Peggy Siegal, Best Hostess in a Supporting Role
Hunched over her saumon marine, Peggy Siegal, the omnipresent New York film publicist and event planner, was sitting between Oliver Stone and Anne Hearst at the Manhattan restaurant La Grenouille last October, talking about the night she tried to ascend to the throne of England.
At a birthday dinner in London, she was seated next to the Viscount William Astor (who, along with his wife, Annabel, happened to be Ms. Siegal’s guests of honor that night at La Grenouille). “I guess he was enamored with my American energy,” Ms. Siegal said, “and immediately invited me for a personal tour of the House of Lords the next day.”
The viscount apparently had no idea how “American” her energy was. As they strolled through the empty Robing Room, where the queen dons her imperial state crown and ceremonial robes before addressing Parliament, Ms. Siegal, flouting several centuries of royal decorum, tried to climb right into the room’s Chair of State, only to be held back by her horrified host. (“She would have been up there in two ticks if I didn’t stop her,” Viscount Astor later recalled.)
To Ms. Siegal, however, the ascendence seemed utterly natural.
“As a Jewish princess from New Jersey,” she said, “I always wanted to be a queen.”
For anyone who knows Ms. Siegal — and above a certain rung in this city’s social stratosphere, who doesn’t? — that story says it all.
Irrepressible, truncheon-blunt and forever pushing the boundaries between “no” and “maybe,” Ms. Siegal, 68, has employed sharp elbows and inexhaustible energy reservoirs to claim a unique social position in New York and the Hamptons: as a host for hire for clubby, insider-only film screenings and dinners for the influential, she stands at the crossroads of Hollywood power and New York society (or what’s left of it), functioning as a spin doctor, salonista, celebrity confidante and, occasionally, bouncer.
Certainly, her business is changing, as studios pay closer attention to the bottom line and competitors look to siphon clients. Even so, after 30 years, Ms. Siegal remains Hollywood’s secret weapon in New York, particularly during the breathless sprint known as Oscar campaign season.
It was a crisp afternoon in early January, and Ms. Siegal stood at the base of the stairs of Kappo Masa, the celestially expensive Japanese restaurant beneath the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. She wore a Chanel-inspired wool miniskirt and jumper, and her hair, once a spiky confection that veered into Joan Jett territory, had been trimmed into a floppy-banged wedge that recalled an English schoolboy.
She was fulminating about the red carpet. Of her many tirades, it is among her favorites: “The red carpet has become nothing but a screaming match for, ‘Who are you wearing?’ I find that so intellectually insulting to these geniuses, the filmmakers. The girls are nothing more than fashion shills, and the men, too, are saying nothing more than, ‘I’m wearing Tom Ford,’ ‘I’m wearing Armani.’”
“You might as well have everyone march down the red carpet and go home,” she said. “Who needs the movie?”
That day’s event, she was quick to point out, was nothing like a red carpet mob scene. Instead, it would be an intimate, exclusive lunch for “The Revenant” — the Oscar contender starring Leonardo DiCaprio — featuring a panel discussion with the filmmakers and actors, for the benefit of 80 or so media heavyweights and, more important, several voting members of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (There are some 800 academy members in the New York area — “and,” Ms. Siegal joked, “I’ve slept with them all.”)
Although Ms. Siegal likes to say that her lunches are basically “a press conference wrapped around a piece of chicken,” they are serious business for studios, especially this time of year. This lunch, for example, was just days before ballots for Oscar nominations were due.
It is the Hollywood version of a get-out-the-vote blitz in politics, in which studios hustle to make sure their Oscar hopefuls are front and center in the minds of voters. But unlike in a political campaign, studios must play by certain rules: There are no mass mailers or robocalls in an Oscar campaign. Academy rules forbid telephone lobbying. Any communication by mail (including email) must not include photographs, fancy graphics, promotional language or any reference to the achievements of the filmmakers or actors.
