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.

Phil Strassberg
Phil Strassberg

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."

The Mirror folded in 1963. But, says Strassberg, "It was expected. One of the typographical union strikes had affected the Mirror, then in competition with the New York Daily News. So I already had started my own public relations business more than six months before. . . . I let the executive editor know about my starting the business and told him that none of my clients would show up anywhere in the entertainment section."

The PR business led Strassberg, in the late '60s, into show business management -- he handled pop acts Little Anthony and the Imperials as well as the Chiffons. But by the end of the '60s, Strassberg and Little Anthony had amicably parted, and he was looking for a change of life. He and his wife threw the I Ching, and that was that.

He ended up at the Republic, a considerably less heady setting than the Mirror. "They didn't let me review Last Tango in Paris, 'cause it was X-rated," he says, with a marveling laugh. "They wouldn't accept advertising from X-rated movies, either. When I did my Top 10 list that year, I put it on my second list, of movies from 11 to 20. I buried it there, but I got it in."

He worked for the Republic until the mid-'70s. While covering the Arizona location shoot of Guns of a Stranger, a dreadful 1973 singing-cowboy Western starring Marty Robbins, he was even drafted into service as an actor. Seen as a shopkeeper in that film, with long black hair and a vaguely Fu Manchu mustache and beard, Strassberg looks more like a guy who'd throw the I Ching and get stoned with hippies in Taos.

"The guy who directed put his girlfriend in the movie, as the leading lady," he recalls. "She was terrible; she couldn't act. The kicker of the story is, she later became the mistress of the guy from the Philippines who got kicked out." He's referring to the pretty but acting-challenged Dovie Beams, who attained a very brief microcelebrity as the Other Woman in the life of Ferdinand Marcos.

Strassberg even took a spin on the other coast, spending two years in the late '70s with a PR firm in L.A. working with the likes of Gabe Kaplan, Diahann Carroll and even (reverent pause) Sinatra himself.

Unenchanted by L.A., however, Strassberg returned to the Valley. With another wife, he became a father for the first time in 1981, when he was in his 50s. When the marriage ended, he won custody of the two-and-a-half-year-old, and has been faced with the challenges of raising a teenager, as a single parent, during the period when most people are watching their own children do so. His now-19-year-old son Aaron, Strassberg says proudly, is currently working 40 hours a week and pulling down A's and B's at Paradise Valley Community College.

Our plates are empty. The fortune cookies have been cracked open to make their grandiose promises. I walk Strassberg to his car. His next adventure is coming up fast, and he's got errands to run -- he's preparing to drive to New Orleans in a few days for Mardi Gras, then to take a riverboat ride up the Mississippi. He's just now getting around to it.

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