Cataneo worked with some of the biggest names signed to Sony — and indeed, in the business — before she retired in 1995 to raise her two sons. Among the roster she worked with, and was often photographed with, were the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Connick Jr., Johnny Mathis and Harry Connick Jr.
Before becoming a publicist, Cataneo worked at Musician magazine, preceded by a stint at a Manhattan restaurant where one of her co-workers was Jerry Seinfeld, who “introduced her to the entertainment business at a very macro level,” a statement about her passing said. In 1984, she joined Columbia, where she served as vice president of national press and public information. When the CBS label group was absorbed into Sony, she became a senior VP at SME.
Among those paying tribute after the announcement of Cataneo’s death was musician John Eddie, whose publicity she handled while he was signed to CBS. “I didn’t know her then, but I always envisioned Mary Ellen must’ve been the coolest girl in her high school. Not just because she was beautiful… which she was… but because she knew the secret things the uncool kids didn’t know. The coolest music to listen to, the coolest movies to go see, the coolest books to read. If you went to school with somebody like Mary Ellen you just knew they were the one that was going to end up being friends with Mick Jagger. Anyway, that’s how I always saw her, and I’m lucky I had the chance to hang out with someone that cool.”
Wrote publicist Jim Merlis: “I was an assistant at Columbia Records working for Mary Ellen Cantaneo. One day the phone rings, ‘Hello, is Mary Ellen there? It’s Charlie, Charlie Watts.’ Mary Ellen happened to be standing in front of me and she rushed her into her office and closed the door. The night before she had helped Charlie throw a party for his wife Shirley and he called to thank her. The light on her extension was on for maybe thirty seconds; she came out of her office with the biggest smile. ‘Charlie is a man of very few words.’ RIP Mary Ellen, you were the coolest, most rock ‘n’ roll boss a young man could have ever hoped for, and while I wish there was no last time, I think it’s appropriate the last time I did see you was Tom Petty at the Beacon.” Cataneo passed away exactly two years after Petty.
Although she had long since left the business, Cataneo was well known among her friends for remaining an active fan, delightedly attending events like the recent Mott the Hoople reunion. In May, in one of her last social media posts, she celebrated the birthday of perhaps her most famous former client. “Bob Dylan once said to me: You can take everything I’ve done, pile it up and it will reach the sky. No one can ever touch it. He was right of course. Thank you, Bob, for all of it. For opening our minds like no drug ever could and speaking to our souls when we felt like no one was listening. Bob, I am so grateful to be on this planet at the same time as you. And thanks for that pile, way up to the sky.”
Despite her struggle with cancer, Cataneo was able in August to attend her son Christopher McEwen’s wedding to Natalie Beach. Besides Christopher, she is survived by another son, film producer James McEwen, from her marriage to Joe McEwen, an A&R exec whom she met at CBS and now works at Concord.