Ms. Siegal’s screenings give media insiders an incentive to sit through the film on the big screen and spend an afternoon discussing it with other cinephiles, while still adhering to the rules. Such soft-sell marketing can be crucial, said Cynthia Swartz, whose company, Strategy PR/Consulting, helps studios devise Oscar campaigns, particularly since “a year like this is really close, and every vote is going to count.”
As the producer Jerry Bruckheimer put it, Ms. Siegal “has a way getting the filmmakers and actors to sit and talk with the people who actually vote, and make it interesting for both sides,” adding, “it certainly helps in the voting.”
And few people have done it better. In an industry where publicists come and go, Ms. Siegal has lasted for 30 years, even as the era of publicist as star seems to be passing.
One mentor, Bobby Zarem, is now living in Savannah, Ga.; another, Lois Smith, died in 2012. While fellow boldface names in the business have worked to extend their reach (Nadine Johnson has broad portfolio of clients in art, fashion, real estate and technology; Lizzie Grubman has ventured into branding and talent management), Ms. Siegal has made herself a force in the business by dominating a highly specific niche: A-list screening events.
She has faced challenges, most clearly from Andrew Saffir, whose rival marketing company, the Cinema Society, has been gaining momentum in recent years. (Darin Pfeiffer, a former employee, has also started his own events business.) But no one has managed to supplant her.
After three decades of Malibu weddings, Greenwich polo matches and Hamptons barbecues, Ms. Siegal knows how to draw influencers. She maintains a database of some 30,000 contacts, she says, broken down by profession (she has a filmmaker list, a finance list, an art list) and nationality (a British list, a German list).
She casts each lunch, or tea, or dinner, like she’s casting a movie. For a lunch for “The Danish Girl,” Tom Hooper’s film about a transgender artist, she invited Larry Gagosian, Rob Pruitt (the post-conceptual artist) and Françoise Gilot, the 94-year-old French painter who once dumped Pablo Picasso. For a screening of the Hungarian Holocaust film “Son of Saul,” she lured the survivor and author Elie Wiesel — “and all Jews want to meet Elie Wiesel,” Ms. Siegal said.
Even so, just as Martin Scorsese keeps going back to Leonardo DiCaprio for his films, Ms. Siegal tends to traffic in some familiar faces: Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters and Martha Stewart in media; Michael Douglas, Darren Aronofsky and Sofia Coppola in film. The actor Bob Balaban is such a frequent guest that he may as well be her mascot.
Typical of a Peggy Siegal event, the lemon-yellow banquettes at Kappo Masa were dotted with highly familiar faces that day.
Mr. DiCaprio, shorn of his mountain-man beard, chatted about global warming with Sting, who seemed to have inherited that very beard. Lorraine Bracco chatted with Wendi Murdoch and Steve Golin, the “Revenant” producer, about her Oscar night disappointment in 1991, when she was a runner-up for best actress in a supporting role for “Goodfellas.” (Whoopi Goldberg took home the statuette that night.)
After lunch, Mr. DiCaprio, microphone in hand, perched on a tall wooden chair and recounted the crew’s experiences in the subzero wilds of Alberta, Canada. Committed to shooting in natural light, they had only a short window each day to get the shot, which was difficult on days in which “our entire set became a frozen popsicle,” he said. “It was so cold out, the cameras wouldn’t operate.”
To Ms. Siegal, who friends say is something of a Nostradamus when it comes to Oscar prognostication, Mr. DiCaprio is a near lock for best actor.
“Making this film was a survival contest, and that’s what has resonated with voters,” she said. “He survived the elements. He gained weight, just like De Niro.” And, she noted, he ended up eating the liver of a buffalo. “You can’t get more authentic than that.”
Besides, she added, “he’s had six nominations. He’s due.”
A day later, Ms. Siegal was frantically circling the sun-drenched Rainbow Room high above Rockefeller Center around noon, directing her assistants as they rearranged pink and blue Post-its on her seating chart for a lunch-and-learn for “The Big Short” featuring the film’s director, Adam McKay.
In addition to making sure the talent and the influencers are spread around the room (the biggest talent matched with the biggest journalists), she said she tries to do a “personality matchup” at each table, a form of matchmaking: “On one side is their best friend, on the other side is their new best friend.”
