The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Realtionsby Larry Tye
The Father of Spin is the first full-length biography of the legendary Edward L. Bernays, who, beginning in the 1920s, was one of the first and most successful practioners of the art of public relations. In this engrossing biography, Larry Tye uses Bernays's life as a prism to understand the evolution of the craft of public relations and how it came to play such a critical-and sometimes insidious-role in American life.
Drawing on interviews with primary sources and voluminous private papers, Tye presents a fascinating and revealing portrait of the man who, more than any other, defined and personified public relations, a profession that today helps shape our political discourse and define our commercial choices.
- Crown Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.54(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.33(d)
Read an Excerpt
Starting with SYMBOLS
IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SECRET.
Eddie and Doris had settled on a modern marriage, one that was more merger than old-fashioned romance and ritual. A coming-together in the austere marriage chapel in the New York Municipal Building. No family or friends to bear witness. No gown or tuxedo, no band or bouquet. Not even a wedding ring--a symbol, to such freethinking youth in 1922, of the spousal slavery they were determined to resist.
Even the timing was chosen with a concern for privacy. As the bride and groom arrived, the city-issued clock registered five minutes to noon, just moments before the chapel would close, almost ensuring that, no matter how esteemed the couple, the nuptials would not be reported in the next day's papers.
They'd already managed to hide their attachment from colleagues at the publicity office they shared on Fifth Avenue. Eddie's family, meanwhile, was so convinced of his commitment to bachelordom that, when his sister married five years before, her husband assumed the name Bernays as the only way to perpetuate a proud line in which Eddie was the only male heir. This humble ceremony would clinch it, letting them spring the surprise some days or weeks later, showing off their cunning and casualness.
In the end, however, all the stealth and subterfuge were for naught, as the young publicity agent couldn't keep the secret, even if it was his own marriage.
"Directly we reached the Waldorf-Astoria, where we were to honeymoon, all desire for secrecy blew away like a mist in the sunny breeze," Doris recalled years later. "My husband grasped the telephone and called hundreds of his most intimate friends to tell them about our secret marriage."
Some already knew, having read the matrimonial item that an enterprising reporter had dug up for the paper that evening of September 16. And the groom's father, who had long anticipated this occurrence, had stashed a box of jewelry in a vault five years before with a letter marked "For Doris, when she shall have married Edward."
For those who were still in the dark, Eddie offered up the sort of inspired strategy that was quickly becoming his trademark. He persuaded his new bride to register with him at the Waldorf under her maiden name. He knew this would trigger a policy that he as hotel PR man had instituted where the press would immediately be notified of anything newsworthy. In this case the news was of a married couple who were about to occupy a suite recently vacated by the king and queen of Belgium and who had signed in as "Edward L. Bernays and wife, Doris E. Fleischman."
The result: headlines, here and overseas, proclaiming, "This Bride Registers Under Her Maiden Name," or, more simply, "Independent." More than 250 newspapers ran stories explaining how, for the first time, a married woman had registered at the Waldorf with her husband, using a different name, and the elegant old hotel had permitted it.
So much for their secret. But why save the surprise, Eddie reasoned, when the marriage could become a major story now, one that might help him, his hotel client, and the women's movement? "Doris didn't like the publicity," he acknowledged forty years later, "but I liked it. In retrospect, I was crowing. I married the girl I loved, and everyone ought [to] know about it. I was ego projecting, I supposed, and boasting about the woman I had captured.
"Doris, overnight, had become the new symbol of women's rights throughout the United States--and the world. But I really didn't mind. In fact I liked it .... And as far as the Waldorf was concerned, they liked it too, for here was an old hotel that stood for feminism in the public mind, the most modern and contemporary of current ideas."
* * *
Eddie had been polishing his powers of persuasion for more than a decade by the time of his marital coup. He began, in a way, when he stepped onto a lonely railroad platform on the flats of Cayuga Lake in 1908. The decision to enroll at Cornell's august College of Agriculture had been a joint one by his father, Ely, an ardent disciple of Teddy Roosevelt's back-to-the-soil movement, and his mother, Anna, who worshiped nature. They believed Cornell, with its scientific approach to farming and its remote setting in the overgrown village of Ithaca, was just the place for Eddie to sever his ties to Manhattan and learn to earn his living from the land.
