An Eventful Life

Career brought man in touch with the great and near-great

He doesn't seem like a guy who'd use the I Ching to make life decisions.

Then again, if you saw Phil Strassberg on the street, you might not immediately recognize him as a guy who's seen Babe Ruth play baseball, had his ear bent by Walter Winchell, managed Little Anthony and the Imperials, written film reviews for the Arizona Republic, acted in a movie with Marty Robbins and the future mistress of Ferdinand Marcos, and fathered a son in his 50s. But his odd résumé includes all of this and plenty more.

"I guess I've had an eventful life," he understates.

One thing that's not hard to guess is where Strassberg hails from. This small man wears a New York Yankees cap over his snowy hair, and though he insists that his accent has diminished over the years he's spent in the Southwest, you'd never imagine he came from anywhere but the City That Never Sleeps, where his career as a newspaper man, and later as a public relations man, brought him in touch with the great and the near-great.

In one of the grand traditions of New York Jews, Strassberg is fond of good Chinese food, so he's telling me his life story over lunch at Silver Dragon, one of the Valley's handful of tolerable Chinese eateries. We've both ordered lunch combinations. We enjoy the starter, a savory egg flower soup, and Strassberg reminisces about his first movie -- one of his older brothers took him to see Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man -- and his first baseball game -- a different brother took him to see Babe Ruth play in his last year with the Yankees. That's a childhood.

So I wonder aloud, as Gene Wilder said to Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, what's a dazzling urbanite like Strassberg doing in a rustic setting like this? He tells me about how he and his then-wife came to Arizona in the late '60s.

"We threw the I Ching in New York, and it said, 'Forsake your friends in the East, and seek new acquaintances in the West,'" he says. "So we decided to get out of New York. I picked up a car in Albuquerque. We went to Santa Fe, spent some time getting stoned in Taos with hippie friends, and then we continued driving. What happened was, we went to the Grand Canyon, and there were a couple of young girls there we were talking to. I was in my early 40s, and my hair is long, the long sideburns, you know, the '60s image." Maybe based on this look, the girls recommended that they stop off in Sedona on their way to Phoenix. They did so, fell in love with the Red Rock town, and bought a house.

Soon after, in 1970, Strassberg came to Phoenix to find a job. "The money was gonna run out!" he admits. Before long he had three, all at the same place: the Arizona Republic. "I was hired to write film criticism, television criticism, and two entertainment columns a week," he says. "That's a lot."

Strassberg's bosses had every reason to suppose he could handle the load, however, in light of his prestigious newspaper background -- he had spent two decades with The New York Daily Mirror. In the Ben Hecht tradition, he started, in 1944, at the age of 17, as a copyboy. "I had tried to enlist in the Navy, and they turned me down for my bum right ear. I had been in college for more than a year at CCNY, but I didn't do too well in things like math. . . . So I sort of decided, 'I'm gonna go to work.'"

He started at $16.50 a week. "My friends were working in defense plants, making $100 a week. But I wanted to be a newspaper man. As soon as I turned 18, I got the big money: $19.50 a week."

Within a few years, the work was more like fun. "I covered entertainment. I covered nightclubs, restaurants, the vaudeville shows at the RKO Palace . . . I covered jazz. I covered some movies. I also covered the Yiddish theater."

Our entrees arrive. We haven't been especially imaginative in our ordering. I give Strassberg some of my sweet and sour chicken, and he gives me some of his sweet and sour pork, and we dig in. It's just how this dish should taste -- not too sweet, not too sour -- and the meat under the batter isn't the disgrace it is in too many Chinese joints in the Valley.

Between bites of the food and sips of tea, Strassberg fills me with envy describing his glory days at the Mirror. "The main good thing going for the Mirror all those years was Walter Winchell, and the sports department -- we had Dan Parker," he says.

Strassberg eventually came to know the legendary Winchell. "He ran a note in his column about me when I got married, and we saw each other at the Copa. We didn't know each other well, but we knew each other. . . . Years later, when he was on the downgrade after the Mirror days, in the days when I was managing Little Anthony and the Imperials in the late '60s, and we were out in L.A., I called the Ambassador, and left a message for 'W.W.' He called me back and kept me on the phone for two hours, talking about the old days. He was a lonely old man. I felt so bad for him. It was sad, this egomaniac of a man, all his friends had died, from J. Edgar Hoover to FDR. He knew everybody. . . . This is well before your time, but anybody over 50 remembers Winchell."

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