Like a marathoner at Mile 7, she was getting up to cruising speed with her second of five events that day, a personal record (the day began with a brunch for “The Hateful Eight” featuring Samuel L. Jackson and ended with a Sylvester Stallone dinner for “Creed”).
But if the pace was grinding her down, the strain did not show in her face.
As her friend Michael Douglas said, “Peggy looks the same as she did in 1985.” Pushing 70, her skin is buttery smooth, her crow’s-feet but a hint. That’s the nice way to say it. Considering that she is pushing 70, it is natural to assume she has had work done. That would be the not-so-nice-way to put it, at least with most women. For Ms. Siegal, it’s a compliment.
This is the woman, after all, who presented the 167 guests at her 60th birthday party at the Plaza Athénée, who included Billie Jean King, Vera Wang and David Koch, with an annotated pamphlet called “How to Look Like Me at 60,” recommending the professionals who kept her looking vibrant — all 23 of them. It included her gynecologist (“glamorous, attentive”), her podiatrist (“gives the best toe reductions in town”) and her plastic surgeon (“gave me a new neck a year ago”).
To her, cosmetic surgery is just another weapon in a woman’s arsenal, along with Oscar de la Renta gowns. “The best way to combat gender and age discrimination is to knock them out when you walk into a room,” she said.
Whether knocking them out or knocking them over, it’s fair to say that Ms. Siegal makes her presence felt. Brash, profane and polarizing, she has a old-school showbiz personality that seems lifted from “Sweet Smell of Success.”
In a 2006 book, she told the writer Alex Kuczynski how doctors remove fat from her posterior and inject it into her face. So, she noted with apparent satisfaction, when people are kissing her face, they are actually kissing her rear end.
With those in positions of power, she knows how to stroke and coddle (she famously signs off on emails “XOXO Peggy” — even, seemingly, when mass-emailed by assistants).
She can also bare fangs. Joanna Molloy, a longtime gossip columnist for The Daily News, recalled a lunch at Michael’s where a waiter asked if they would like to hear the specials. “Don’t even bother,” Ms. Siegal barked at him. “You’ll probably get it wrong, and I know what I want.” (“She’s one tough lady,” Ms. Molloy said).
Reporters who cross her can usually expect a volcanic response.
Paula Froelich, a former reporter for the New York Post’s Page Six column, recalls Ms. Siegal lambasting her over an offending item during an event at Monkey Bar. First, Ms. Froelich heard a furious shriek over her shoulder, as Ms. Siegal approached her, violently stabbing a finger in the air as she demanded an apology. The anger was so intense that Ms. Froelich’s back was pressed against the wall. “She didn’t touch me,” Ms. Froelich said. “It was just the power of her emotional force.”
In a rare gesture in the gossip world, Ms. Froelich apologized. “The older I get,” she said, “the more I say, ‘Go, Team Peggy.’ She’s the Sue Mengers of P.R. She’s an original, and to me that’s the highest compliment in this homogenized world.”
Ms. Siegal’s quirks extend to her memory, which can be highly selective, to say the least. While she can rattle off a social register’s worth of details about seemingly hundreds of friends on the A-list — family trees, employment history, children’s birthdays — she sometimes has trouble remembering the names of her staff, she admitted. “I literally have to put name tags on the wall so I know who they are,” she said. “Otherwise, I call them ‘you’ or ‘the little one.’”
By many accounts, the Peggy Siegal Company is a “boot camp,” as one former employee put it. (A job posting for an intern asked for “thick-skinned” candidates.) Part of this may be rooted in Ms. Siegal’s experiences as a young publicist herself; she said that Bobby Zarem, the P.R. legend, once hurled a telephone at her. (Mr. Zarem denied it.)
Even so, two former employees said her reputation as a tyrannical boss is overblown. “It was run-of-the-mill Hollywood yelling,” one said. “She would get upset, it would pass.”
(Many have gone on to land plum jobs in the industry, too; Gigi Semone is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development; Elizabeth Petit and Debra Nathin Solomons went on to prominent jobs in the New York publicity offices for 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., respectively.)