But the roots never took. He was short and wiry, while his farm-bred classmates were tall and strapping. He'd been raised in a New York City brownstone and reared on the Broadway theater and on books. He spent his summers at a spa near Wiesbaden or at an Adirondack Mountain retreat, and when the weather turned cold he dug in to declensions in Latin, Greek, and German. His fellow students-most of them, anyway--had sprung from the soil. They were the kinds of boys who'd gone barefoot until November and ordered their one pair of shoes from the Sears, Roebuck catalog; who knew the agricultural life they were destined for because their parents and grandparents had lived it; and who had no use for city boys or Jews although, except for Eddie, they didn't know many of either.
His culture shock was even more pronounced in the classroom. He stayed awake just enough to get passable grades in courses like General Comparative Morphology and Physiology of Plants, Physiography of the Campus and Immediate Vicinity, and Animal Husbandry, which involved "the principles of feeding, care, selection and management of dairy and beef cattle, sheep and swine." Equally frustrating was how removed Cornell seemed from the Progressive movement that was sweeping America at the turn of the century, promising to bust up trusts, eliminate slums, reform corrupt cities, and otherwise harness the runaway forces of industrialization and urbanization.
His disappointment was still evident fifty-three years later when Eddie rendered his verdict on his higher education: "My three and a half years at the Cornell University College of Agriculture gave me little stimulation and less learning."
As he stopped to reflect, however, he realized he had learned more than he thought. There was his work on the Cornell Countryman, which confirmed that he wasn't a gifted writer but could be a masterful communicator. Membership in the Cosmopolitan Club had won him friends from China, South Africa, Cuba, and other far-off nations he would someday work with, while involvement in the theater and chorus taught him about actors and singers, if not about acting and singing. And knowing he didn't fit in with conventional thinking on campus got him accustomed to thinking unconventionally, to operating at the edge and pushing the boundaries, which became his trademark over a career that lasted more than eighty years.
As for his complaints about fellow students, he managed to find enough attractive young women to let him indulge his growing fascination with females. "Some of my few pleasant memories of Cornell," he conceded in his memoirs, "are my drives with coeds over snow-covered dirt roads overlooking silvery Lake Cayuga, to the accompanying sound of horses' hoofs as they crunched the packed snow."
"Perhaps Cornell was the right place for me after all," he decided later, "because it furnished, in a negative way, a test for aptitudes and adjustments .... I was looking for something that was not there and found something better."
Important insights, but they didn't make it any easier for Eddie to decide what to do when Cornell handed him his degree in February 1912. Trained in agriculture, but not wanting to dirty his hands on another animal or plant, the twenty-year-old with the wavy mustache and close-cropped hair accepted a professor's offer to write for the National Nurseryman journal. He hadn't studied journalism but he'd practiced it in grammar school, high school, and summer camp, as well as in college. And he loved it now, relishing the way "German-American proprietors of nurseries in Danville, New York, greeted me as if I were a rich uncle, inviting me to lunch and dinner at their homes, where we discussed Goethe, Schiller, and fruit-tree stock." The job might have lasted if there'd been more time for Goethe and Schiller and less need to come up with stories about apples, peaches, and pears.
From there he tried filling out bills of lading on hay and oats at New York City's Produce Exchange, where his father worked. Then he booked himself as supercargo on a freighter bound for Rotterdam and from there made his way to Paris. The City of Light was indeed illuminating, letting Eddie practice his French on coachmen, muse about life with waiters serving aperitifs, and, best of all, stroll the narrow streets near the Place Vendome with his latest amour, stopping occasionally "to embrace and kiss passionately." The problem, again, was work. For a time he tried decoding cables concerning grain trades for the venerable Louis Dreyfus and Company, a job that proved even more tedious than his previous posts.
His way out appeared by accident, and as he liked to tell the story, "it all started with sex."
Back in Manhattan after quitting his Paris job, Eddie at first pined for Europe's charm and sophistication, dismissing New York as a "dirty little village on the Hudson." But he soon got caught up in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, with its promise of rising economic opportunity and falling cultural inhibitions. Although he was unemployed, his father's success as a grain dealer let him settle in to a relatively carefree existence, one where he could contemplate his future without worrying about it. Still, it felt good to bump into an old friend like Fred Robinson when he boarded the Ninth Avenue trolley on a brisk December morning in 1912.
