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The Measure of a Man

I was the only person ever introduced at a prison riot by their theater credentials," says David Rothenberg. Photo: Duane Michals

On Sept. 10, 1971, theatrical press agent David Rothenberg stood in the yard at Attica State Penitentiary, surrounded by 1,300 rioting inmates and the 40 bound guards they held hostage, and asked his companion for a cigarette. Melvin Rivers turned to his skinny friend and said, “David, you have one cigarette in your hand, one in your ear, and one in your mouth. What are you gonna do with the fourth one?”

Rothenberg’s nervousness was understandable. The nice Jewish boy from New Jersey was immersed in what would soon become the deadliest prison riot in American history.

A dramatic life

Rothenberg’s life has been filled with scenes that seem made for the stage. He spent much of his career guiding the brightest stars of the American theater through the rough terrain of the media glare, and the stories he has to tell about it could make the tabloids weep with envy. He’s been a champion of gay rights and human rights, and his work on behalf of prisoners has led him into nightmarish scenes like the Attica riot.

But Rothenberg, BA social sciences ’55, had a fairly ordinary start. He grew up in New Jersey during the Great Depression. At age 3, he was already a tiny terror, so hyper and intense that neighbors wouldn’t baby-sit for him.

“No matter what happened, I needed to know why,” Rothenberg recalls. “My favorite word was ‘why.'”

That innate curiosity came to define Rothenberg’s life. John Carr, BS ’56, roomed with Rothenberg at DU. “I remember he used to get the Daily Worker delivered to his mailbox,” Carr says. “That was pretty unique for a college student in the days of McCarthyism.”

Rothenberg drew inspiration from a professor named Charles Merrifield. “He had such an impact on me,” Rothenberg recalls. “He taught a class called Problems of Modern Society, which forced us to examine every institution we grew up with, including religion, government and media. He made us challenge and question them and have our own opinions.”

Rothenberg discovered his own penchant for speaking out as the editor and theater critic for DU’s student paper, The Clarion. When a girl was raped on campus, a local businessman who was active at the college wooed Rothenberg with brandy and cigars to try to convince him to drop the story. Rothenberg wouldn’t budge. “I thought, if this was my sister or my mother, I wouldn’t want to be silenced.”

Rothenberg was drafted after graduation and spent two years of “total boredom” in Fort Benning, Ga., before pursuing his real desire — a job in the theater. A Broadway producer named Alexander Cohen hired him, and soon Rothenberg was promoting and coddling the biggest names on Broadway.

In 1964, Cohen produced Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had just dumped their spouses so they could be together, and the hysteria surrounding them was enormous. “The media was beyond belief,” Rothenberg says. “You have no idea. This was before the E! channel, but it was mind-boggling. If you think J. Lo and Ben Affleck created a lot of attention, imagine if they had talent.”

When one production meeting dragged on, Rothenberg recalls, Taylor pulled him to another table to escape, and he found himself having an intimate lunch with the diva. The two discussed progressive politics and the nature of fame, and Rothenberg was surprised at how bright she was. When Hamlet opened, he accompanied her as her date. “I like to say that I’m one of the few people who dated Elizabeth that didn’t marry her,” Rothenberg jokes.

Change of fortune

Given his vocation, it’s not surprising that Rothenberg’s life was irrevocably changed by a play.

By 1966, Rothenberg was working with the biggest playwrights on Broadway, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. That year, he was sent a script for a play called Fortune and Men’s Eyes. “Oh my god,” says Rothenberg. “I had never read anything like this before. I felt like I was trapped in a room with four cobras.”

The play centered around a kid who goes to prison and is raped his first night. By the end of the play, he is hardened, cold and eager for revenge on a world that did him wrong. After the play’s brutal themes scared away every producer in New York, Rothenberg took his $12,000 life savings and produced it himself.

To prepare, Rothenberg arranged for the actors and himself to tour Riker’s Island. As he looked around a dank prison cell, he thought, “How can these people emerge anything but worse?”

“You see young people herded back and forth in chains, and I thought, god, if you do something wrong and you end up here, you gotta be worse when you come out,” Rothenberg recalls. “That’s what the play was about.”

Fortune and Men’s Eyes attracted decent crowds, and after-show question and answer sessions between the cast and the audience became a Tuesday night tradition. The New York Times ran a story headlined “The Drama Continues After the Curtain Falls,” and Rothenberg arranged for a segment on a television talk show to discuss the topic of ex-offenders. At the end of the program, the host announced that Rothenberg was part of an organization called the Fortune Society that was dedicated to helping ex-cons and gave the address of Rothenberg’s theatrical press office.

The next morning, Rothenberg arrived at work to find a line of ex-cons stretching from the sixth floor to the street, waiting to see what the Fortune Society could do for them. Rothenberg was dumbfounded and unprepared. As he fumbled through conversations, a tall white guy with a toothpick dangling from his mouth approached him and said, “You don’t know what the f–k you’re doin’, do you?'”