Ms. Siegal said that she has taken steps to rein in her temper.
“I went to a Freudian analyst a thousand years ago and told him I was always late and always yelling,” she said. “He said, ‘Buy a watch and be explicit.’”
“Miscommunication is what sends me into a rage,” she said.
Regardless, even her friends would not list restraint as a classic Peggy quality. Eddie Redmayne recalled her pushing him into a conversation between Ben Affleck and George Clooney at a party for “Argo” a few years ago, when he was largely unknown in America, blurting only, “He speaks German!”
“No name, no pleasantries, just that,” Mr. Redmayne said. As the two movie stars stared quizzically, Mr. Redmayne quickly shuffled off, mortified. Ms. Siegal, it turns out, knew that Mr. Clooney was casting his World War II film, “The Monuments Men.” The only problem: Mr. Redmayne did not speak German — “not a word, zilch.”
“For Peggy,” he added, “that was not even the most minor of hurdles.”
Her lack of a filter has made her a target in the gossip columns. This past spring, they painted Ms. Siegal as a Marie Antoinette in Manolo Blahniks after she told The Wall Street Journal that Mayor Bill De Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, had “made themselves socially irrelevant” by skipping the Met Costume Gala. “It is a major shortcoming not to mingle with all classes,” she had said.
Richard Johnson of the Page Six gossip column often has tarred her with sobriquets like “the pushy publicist” or “perpetually petulant publicist.”
“For years, I’ve been called ‘pushy,’” Ms. Siegal said. “Well, you don’t call David Geffen ‘pushy.’”
While she has had public tiffs with the likes of Jerry Della Femina, the adman and Hamptons power broker, perhaps her most meaningful face-off is with the Cinema Society’s Andrew Saffir, the former Ralph Lauren executive who has elbowed his way into a professional niche that Ms. Siegal basically invented; his company holds some 70 events a year.
To set himself apart, Mr. Saffir has claimed downtown as his turf, holding fashion-heavy screening parties at nightclubs or rooftop bars like Mr. Purple, on the Lower East Side, that draw guests like Prabal Gurung and Michael Stipe.
“A lot of Upper East Side people will come downtown, at least for the right event,” Mr. Saffir said. “Not a lot of downtown people will go to the Upper East Side.”
To Ms. Siegal, her relationships built up over three decades protect her market dominance, particularly with prestige, “intellectual” films, and she is quick to dismiss any suggestion of a rivalry with Mr. Saffir.
“I’ve been in the Academy since 1986,” she said. “I have impeccable relationships with directors. He has impeccable relationships with models.”
Besides, Ms. Siegal said, she has already tried to colonize downtown. In 2000, she joined forces with Lizzie Grubman, the publicity dynamo 23 years her junior.
The professional marriage lasted about a year. It did not help that Ms. Grubman became a tabloid staple after backing her Mercedes S.U.V. into a crowd at a Southampton nightclub, injuring 16 people. Ms. Siegal said that ultimately, the generation gap was too great.
“I went downtown because I thought I needed to be young,” Ms. Siegal said. “I would say, ‘All the President’s Men.’ She’d say, ‘What’s that?’ She would say, ‘Do you know Snoop Dogg?’ I’d say, ‘Who the hell is that?’”
“I was in the wrong part of town,” Ms. Siegal said.
“New York magazine once did a cover story on ‘Downward Mobility,’” Ms. Siegal recalled while lurching through traffic in the backseat of a blue Lincoln on a weekday night in January. “They had someone going down these steps on the cover. I thought: ‘Oh, my God, that cannot be me. I’d kill myself.’”
On her way to meet an old friend, John Travolta, at her party for his new FX mini-series, “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” at Monkey Bar, it seemed clear that Ms. Siegal is in no hurry to leave the social pinnacle she spent a lifetime clawing to reach.