Years earlier Fred and Eddie had been coeditors of the school paper at Public School 184, and Fred's father had just turned over to him two monthly journals he owned, the Medical Review of Reviews and the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. Fred asked Eddie, "How'd you like to help me run the Review and the Gazette?"
Eddie accepted the offer on the spot and began work the next morning. Neither he nor Fred knew much about medicine or nutrition, and neither had any real experience in publishing, unless you count the Echo at P.S. 184. But both were ambitious and enterprising, which was all most entrepreneurs of the era began with, and both were willing to do everything from writing and editing to promotion and office errands. They used the Medical Review to argue against women wearing corsets with stays and to encourage shower baths; they published expert opinions on health controversies, a relatively novel approach; and they tried something even newer to promote the journal and its advertisers: distributing free copies to most of the 137,000 licensed physicians in the United States.
Their real break came two months after they joined forces, when a doctor submitted a glowing review of Damaged Goods, a work by French playwright Eugene Brieux. The play--about a man with syphilis who marries, then fathers a syphilitic child--attacked the prevailing standards of prudery. It was taboo back then to openly discuss sexually transmitted disease, and even worse to talk about public health remedies, but Damaged Goods did both.
Eddie and his partner published the doctor's review--a bold step, given their conservative audience. Then they went a step further. They'd read that Richard Bennett, a leading actor (and the father of soon-to-be movie star Joan Bennett), was interested in producing Damaged Goods. So Eddie wrote him, saying, "The editors of the Medical Review of Reviews support your praiseworthy intention to fight sex-pruriency in the United States by producing Brieux's play Damaged Goods. You can count on our help."
Bennett quickly accepted the offer, pumping up the young editor with visions of a crusade against Victorian mores, promising to recruit actors who would work without pay and prodding him to raise money for the production. Eddie was so excited that he volunteered to underwrite the production.
There were two problems with his generosity. He was earning just $25 a week at the journals, and another $25 tutoring the scions of fashionable New York families, and neither he nor his partner could conceive of how they'd come up with the money to rent a theater and pay other expenses. Even more imposing were the New York City censors who several years before had shut down a George Bernard Shaw play about prostitution and who were not likely to approve one that featured such frank treatment of syphilis.
Eddie took those hurdles as challenges. Anything could be accomplished, he believed, if people could be made to see what looked like an obstacle as an opportunity. All that was required was a bit of insight into how people defined obstacles and opportunities, along with some creative prodding to get them to rethink those definitions.
The key with Damaged Goods, he realized, was to transform the controversy into a cause and recruit backers who already were public role models. The twenty-one-year-old editor formed a Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund Committee, then attracted members with an artful appeal that played on Bennett's reputation as an artist as well as the worthiness of battling prudishness. Among those who signed up were John D. Rockefeller Jr., Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt Sr., Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. William Jay Schieffelin, whose company had recently brought to America a treatment for syphilis, and the Reverend John Haynes Holmes of New York's Unitarian Community Church. Each committee member was asked to contribute four dollars, which entitled him to one ticket, and many were asked for endorsements designed to head off police intervention.
The committee was more effective than anyone dreamed. Hundreds of checks poured in, and testimonials were offered by luminaries like Rockefeller. "The evils springing from prostitution cannot be understood," the oil magnate said in a letter, "until frank discussion of them has been made possible." This was the first time that Eddie, or anyone else, had assembled quite such a distinguished front group. And its success ensured not only that he would use this technique repeatedly but also that it would continue to be employed today, when it takes a detective to unmask the interests behind such innocuous-sounding groups as the Safe Energy Communication Council (antinuclear), the Eagle Alliance (pronuclear), and the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation (trucking industry).
Damaged Goods, meanwhile, was a huge hit, presented before overflow audiences in New York, then heading to the National Theater in Washington and a performance before Supreme Court justices, members of the president's cabinet, and congressmen from across the country. Its success at the box office was even more impressive given that most reviewers agreed with the New York American, which pronounced the play "dull and almost unendurable." What mattered more was that the production, in the words of one editorial on March 15, 1913, made it strike "sex-o'clock in America"--precisely the note the boy editors were aiming for.
