ROCK N ROLL PRESS ANGEL
Remembering True Great CLAIRE O’CONNOR
Personality Snapshots by Jeffrey Slonim
Patrick McMullan and I were heartbroken when we heard the news about our beloved pal Claire O’Connor, who succumbed to lung cancer on July 28th, this year. He immediately nominated her as a True Great for my column in PMc Magazine.
And while I have attended a handful of amazing funerals (such as Andy Warhol’s), and I adore the film Harold and Maude, I’m no Harold or Maude. I don’t just run to ceremonies for people I didn’t know exceedingly well.
But I did know Claire. Over the years, she was one of those classic New York publicists that have a knack for being at the center of press whirlwinds.
And Claire did me one behemoth favor that must go unspoken. It was a solid so solid I’ll owe her forever. It was a kind of 19th-century favor, something grand that improved my life; we would both likely have been carted off to jail for it if anyone ever found out. I inadvertently blabbed about it once to an Australian lawyer, and she looked at me like I was ungodly scum.
It wasn’t money or drugs, but it gave me a tiny leg-up for several years. It was a bureaucratic favor: Gogolesque. And every time Claire called or e-mailed about a dingy old club or the Cutting Room, I went all out to try to show up in person for her. And while getting there always felt like a favor to her, inevitably the events always ended up being great for my career.
For example, one night she asked me to turn up at The Cutting Room for Bebe Buell. And, much as I love Buell, when I walked in the door, I was thinking, “Okay, NOW I’ve REALLY paid Claire back.” Then, in walked Bebe’s daughter, Liv Tyler, in the third row with her buddy Kate Hudson, who had just had dinner with Owen Wilson. That romance was just budding, and, no kidding, I got years of mileage and sources and scoop out of that pop-by.
And now I was in even deeper with O’Connor. Now I owed her for the Gogolesque favor and for my starry night at The Cutting Room.
“Claire was a doll,” online entertainment columnist and filmaker Roger Friedman told True Great. “We did a lot of shows at the Cutting Room, particularly with the late Phoebe Snow. You always felt when Claire was on the scene that everything would be okay. That was helpful with a rock show because it’s always chaos. So many publicists could learn from her.”
And then there was the storied evening when Axl Rose sang at Plumm. It started out as a ho-hum washed-up rocker appearance. I had gone there to help pay back my gift from Claire. She got me into the VIP area, about two feet from Tommy Hilfiger. The previously wimpy designer got upset when he and his then gal pal Dee Ocleppo, Axl’s ex, were escorted out of the VIP area. And Tommy began pounding Axl’s face, and then he kept running back to pound him more–chased back by Rose’s wall of beefcake bodyguards. Rosario Dawson’s mother and I were standing out in front of the club catching our breath when Tommy ran out and nearly got nailed by oncoming traffic. And then he ran back in to do more hammering.
I’ve been living off this story for ages. It landed me a gig at People magazine. And he and Dee, now his wife, always include me in their starry moments backstage at his shows; he invited me to his engagement party. And they wink at me when we run into each other, acknowledging that Tommy going apeshit turned my life around.
And Claire didn’t do me the original solid so I would owe her. She did it because we are both the sort of “beaten down by the ‘The Man’” types who can never quite catch a break. Only I caught a lot of breaks, thanks to O’Connor.
And while I loved Claire and her rich commiserating phone voice, her passing became one of the saddest assignments I was ever asked to write. I’d call one of her grieving pals, and they’d offer up the numbers of other hurting members of the inner circle. And finally, I just couldn’t phone any more. It was simply too sad and too soon.
And I kept trying to connect with her daughter, Darian, age 21, who apparently worked at Patrick McMullan’s office before heading out to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). Only I couldn’t intrude on her life, having her focus on this supreme sadness while she’s away at school. She and her sister Blaise, age 11, by the way, were both at their mother’s side with O’Connor’s husband, rocker Adam Bomb, during Claire’s last breath.
Anita Sarko told me in the front row at The Blondes‘ fashion show this past Fashion Week how wonderful her friend Darian, Claire’s daughter, is. And Sarko doesn’t love everybody. If Sarko says a person is great, she’s truly great. And Sarko loves, loves, loves Darian.
