Benjamin Sonnenberg (July 12, 1901 – September 6, 1978) was a Belarusian-born American press agent who represented celebrities and major corporations, who was best known for the lavish entertaining he did for his clients and other notables at his Manhattan townhouse located at 19 Gramercy Park South.
Sonnenberg was born in Brest-Litovsk, Russia, now part of Belarus. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1910. He briefly attended Columbia College and worked for a newspaper in Flint, Michigan.
Returning to New York City, his first work in the public relations field was writing stories for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He started his own business in 1924, where among his initial clients were Manhattan hotels for which he generated newspaper coverage of their notable guests. Sonnenberg had a knack for self-promotion, as a means to make himself seem more important to the public and to his existing and prospective clients. Early in his career, he would ride the subway most of the trip and then take a taxi to show up at theater openings. In restaurants, he would have the restaurant manager send a bus boy to wander around the tables announcing that there was a phone call for Sonnenberg.
A self-described "cabinetmaker who fashioned large pedestals for small statues", Sonnenberg represented such individuals as Samuel Goldwyn, Robert Lehman, William S. Paley and David O. Selznick. His corporate clients included CBS, Lever Brothers, Lipton Tea and Pan American World Airways. While his company, Publicity Consultants Inc., was nominally located in offices on Park Avenue, his real business was done in his five-story townhouse in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan, where he was renowned for his lavish entertaining for his clients and his contacts in the press. As his son would later describe in his memoir Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy, "our home, my home, was a stage for his work".
Sonnenberg died in New York City at age 77 of a heart attack on September 6, 1978. As dictated by his will, he directed that " my executors as soon as practicable after my death to destroy all data, files and correspondence", which would combine with the reticence of his friends to make it difficult to write about his exploits. His will also specified that the contents of his townhouse were auctioned off by Sotheby's in June 1979. Crowds of 30,000 came to view items over a nine-day period, and the $4.7 million generated at auction were the third-highest in auction history at the time, behind Norton Simon's $12.7 million and the $7.5 million for items from the estate of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. The top-selling lot in the sale was for a John Singer Sargent portrait of Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, which sold for $210,000, setting a record for the artist's work. His son, Ben Sonnenberg, sold the mansion and used much of the proceeds to create, Grand Street, a literary magazine that he edited and published from 1981 to 1990.
- BENJAMIN SONNENBERG (1901-1978), Social Security Death Index
- Staff. Obituaries, The New York Times, November 6, 1978. Accessed June 29, 2010.
- Public Relations, Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed June 29, 2010.
- Carlinsky, Dan. Review of "Always Live Better Than Your Clients: The Fabulous Life and Times of Benjamin Sonnenberg, America's Greatest Publicist", The New York Times, November 14, 1983. Accessed June 30, 2010.
- Norwich, William. "Style; House Of Mirth", The New York Times, April 16, 200. Accessed June 29, 2010.
- Reif, Rita. "Sotheby's Sonnenberg Auction Draws 30,000 in $4.7 Million Sale; Auction Requested in Will", The New York Times, June 10, 1979. Accessed June 29, 2010.
- Grimes, William. "Ben Sonnenberg, Founder of Literary Journal, Dies at 73", The New York Times, June 25, 2010. Accessed June 29, 2010.