Harry Jay Katz, Philadelphia’s Playboy, Has Died

His biography is a tale of over-the-top excess and tragic failures.

Harry Jay Katz | Scavullo

Harry Jay Katz in an undated file photo. | Scavullo

Harry Jay Katz — the wealthy Philadelphia playboy whose reputation as a libertine and raconteur brought him both attention and much criticism during his heyday — has died, according to reports. He was 75.

His biography defies a conventional obituary.

Katz was an Army veteran and a Penn graduate, the father of four children and a nightclub owner — he re-opened the Erlanger Theater at 21st and Market streets in the late 1960s — as well as a publisher, broadcaster, columnist, restaurateur and (perhaps above all) a great embracer of celebrity, known for friendships with Maria Shriver, Frank Stallone, and more. He’s also remembered for his failed attempt to open a Playboy Club in Philadelphia.

“That’s the image Katz has painstakingly created. The bon vivant. The last boulevardier. The man about town. Philly’s connection to the stars,” Stephen Rodrick wrote in a devastating 1997 profile of Katz for Philadelphia magazine.

But, Rodrick wrote, there was also a dark side, much of it involving his treatment of women:

“Part of Katz’s less-charming underbelly was exposed with the 1995 drowning of Valerie Sheridan in his hot tub, and the attempted suicide of Susan Delplanque the next day. More is revealed in court documents. In 1994, Katz was found liable of sexual harassment. In a separate 1996 case, he was accused by another woman of physical abuse and intimidation. Three women who know him say part of his problem is cocaine. In April, a Philadelphia Family Court judge ordered him to pay child support for a son he fathered out of wedlock. In an effort to evade paying for his sins, Katz, a man who continues to live in a mansion and dine at Philadelphia’s most expensive bistros, declared bankruptcy in 1995. He claimed to be worth only $150.”

Son of wealth

Katz was born on Christmas Day 1940, the son of Lawrence and Selma Katz. Lawrence Katz in 1948 founded Fidelity Machine Company, which mass-produced machines to make seamless stockings. The company was a success.

Wrote Rodrick: “Despite the family wealth, Harry Jay Katz spent his youth working odd jobs. Besides one as janitor, there were stints as a pinsetter at the Jersey shore, and as a caddie. After graduating from Pennington Prep, he attended Penn State, where his image was formed. Nicknamed the Great Katzby, he tooled around State College in his Mercedes and on an Indian Chief motorcycle. He had his own house and threw lavish parties. However, the high life ended soon after he dropped out of college. After a brief stint in the Army, Katz, 23, married Julia Mae Levin in 1964. In 1965, Susan was born, followed by David the next year. As the 1960s exploded around him, Katz enjoyed married life and worked as an investment banker.

Katz’s life changed in the late 1960s, Rodrick wrote, when he visited a Playboy Club in Chicago. “Cleavage and spiked heels changed my life,” Katz reportedly said of this era. “That’s when my marriage started to go.” The pair separated in 1970.

Katz returned from Chicago intending to start a Playboy Club in Philadelphia, even renting space in the Bellevue-Stratford near City Hall. Katz spent two years fighting efforts to block the club, even helping get a state law passed that allowed Pennsylvanians to buy alcohol in credit, but by the time he’d “won” that fight, he was reportedly $200,000 in debt. A failed suicide attempt followed.

Over the next few years, he was increasingly involved in the city’s alternative media — as a columnist (The Katz Meow) for the Drummer; publisher of a weekly paper, ELECTRICity; founder of National News Bureau, a wire service for college papers; and ultimately as a radio host on WNWR, creating a sort of Howard Stern-meets-Philly broadcast weekly. Most of the ventures lasted only a short time. In the late 1980s, he also started a steakhouse, Hesch’s, which lasted two years.

Katz also launched the Philadelphia Film and Video Commission to entice filmmakers to the city — but also offering him additional opportunities to rub elbows with the rich and famous.

As his various business dealings and careers petered out (he declared bankruptcy in 1995) Katz became known in Philadelphia mostly for his prodigious womanizing — he claimed in Rodrick’s profile to have slept with 4,000 women — along with the aforementioned legal troubles associated with his behavior.

He could be cavalier about the consequences of his lifestyle. Quizzed by the Inquirer in the aftermath of Sheridan’s death, he said he wouldn’t change much. “The only change I would make is, I would get rid of the hot tub,” he told the paper.

Katz had slowed down in recent years, occasionally making appearances in local gossip columns, often referenced as a “former” playboy. He told the Daily NewsJenny DeHuff in September that he would renew vows with his wife, Debra, after she had suffered some illnesses. “Honey, I’m getting so good at marriages, let’s remarry when you’re feeling better,” Katz told his wife, according to the paper.

He is reportedly survived by his wife, four children, and seven grandchildren. Funeral services have not been announced.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.