In August, McMullan and I were at Linda McCartney’s brother’s bucolic shingled house in East Hampton for a Stem Cell Research Foundation benefit. And Patrick started telling me a story about the time that Claire took on some guys as clients who had lost one of their buddies and, seeing an opportunity, put his dead body in a chair that had wheels on the bottom, and rolled him to the bank to try and cash one of his checks.
“It was a real-life Weekend at Bernie’s,” said McMullan. “And Claire thought it was so funny she took them on as clients.” These guys not only received tons of press, they became a kind of macabre cause célèbre of the New York Post and, likely thanks to Claire, were exonerated in court.
“That’s what a great sense of humor she had,” offered McMullan. “She did it just because the story made her laugh.”
During Fashion Week, Kenny Kenny, in the front row of The Blondes, recalled the even more macabre era, when Claire wound up as the publicist for the then-shuttered Limelight nightclub during the Michael Alig trial, which involved Angel Melendez tragically wacked in the head with a hammer and/or force-fed Drano. His remains were kept on ice and eventually tossed in the East River. And you thought Howard Rubenstein had it bad with Leona Helmsley…
“The thing about Claire,” said Kenny, the sides of his head shaved and his rather large left nipple on full view, “was that we were both Irish. When I saw her, even though she didn’t grow up there, I saw a real Dubliner.”
“And Claire was rock-and-roll,” insisted Kenny, who chews his vowels like spuds. “I saw a Dubliner in her, but tough, good people. She had her own way of doing things that was real earthy, like a mother goddess. And there were a lot of higher-ups that were pretty delinquent at Limelight. I suffered so much stress at the time. I was doing the door, and there were people being let in that shouldn’t have been. It was crazier than people will ever know. I was just in shock, and a lot of the kids were in shock. But when she saw something bad happening, she had to be on the side of the higher-ups. But she still had a way of taking your side and making you feel, ‘Hey, I know they’re fucked up. But I’ll work it.’”
O’Connor booked Guns n’ Roses at Limelight when nobody else would have, according Adam [Bomb] Brenner. “She booked the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they couldn’t get a gig here,” he told Joanna Malloy. “She brought Billy Ray Cyrus to New York for the first time.”
“She was working for Limelight in the ’80s, when it was number one,” explains her buddy Lonnie Hanover, best known as the publicist for Scores. He currently represents Rick’s Cabaret on West 33rd Street. “She was discovering talent, handling promoters. She could get things in the paper and on TV. People liked her.”
Claire was everything to the young Christian Slater, according to Hanover. “He relied on her for business stuff,” he told True Great. “If Christian Slater was hanging out, she was there. And we all know how Billy Idol felt about Claire. There was a glow and warmth about her.”
Joanna Malloy of the Daily News was one of her closet friends and fans. “Claire was this incredible amalgam of night-life cool, handling the public relations of Peter Gatien’s legal troubles and Michael Alig’s club kid murder, always with consummate calm, that husky, measured voice on the phone, never bitchy, never flipping out,” said Malloy. “And all the while, as she repped the demimonde by night, she’d be up in the morning getting her girls into their Catholic-school uniforms and off to Holy Cross.”
“I remember bumping into her at criminal court one day, and I said, ‘Claire! Are you here for the Brooke Astor trial?’ And she said, ‘No’ grimly. ‘My friend’s up for murder.’”
“Women loved Billy Idol,” insisted Hanover, who worked with O’Connor for some decades. “The man was the ultimate sex symbol in the 1980s. But Claire was so close to him–through his drug problems, his marriages, his comeback tour. As a friend, she was involved in his life for 20 years.”
Hanover recalled that Idol sang “White Wedding” at O’Connor’s wedding to rocker Adam Bomb in 1987 at Limelight. “But it was much more than just that,” he said. “Claire helped create his comeback. Billy Idol was a young punk in the early days of Limelight, and Claire was like a den mother. She was graceful, dignified; she would nursemaid him.”
Hanover and O’Connor not only worked together, they were also once fired together. “We were both working for a club, and the owner spotted Claire smoking pot once late at night,” continued Hanover. “And he told me, ‘I should fire the both of you.’ And I said, ‘Well, guess what. We quit.’ But I couldn’t tell Claire. The next day, she went to get the account back, and the guy revealed that it was really about her smoking pot. I think she punched him. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she asked. But from that moment on, I knew she really loved me.”