She lives in a two-bedroom apartment on East 74th Street that used to belong to Black Jack Bouvier (Jacqueline Onassis’s father), decorated like an English manor, with stately portraits of “other people’s relatives,” she said. She recently mingled with Juan Carlos I, the former king of Spain at the Dominican Republic resort of the sugar baron Pepe Fanjul; she spent Thanksgiving at Martha Stewart’s house; she counts David Koch, the oil magnate and Libertarian patron saint, as a close friend.
Even so, success has come at a price. She never married, or had children, although she has been linked to plenty of power players, like Austin Hearst, the publishing heir. She often works seven days a week.
“You want to know how pathetic my life is?” she asked. “I sleep with my BlackBerry on my pillow.”
Her old Freudian analyst might say that she is still trying to satisfy the ambitions of her mother, Annette, who died in 2011.
Annette Siegal, the wife of an upwardly mobile light bulb magnate, Martin Siegal, was a regal woman who wore white gloves and couture clothing, and pushed her daughter toward the social pinnacle. “She named me Peggy, which has nothing to do with Siegal — it’s like Tyrone Katz — because she thought that name would sound great in the halls of Vogue magazine,” Ms. Siegal said.
Her mother also rode her mercilessly to be thin, attractive, perfectly attired. “My mother used to slap me on the back, scream at me, to stand up straight,” she said. “My mother wasn’t as bad as, what are those Chinese mothers? My mother was the precursor to the tiger mom. She was the Jewish mom.”
While her mother taught her that appearance was of paramount importance for a woman, she thought education was better left to men, Ms. Siegal said.
“When I was 12, my mother sent my brother to private school, not me, and I resented her my entire life,” Ms. Siegal said. “Every day in high school I had to watch my brother come home in a school uniform, going to school with rich kids in New York. I was going to school at Fort Lee High with the children of hairdressers and gas station attendants. This was beyond humiliating. Every day of high school I had to look at him in this blue blazer with the school crest on the pocket.”
She added: “I never got over this. I felt this intellectual stigma my entire life, and every time someone said to me, ‘Where did you go to school?’ I hated my mother.”
That slight, she said, has provided a lifetime of motivation.
“Everyone says to me, you never would have accomplished anything if your mother had sent you to private school,” she said. “You’d be married and living in Great Neck with four children.”
Indeed, missing out on motherhood was another sacrifice for a woman who learned to challenge a multitude of dissatisfactions and frustrations into work. In her 30s, she recalled, “I thought about being a single mother. I was always 10 years ahead of my time. It wasn’t that accepted, it was not the thing my mother was hoping for. So I always made these practical decisions, supporting myself, which always went back to my business. When I started to have success in my business, that became more comforting to me than being dumped on by my last boyfriend.”
The secret of her survival is hardly her acumen with a spreadsheet. Ms. Siegal admits that she has never been a numbers person, which is why she teamed up with Bryan Bantry, an agent and theatrical producer, as her managing partner. (“On any given day, I take on the role of adviser, coach, negotiator, fixer and at times most importantly travel agent,” Mr. Bantry said.) As Ms. Siegal used to tell Pepe Fanjul: “I love what I do, I’d pay my clients to do it. He’d say, ‘That’s your problem.’”
Nor is it her ability to join forces with other brand-name agencies. Her attempts to form partnerships with other power publicists, like Harriet Weintraub and Ms. Grubman, were short-lived. And there seems to be no suggestion of an anointed successor in her own office, as if the possibility she will one day stop what she is doing is all but unthinkable.
“It’s love of the game,” said Jeremy Barber, a partner at United Talent Agency. “She’s at every screening, she’s at every festival. She’s not scared to box around with the titans in the space. Sometimes she’s at odds with them, sometimes she’s employed by them. There’s a certain old-school publicity diva, and she just is one.”
At last, the Lincoln pulled up to Monkey Bar. Ms. Siegal, in a mink scarf, headed off for another night of air kisses, another night brokering introductions between the likes of Rudolph Giuliani and John Travolta.
Around midnight, the party was still hopping, but Ms. Siegal slouched into a red leather booth, placing a small bowl of sauteed spinach on the white tablecloth before her.
“Dinner,” she said.