 years. I am among many in New York who will mourn his death and will try to celebrate his colorful, charismatic life with fond reminiscences of a man who could have leapt off the pages of a Damon Runyan novel.

Everybody in New York’s local political world in the late 20th century had a favorite Jerry Finkelstein story. One of mine is the tale of how he launched Barbara Walters’ television career back in the 1950s. At the time, Finkelstein owned a public relations firm with the late political guru Tex McCrary. Two of their employees were young hotshots, William Safire (who later went onto fame as a The New York Times columnist) and a young woman named Barbara Walters.

After two years toiling at the firm, Walters went in to see her boss, Mr. Finkelstein, to ask for a raise. “Not yet, sweetheart,” Finkelstein said, with a cigar dangling from one side of his mouth. With that, Walters turned around, quit and sought her fame and fortune in television.

Safire, one of the great political columnists and linguists of his time, once inscribed in one of his books he gave to Finkelstein: “To Jerry: Who taught me all I know, but not all he knows.”

That summed up Jerry Finkelstein’s genius. He was always two chess moves ahead of you and you had to listen closely to his quiet instructions to glean a lesson. If you weren’t on your toes, you’d miss a thing or two.

In his younger years, he was a political reformer, who was a major player in Robert Caro’s famous New York City tome, The Power Broker, which was about the life and times of Robert Moses. Jerry was proud that he was one of the few people who stood up to the all-powerful master builder, Moses, and he learned a lot about how to pull the levers of power from those early political wars.

Finkelstein was also a pioneer in publishing—building a mini-empire in legal publishing (The New York Law Journal and National Law Journal), in weekly community newspapers (a chain of 23 weeklies in the metropolitan area in the 1990s) and helping to build a powerful resort newspaper in the Hamptons (Dan’s Papers).

I’ll never forget his wise advice to Dan Rattiner, whose 28-page weekly newspaper was struggling in the Hamptons in the late 1980s until Finkelstein bought a controlling interest in it: “Dan, there are three things you have to do to grow your newspaper. First, put a glossy wrap on it each week so you can get luxury advertisers like Revlon. Two, hire 10 kids every Saturday to throw the newspaper on every mansion lawn in Southampton and East Hampton. And three, stop being a schmuck who writes about the fishermen and start writing about the moguls who come out to the Hamptons.”

Dan, wisely, followed these instructions to a tee. Within two summers under Jerry Finkelstein’s tutelage, Dan’s Papers went from 28 pages to 324 pages some summer weeks. Dan called me in a panic one late June day and said: “I have a crisis. I just called the printing plant and they can only print 324 pages and I have advertisers that we can’t fit into our July 4th edition. What should I do?”

I said: “What should you do? Thank whatever g-d you pray to that you met Jerry Finkelstein.”

Jerry was a political mastermind who was able to convince Robert Kennedy to run for Senator in New York in 1964. Jerry knew how to play both sides of the political aisle and became close to not just Kennedy but also to Republicans like New York Governor and later U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Jerry was even able to maneuver and spend a small fortune to get his own son, Andy Stein, elected City Council President, a heartbeat away from being New York City Mayor in the late 1980s.

Jerry was all about family—he had a wonderful, loving wife of more than six decades, Shirley, two sons who revered him, eight grandchildren he doted on and who loved him dearly and many loyal friends who stayed with him until his last days at America’s most expensive nursing home, The Carlyle Hotel.

With his passing, an era in New York City history goes with him. I am one of the many New Yorkers, who, like William Safire, can say that Jerry taught me all I know about publishing and politics. But not all that he knew.

Jerry Finkelstein, a great New Yorker, RIP.

Tom Allon is a 2013 candidate for Mayor of New York City.

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