Obituary: Jo Lustig
Wednesday 02 June 1999
He was an extraordinary man - tough, sentimental, calculating, warm, irascible, persuasive, enthusiastic, pugnacious, thoughtful, with a talent for friendship that was more than the equal of his readiness for the sort of row that would melt a telephone. Born in Brooklyn and educated on Broadway, and bearing the traces of both to his dying day, he spent the last years of his life in a Georgian terraced house in Cambridge, revelling in the history and texture of the place.
Long ago he told me a story about how his Jewish parents had met and married in the United States after emigrating separately from the same village on the Polish-Russian border, where they had not known each other. Jo was the youngest of their five children, and after war service as a medical orderly in the South Pacific he found his way to Broadway, where he became apprenticed to a press agent, learning how to drum up business for theatres, night-clubs and restaurants.
One day his sceptical Yiddish mother asked him what it was, exactly, that he did for a living. Well, mom, he said, people pay me to get their names and addresses into the newspapers and on to the radio. "You get people's names and addresses into the newspapers and on to the radio?" Yes, mom. "And you get paid for it?" That's right, mom. "Who pays you? The newspapers and radio?" No, mom, the people pay me. "And their names go in the newspapers and radio, because you ask?" Yes, mom. "So what are you, such a big shot?"
Those were the days of the great Broadway press agents - men like George Evans, who organised the "spontaneous" Times Square bobby-soxer riots that made Frank Sinatra a star, and David Lipsky, Lustig's mentor. Among Lustig's early clients were Nat King Cole, the Birdland jazz club and the Weavers folk group. He knew his way round the Brill Building, where all the music publishers had their office, he toured with Louis Armstrong, he publicised George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival, and he became good friends with a struggling young stand-up comic named Mel Brooks, who always remembered the way Jo, the only one of their circle with a steady job, would often pay for their meals.
By 1957 he was doing well enough to need an assistant, and hired Joyce Glassman, a bright young woman who needed the work to pay for her studies at Barnard College. One evening she took her new employer to a Greenwich Village bar, the Cedar Tavern, to meet her friends. There she introduced him to a couple of poets, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, and to her current boyfriend, an unknown novelist named Jack Kerouac, with whom Lustig fell into a conversation that lasted several hours. At work the next morning Joyce announced that Kerouac intended to write a play based on Lustig's description of the press agent's world. Sure enough, some time later a roll of paper was delivered to the office, containing Kerouac's single- draft script.
As he read the rambling scenes, written for a cast of thousands, Lustig's visions of I Am a Camera were quickly dispelled. It was, he realised, unproduceable. But when he encountered the author, he resorted to the standard euphemistic evasions: not quite right yet, needs a bit more work, perhaps some tightening up. Kerouac nodded cheerfully and went away to revise it. The following week, however, On the Road was acclaimed a masterpiece by Gilbert Millstein in The New York Times, Jack Kerouac was suddenly a national figure, and Lustig's play was never mentioned again - although Joyce, as Joyce Johnson, later wrote an interesting chronicle of the period, Minor Characters (1983).
Jo Lustig's life changed at the end of the 1950s, as the result of a traffic accident. He was promoting Vespa scooters at the time, and was riding one of them around Manhattan in the course of duty when he was knocked over by a car at an intersection. He was thrown up in the air, and landed on the pavement outside a Catholic church. As he regained consciousness, a priest was standing over him. "Are you a Catholic?" the priest inquired. "No," Lustig replied, "but go ahead anyway."
The last rites proved unnecessary, but surgery on a shattered leg was followed by an infection that put him in hospital for more than six months. By the time he came out, his business had fallen apart. But Nat King Cole, an old friend, invited him along to do publicity on a European tour which was scheduled to end with the 1960 Royal Variety Performance in London. Afterwards Cole and his entourage flew home but Lustig, intrigued by England, chose to stay on and have a look around. And when he started to get calls from potential clients, he decided to relocate.
He took all kinds of work, including publicising the opening of the Carlton Tower Hotel and the Playboy Club. But eventually he developed an interest in the local folk music scene, and started to manage the expatriate American singer Julie Felix, whom he promoted successfully on television and records as a performer in the mould of Joan Baez. Another early client was Nico, the blonde model and actress whose career was then poised between her screen debut in Fellini's La Dolce Vita and her subsequent membership of Andy Warhol's troupe of "superstars". Lustig shepherded Nico towards Andrew Oldham's Immediate label, for which she recorded a single, a folk- rock treatment of "I'm Not Sayin' ", a Gordon Lightfoot song which she performed on Ready Steady Go.
In 1967 Lustig married Dee Daniels, a record company press assistant, and together they took on the management of Pentangle, a folk-rock group featuring the guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and the singer Jacqui McShee. The Lustigs took Pentangle from pounds 10 gigs at Les Cousins and put them on at the Royal Festival Hall, which they sold out.
Harbingers of the folk-rock phenomenon of the late Sixties, they were followed on to the Lustig client list by Ralph McTell, Steeleye Span, Richard Digance, Richard and Linda Thompson, and the Chieftains, who were known in Ireland but nowhere else when Lustig put them on at the Albert Hall on St Patrick's Night in 1975, again filling every seat. He arranged for the group to provide the incidental music to Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick's romantic epic, and persuaded Island Records to distribute their albums. The result was an international phenomenon, and it was followed by the success of Mary O'Hara, a former nun who sang sweetly to the accompaniment of her own harp and found overnight success after appearing on the late Russell Harty's television chat show.
When Nico reappeared in London in 1974, she invited Lustig to negotiate the contract with Island Records which led to an album called The End, produced by John Cale. Lustig also supervised a comeback tour by Donovan, one of the original folk-rockers from the 1960s.
By the early 1980s, however, he was disillusioned with the music scene and had begun to switch his attention to films and television. In his early years in London he had been involved in the British publicity for three of John Cassavetes's most important films - Shadows (1961), Faces (1969) and Husbands (1970). Now he became the European representative of Mel Brooks's company, and worked on I Thought I Was Taller, a Brooks show made by the BBC and directed by Alan Yentob. Lustig's entry into production came with three Channel 4 documentaries recording the annual Time Out street entertainers' festival, directed by Alan Lewens, with whom he formed an enduring partnership.
In 1986 he co-produced a feature film, 84 Charing Cross Road, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, who won a Bafta award for her performance. His arts documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 included widely praised studies of Cassavetes, Cole, Maria Callas, Kenneth Anger, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan, Sidney Bechet, Jewish klezmer music, the pop impresario Larry Parnes, and (at his wife's suggestion) the famous Cambridge feud between F.R. Leavis and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. He and Lewens put together Sinatra: voice of the century, shown by the BBC the night after the singer's death. Earlier this year, when pancreatic cancer was diagnosed, Lustig was working on a three-part BBC Arena series on blonde bombshells: Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg.
Jo Lustig loved the world of show business, its people and its buzz, and he had a rare instinct for promoting a certain kind of artist beyond the niche to which they might otherwise have been confined. He was proud of being associated with work of high quality, and there is no dross in his track record. If he was sometimes as temperamental as the artists he represented, that made him the more cherishable - at least by those at a safe distance from his spectacular rages. Not everybody loved him, but many did, because he made things happen, the way he had been taught on the Great White Way.
Joseph George Lustig, press agent, manager and producer: born New York 21 October 1925; married 1967 Dee Daniels; died Cambridge 29 May 1999.
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