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  From the
  'I've never told anyone this ...'
Gino Empry gives the lowdown on the stars - and himself
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: Kevin Van Paassen,
National Post]

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 them out."

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."

Any regrets?

"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 that."

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.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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