Rothenberg replied, “I don’t have a clue.”

The man told Rothenberg to move over, sat down next to him and began talking to the men about life after the cell. The ex-con’s name was Kenny Jackson, and at that moment he became the Fortune Society’s first counselor. He and Rothenberg were joined later on by Mel Rivers, who served three-and-a-half years of a 10-year sentence for assault and battery before his 1962 release.

The nucleus of the Fortune Society had been formed, and it was his work with the organization that ultimately took Rothenberg to Attica.

On Sept. 9, 1971, the prisoners at Attica rioted. They asked for an observer’s committee to facilitate negotiations with the prison officials and requested that Rothenberg be part of it. They knew about the Fortune Society through the group’s popular newsletter and felt Rothenberg would be sympathetic to their plight. And so Rothenberg, Jackson and Rivers soon found themselves in the Attica yard.

“I was a little tense,” Rothenberg says in a classic understatement. “When we went into the yard, Melvin turned to me and said, ‘I smell death.’ That didn’t pick me up.”

The observers group, which totaled around 35 people, spent three days talking with inmates while an enraged mob surrounded them. They spoke to the mob with a microphone, and when Rothenberg addressed the crowd, an inmate introduced him as the producer of the off-Broadway prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes. “I was the only person,” Rothenberg recalls, “ever introduced at a prison riot by their theatre credentials.”

By the time the group left the prison, nothing had been resolved. But on Sept. 13, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in troops to end the uprising. Thirty-three prisoners and 10 hostages were killed. After the riot, some of the dead inmates’ bodies went unclaimed. The Fortune Society claimed them and held a massive funeral at New York’s Washington Square Methodist Church.

Over the next few years, Rothenberg worked on hit Broadway shows such as Hair and The Boys in the Band and used the profits to finance the Fortune Society. He eventually stopped taking on new theater clients and devoted his life to Fortune, ultimately spending 18 years as the organization’s executive director.

Coming out

By 1973, having helped make it safer for ex-convicts to come clean about their records, Rothenberg realized that there was one area of his life where he, himself, was being duplicitous, and that it was time for him to go public.

Unbeknownst to most, Rothenberg was homosexual. In the early ’70s, gays were still frequently ashamed or fearful of going public for fear of losing a job or even loved ones. Rothenberg viewed the gay-rights movement as an extension of his civil rights activities and was tired of hiding his sexual orientation; he announced his predilection to the world on a TV talk show.

In the early ’80s, Rothenberg was contacted by a group of doctors looking for political guidance. The gay community was being affected by a new disease dubbed GRID for Gay-Related Immune Disease. Only 18 people had been diagnosed, but the doctors sensed that there would be political as well as medical ramifications and wanted advice. So they called in a group that included Rothenberg.

“About five or six of us would meet every Thursday morning on how to approach this. One of the things we said to them was to stop calling the disease ‘gay-related,'” Rothenberg recalls. “Don’t give the name of any group to a disease.” Soon after, GRID became known as AIDS.

In the mid ’80s, Rothenberg accompanied a group led by U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to inspect Nicaraguan prisons where the Sandinistas were holding Contras. The group’s two weeks in Nicaragua included two days trapped in trenches near the Honduran border as Contra rebels shot at them.

Rothenberg officially retired from the Fortune Society in 1985 and reopened his publicity business in 1986, helping launch shows such as Tony & Tina’s Wedding and the Blue Man Group before retiring several years later.

At 71, Rothenberg remains spry and active. He spends lots of time helping out at Fortune and hosts a weekly radio show called Any Saturday that features music, theater and book reviews, and socially conscious talk. He swims every morning and frequents the theater. He also has become something of a performer.

To raise funds for the Fortune Society, in 2003 Rothenberg developed a one-man show called Namedropping, regaling audiences with his stories of Richard and Liz, Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud and the many, many others he has known and nurtured throughout his theatrical career. The first time he staged it, the show brought in $10,000 over four performances and received good reviews in the New York Times and the New Yorker.

But no matter who he has dined with, Rothenberg looks upon his activist work as his greatest achievement. Helping real people trumps the blinding glare of celebrity every time, and Rothenberg — interviewed for this article at a Fortune Society office surrounded by former convicts now dressing sharp, working hard, feeding their families and creating real opportunities for their lives — can say that his own life is one that made a difference.

The 62-year-old Rivers, who never returned to prison after his release more than 40 years ago, says that Rothenberg’s acceptance of him showed him that there was some good in the world. “When David introduced me to his family, who embraced me, it was an eye opener,” Rivers recalls. “I didn’t realize people could care about other people that way. That gave me a lot of confidence to believe that I had some self worth.”

Despite his wondrous show business life, opening doors for Mel Rivers and the thousands like him is David Rothenberg’s greatest source of pride. “The Fortune Society made the public aware of the humanity of people who have been in prison and that people can come back,” Rothenberg says. “Men like Melvin Rivers are an example. We have two choices: We can either write people off, or we can create a bridge for them to return.”

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