O’Connor’s starry world also seeped into her home life. “Tupac Shakur was also a close friend of Claire’s,” said Hanover. “And you’re thinking, ‘How does Claire know Tupac?’ But he was a really nice person. He babysat for Claire a few times. He loved Claire’s daughter, Darian, the older one, and he babysat for her when Claire would go out to the club. He was already a star. And one night the club where I was working was showing a boxing match, and she called and said, ‘I have Tupac here, and I’m going to let him off his babysitting duties because he wants to go see the fight.’”
The cavalcade of stars would never slow. “We were doing a restaurant called Mary Lou on West 9th Street. Mick Jagger used to go there when he was in town. Claire hipped it up and extended their run by years. And one of the chefs there was Jack Nicholson’s personal chef. So when Jack was doing the movie Wolf, Claire came walking into the restaurant with Jack.”
“Once, we went to a Boston club to throw some kind of night-life awards there,” recalls the famed Village Voice columnist and author Michael Musto. “I MCed and faced a roomful of winos who couldn’t have cared less,” claims Musto. “After the ceremony, Claire realized she hadn’t made an announcement in the main room–where all the people were who had come for the awards–to tell them to go into the side room to see the show! We had a good laugh over that.”
“Last year, she assembled me, Steve Lewis, Carmen D’Alessio, and other night-life cronies to start planning a Nightlife Hall of Fame,” added Musto. “Claire was calm as usual, sailing through all our agendas. She seemed to find it as amusing as I did when someone suggested that no criminals be appointed. I squawked, ‘Then there will be no one in the Hall of Fame,’ and we all laughed.”
“I’m going to miss her a lot, because she was such a source of support,” added Denny Daniel, owner of The Museum of Interesting Things (see video here), a kind of portable wunderkabinet of curiosities that Claire felt she could popularize. “To see what a fighter she was,” he answered. “It was hard to listen to at the end; she was always trying to continue to fight for all of us. I tried to help her, I’d say, ‘Get through this, and next year, you’ll forget all the pain.’”
Meanwhile, Daniel perpetually searches for one museum piece that Claire insisted that he acquire. “Hopefully, someday I can find one,” said Daniel. “A teleautograph. Limelight used to have one. It is a machine that communicates like a fax machine. It uses a telephone and sends information kind of like a telex machine. It’s been around for a long time. And Limelight had one. But in the end they threw everything out…”
Psychically, it comes to me that if Daniel does find a teleautograph, Claire will use it to forward a gossip item from beyond: “8:00 p.m., Sighting: Booth at China Club. Andy, Liz Taylor, and Marilyn.”
She will smoothly transition to that great velvet-roped off, coffered and cosseted VIP room in the hereafter.
New York loses famed rock n roll press agent Claire O’Connor, who brought Limelight into the limelight and continued turning starry restaurants and nightclubs into news for four decades.
Written by Jeffrey Slonim
Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Jillian Mercado
Mickey Rourke & Claire O’Connor, LISA EDELSTEIN and ROSARIO DAWSON Birthday Party,
The Plumm, NYC, May 18, 2006, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor & Darian Brenner, MAYBELLINE NEW YORK hosts the Launch of PATRICK MCMULLAN’s “Kiss Kiss” Book, The Four Seasons Restaurant, NYC, February 1, 2006,
Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor & Richie Rich, At Plaid Nightclub, NYC, May 20, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor, Jessica White’s 21st Birthday Party Hosted by Jamison Ernest of Yellow Fever, Pizza Bar, NYC, June 22, 2005, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Stephen Saban and Claire O’ Connor, Michael Musto’s Dinner for Stephen Saban
at Fred Rothbell-Mista’s Apocalypse Lounge, 189 East 3rd Street ( at Avenue B)
February 14, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor, Sessa von Richthofen, Richard Johnson, LISA EDELSTEIN and ROSARIO DAWSON Birthday Party, The Plumm, NYC, May 18, 2006, Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor, Luigi Tadini, Sam Bolton, Glo Party Sponsored by Vox and Blue Ox, GLO, NYC,
March 23, 2005, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Claire O’Connor, Patrick McMullan, The GERALD J. FRIEDMAN FELLOWS Symposium: Nutrition, Diabetes and Human Health, VIP Dinner, BOULEY Test Kitchen, Tribeca, NYC, November 14, 2008,
Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com