The Trouble With Harry Jay Katz

Harry Jay Katz's act is wearing thin. Philadelphia's aging libertine is facing lawsuits, accusations and bankruptcy. Still, the party must go on.

Even in 1974, the judicial system was sympathetic to the plight of women who had dealings with Katz. When a creditor’s lawyer objected to a delay in proceedings because Julie was away in Europe, Judge Emil Goldhaber said, “Won’t you agree that anybody who was married to Harry J. Katz, and is free of that bond, has a right to go away for a while?”

Katz had taken the Playboy debacle and his divorce hard. Coming back from New York one evening in 1970, he asked John Wallace, his chauffeur and longtime friend, to pull his limo into a Howard Johnson’s on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel. He got a glass of milk and took 83 sleeping pills. A few minutes later, Katz was comatose in the back seat. Wallace made the drive from Newark to Philadelphia in 40 minutes. He carried his buddy into the emergency room, where Katz lay in a coma for five days. “The Playboy thing was a debilitating failure,” Katz says today. “I was drinking too much, and I was unhappy about the breakup with my wife. In those days, I also had a mistress and broke up with her because I was cheating on her. I was just a piece of shit.”

Though not close to his son, Lawrence Katz had observed enough to know Harry could run through money with the best of them. This became evident in the 1970s, when Harry defaulted on his Pine Street house because of his Playboy problems. His father bought it back at the sheriff’s sale. This wouldn’t be the last time Lawrence Katz would apply financial tough love. In his will, Katz, who died in 1983, gave Harry’s siblings, Terry and Philip, an outright gift of $100,000 each. Harry’s $100,000 was put into a trust that would pay him interest quarterly.

It’s not entirely clear that Harry appreciated the favor. “I worked for my father when he had the machine company,” he says. “I was the janitor for two summers. Close as I got was I cleaned his bathroom. He never said, ‘I love you.’ Never to the day he died.”

DESPITE THE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE and the Playboy failure, Katz had arrived. Building on the contacts he had made as the young impresario behind the stillborn club, Katz began cultivating friendships among Philadelphia’s social upper crust. On Halloween 1972, he held a costume party at Old Fort Mifflin for 1,200 of his friends, including Arlen Specter. Harry arrived in black tie and jacket but no shirt.

Katz kept the momentum going by opening the Erlanger Theatre at 21st and Market. Featuring performances by the likes of Bette Midler, it flourished for 5 years before closing. It was there that he claims to have bamboozled Linda Lovelace. Katz went on with second wife Andrea Diehl to start ELECTRICity, a weekly paper, and the National News Bureau, a wire service for college papers. Katz’s mini-media empire was most notable for employing nonwriter types like trumpet-lover Roxanne Pulitzer and congressional-wife-turned-Playboy-centerfold Rita Jenrette as journalists.

The News Bureau still exists, but only as a way for Katz to get free vacations. According to Judi Tafuto, an ex-girlfriend, Katz persuades unsuspecting PR people that the NNB is a viable news organization. The flacks in turn provide him free lodging and transportation in the hopes of winning positive publicity. On a recent Caribbean junket, Katz introduced Tafuto, a waitress by trade, as the bureau’s lifestyles editor.

In 1987, Katz opened Hesch’s, his vision of a “Jew joint,” on Chancellor Street. It proved to be popular with the over-35 set for a while. Its quintessential Katz moment came that July. The restaurant was being picketed by Restaurant Employees Union Local 301. One day, Katz placed a sign on the door saying the eatery would be closed because of air-conditioning problems. The picketers went home. Later that day, Katz took the sign down and hosted a congressional delegation led by representative Tom Foglietta, a staunch union supporter. Foglietta, a longtime Katz friend, was furious. The restaurant closed 2 years later.

These days, Katz still does deals, but they are quixotic at best. His latest, a proposed book on the real story behind Jimmy Hoffa’s death, appeared promising, and Katz even held a press conference on it last year. Today, Katz says the story is “too hot” to handle. He also claims that fallout from his personal life has left him “dead” in Philadelphia. But one of his best friends thinks the answer is much simpler. “I don’t think the Val Sheridan thing is the reason,” says Ron Pennock. “You have to question what deals do people know he’s been successful at? Has he had a Bookbinder for 25 years? What has he run successfully?”