| [Photo: Kevin Van Paassen,
Toronto PR impresario Gino Empry says,
"I'm actually very shy. And I'm tired of people saying I'm flamboyant, I'm
this, I'm that."
'Sharon, you've got to help me," Gino Empry tells me. "Everyone's writing
that I'm ugly, I wear a wig and I'm a homosexual. You've got to straighten
Now, I should point out that I barely know Gino Empry, though many years
ago when I first moved to Toronto as a CBC news anchor I was advised to give
the great PR man a call to see if he would represent me.
"Only if you quit CBC," he told me. That I wasn't prepared to do, so he hung up.
"Was I rude?" he asks me, wide-eyed, when I remind him of our first conversation.
"Yes, you were," I say.
Like many journalists in town, I was talking to Empry on the occasion
of the publication of his memoir. It is titled I Belong to the Stars and
it is a collection of anecdotes involving celebs from Pierre Trudeau to Jack
Lemmon to Playmates to hookers.
Having skimmed the colourful book, I say to Empry, "I'm upset that you showed Xaviera Hollander in such a good light."
"I never had anything to do with her sexually," he says. "I told her, 'I don't know where your mouth has been.' "
Actually, he does. In his book, Empry quotes Hollander as saying she once "did" an entire Argentine football team -- in an hour.
"She's like the Earth Mother," Empry says in her defence (as I roll my
eyes). "Anyway, what harm did she ever do anyone? She never said a bad word
about anybody. Read her book, it's beautiful. It's called Child No More.
She was a good little girl. She spent her young years in a concentration
camp in Indonesia."
OK, but why did he portray Frank Sinatra as a nice gentle guy in the book?
"No doubt, the stories you hear about him are true," says Empry, "but
I didn't see them. Everyone has two sides to them, and no one talks about
the nice side of Sinatra, the only side I saw. And I think his kids should
be slapped silly. They treated him like a bank account, except maybe Nancy."
Empry has better things to say about Sinatra's wife, Barbara, but soon
returns to the kids: "It was too bad for him that his stupid kids and his
stupid wife couldn't get along. He suffered because of it."
When Empry relates an anecdote about the death of the mother of his good
friend Tony Bennett, he starts crying. "Sinatra was broadcasting live, on
radio, from Madison Square Garden, and he told the audience about Tony's
mother, Anna, who was sick, and dedicated his songs to her while she lay
dying, with Tony by her bedside. They had the radio playing and Anna was
listening. Sinatra was saying over the radio, 'Hang on, Mama, hang on Anna.'
Empry wipes away a tear, "You tell me that guy doesn't have a good side.
Growing up in a gangster world like Sinatra did, some of that stays with
you." (I realize I'm wiping away a tear, too, and I'm not even Italian.)
Since Empry has met all the stars, I try to get the lowdown. Who's the most beautiful?
"It has to be Lena Horne," says Empry. "And I adored Deborah Kerr."
And the biggest jerk?
"Robert Reed, the father from The Brady Bunch. I was doing PR for him at the Royal Alex. He was dismissive with me."
But one day, Empry continues, "I went into a washroom and he was in there
going down on a guy, a stagehand. I said, 'Excuse me,' and left. After that,
Reed was at least civil and would say hello when he saw me."
Empry also remembers the Smothers Brothers behaving badly. "They were
arguing and they took it out on me," he says. "Tommy apologized, saying,
'It's Mom's fault. She always liked Dick better.' I always liked Tommy better."
Actress Elaine Stritch was very difficult, too, he recalls. "She would
only do publicity if I brought her two bottles of vodka," he says.
"Sal Mineo was my good friend," says Empry. "I remember once he took me
on a tour of the gay bars. I got all dressed up because I wanted to look
good when people came on to me and I had to tell them no. But no one paid
any attention to me, not once. I could have walked by naked and they wouldn't
have noticed me. It was embarrassing."
"A big one," he says. "Anne Murray. She was playing at the Imperial Room
and she called me from her hotel and complained, 'I don't know what to do,
I have cheques lying all over the room (the royalties for Snowbird were starting
to come in). I sent her to an accountant. I was a fool. I could have been
her manager and I sent her to an accountant," he moans.
Empry also missed out on Kenny Rogers. "He was leaving The Fifth Dimension." He pauses. "No, not them."
"The First Edition," I offer.
"Yeah, that's it. He was going solo and I thought, he'll never make it solo, so I passed on him."
But Empry is pleased to have had Tony Bennett as a client for 12 years, from 1976 to 1988.
Empry sums up his career and his influence on his clients by quoting Ed
Mirvish, whom he represented for 27 years. As the story goes, Mirvish was
looking at a quote attributed to him in a newspaper. He called Empry and
said, "Gino, what did I mean when you said that?"
Since Empry has never been married, I ask about his love life. He mentions
his long-time girlfriend, Nikki. "She's mad at me because I didn't talk about
her in the book," he tells me.
"I'm on her side," I say. "If it were me, I'd have your head on a platter."
"Sharon, would you tell Nikki that I'd have to write a whole book about her, that that's what it would take?"
"I'll tell her but you'd better start writing," I counsel him.
Then I press him some more on his love life before Nikki.
"The first one was Jean," he says, adding that he can't remember any of
their last names. "Two things her family hated the most -- Roman Catholics
and Italians. The second one was also Jean, she was five feet tall, her mother
was five by five. That scared me. I couldn't see myself married to a five
by five woman. And she did become five by five."
His next great love, he says, was Georgia. "I lived with her, and we had two children."
That Empry is a father is news to me. "We gave them up for adoption when
they were infants, to friends of ours, two separate families," he says. "We
never saw either of them."
But why would he and Gloria give up their children?
"I'm not sure. We weren't married, and that's what it was like then," says Empry.
I can see the sadness in his eyes, and press him further about why they didn't get married.
"I've never told anyone this," Empry finally says. It's clear I've hit
a nerve. "And I'm not sure why I'm revealing it now. Anyway, two years after
our second child was born, I took Georgia home to Mom. I was finally ready
to settle down with her."
I urge him to continue.
"Shortly after that," says Empry, "there was a knock on our door one day.
Georgia was out, and the man standing at the door asked for her. When I told
him she was out, he said, 'Tell her to come home. Her husband and her kids
need her.' "
Empry is silent for a moment, then picks up the story. "I was shocked.
Since that day, I've had a complete blank about Georgia. I shut down after
I suggest to him that perhaps he has told me this story so people will
understand what he's really like. He nods. "I'm actually very shy. And I'm
tired of people saying I'm flamboyant, I'm this, I'm that. They don't know
the real me."
A few hours after the interview, I gave Empry a call. "Are you sure you
want me to write about everything you told me? Even about the children?"
"Go ahead," he said. "I trust you."
So there it is. It seems clear that Empry, in publishing this book and
opening up to me, truly does want people to see beyond the flamboyance, the
jokes and the rumours.