Shirley Herz, an indefatigable press agent who became as legendary in the New York theater community as the hundreds of shows and stars she represented, died Sunday, according to press agent Kevin P. McAnarney. She was 87.
Herz died at Mt. Sinai Hospital from complications from a stroke suffered on July 18. She had recently undergone brain surgery for a blood clot.
During her almost 65-year theater career, Herz, who was awarded an honorary Tony Award for excellence in the theatre in 2009, publicized hundreds of Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway productions, ballet companies, circuses, films, TV shows, art collections, nightclubs and restaurants.
When Herz was announced as the first member from the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers to get a Tony, Liz Smith, a former New York roommate, toasted her as "the girl who taught me my first Yiddish and who I used to call 'Sam Spade, master detective' because she always knew where the bodies were buried."
Herz grew up in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years before moving to New York, at first selling watches. She would hang around stage doors, getting to know people in the theater community and became Rosalind Russell's personal press representative, working on behalf of the actress when she went to Broadway in "Wonderful Town" in 1953.
She worked for publicists Dorothy Ross and Bill Doll and apprenticed with another industry legend, Samuel J. Friedman — the lobby at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th street is named after her — and helped mentor generations of publicists when they worked at Shirley Herz Associates, which she founded in 1971.
Among the off-Broadway theater companies she lately represented included The Irish Repertory Theatre, the Abingdon Theatre and the Theatre Breaking Through Barriers. Her close celebrity friends included Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly.
The actress and playwright June Havoc once told the story of when ticket sales for her show Marathon '33 plunged after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
"Business was at a standstill, so Shirley would take me out at night in her car filled with show posters, and we would glue them on telephone booths, bus stops and storefronts from 125th Street down to the Bowery. I had lived through vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood, but until that night, vandalism had not entered my life," Havoc told The New York Times in 1996.
Herz's career highlights include representing the original productions of La Cage aux Folles, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Dancing at Lughnasa, the 1989 revival of Gypsy, and the 2005 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She said she had planned on being a doctor until seeing Katharine Hepburn onstage in The Philadelphia Story and getting hooked by the theater bug.
"She came out and made a curtain speech. And it was such magic that I was transfixed and I thought, 'I have to be part of her world. I have to be in that world.' I had always thought I was going to be a doctor and that went out the window when I saw her," she told the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers in 2000.
Herz is survived by her husband, Herbert Boley, whom she married in 1948.