Bernays and Robinson dreamed of a string of similar productions--on narcotics, the white slave trade, and other social evils that begged for redress. "There were no limits to what we could accomplish," Eddie recalled later. Unfortunately, Richard Bennett had other ideas. Having quietly acquired all American rights to the play, the actor bade Eddie and Fred good-bye. "I don't need you or your damn sociological fund anymore," he told his would-be partners. "I'll start my own fund. I own all the rights to Damaged Goods. Ta, ta."
* * *
Eddie's adrenaline was flowing too fast for him to waste time licking his wounds, and he was too pumped up by his brush with the brave new worlds of theater and promotion to return to his dull medical magazines. So he arranged to deliver a young boy to his mother in Paris as a way of earning ship's fare, then headed to Carlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic to talk over his recent exploits with his uncle, Sigmund Freud.
The novice promoter had strong familial ties to the venerated psychoanalyst: His mother was Freud's sister, and his father's sister was Freud's wife. And when Eddie and his parents left Vienna when the boy was barely one, his two older sisters remained behind with Freud and Freud's parents until Ely Bernays got established in New York. All of which gave Eddie an intimate connection to the Father of Psychoanalysis, a connection he capitalized on every chance he got.
On this trip he and Freud took long walks in the woods, where they must have made quite a sight--the Austrian uncle, walking stick in hand, wearing his familiar green Tyrolean hat with a feather and a ram's horn stuck in the hatband, salt-and-pepper knickers, and brown brogues, and his American nephew fitted out in a Brooks Brothers suit. It's not known what the pair talked about. All Eddie could remember more than fifty years later was his uncle's playful explanation in a restaurant that "these brook trout are swimming in the order of their price range," and Freud's gentle admonition that his nephew not swat an insect on the tablecloth, preferring to "let the fly take its promenade on the high plateau." He also recalled Freud's "pleasant and easy attitude, his understanding sympathy, more candid and relaxed in his attitude to me than any other older man I had ever known. It was as if two close friends were exchanging confidences instead of a famous uncle of fifty-seven and an unknown nephew of twenty-two."
Whatever the specifics of their conversation, it is clear that when Eddie returned to New York in the fall of 1913 he was more taken than ever with the Viennese doctor's novel theories on how unconscious drives dating to childhood make people act the way they do. And Eddie was convinced that understanding the instincts and symbols that motivate an individual could help him shape the behavior of the masses.
He didn't waste any time testing that understanding. For starters, there was his work on Broadway, where he had signed on with Klaw and Erlanger, the General Motors of theatrical booking agents. His job was to help make hits out of plays like Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs, a precursor to "Little Orphan Annie." Daddy is a comedy about a twelve-year-old girl whose irrepressible spirit first helps her endure a grim orphanage, then assists her in coping with the world of wealth into which she's thrust by an anonymous benefactor.
Eddie's approach was straightforward: take techniques that had worked with Damaged Goods and, as he would do over and over, push them several steps further. That meant linking Daddy Long-Legs to a worthwhile activity, one that made theatergoers feel they were doing more than indulging in entertainment. Eddie called it hitching private interests to public ones. He joined forces with New York's State Charities Aid Association to organize a network of Daddy Long-Legs funds. Groups formed on college campuses and in high schools would raise money that private families could use to take in orphans.
The results were impressive. A dollmaker manufactured ten thousand Daddy Long-Legs dolls dressed in orphan-blue checkered gingham, and the proceeds went to the Aid Association. A famous race car driver retired his lucky Kewpie doll in favor of a Daddy Long-Legs doll, and other drivers did the same. As always, the achievements were chronicled in newspapers across New York State and eventually the nation, with one story crediting the campaign with spawning "a small upheaval in clubdom" and noting that the Sophia Fund of Bronxville had renamed itself the Daddy Long-Legs Sewing Club.
Another pattern emerged in this campaign that would resurface repeatedly. Eddie had decided that prim and proper Vassar College was an ideal place from which to launch his promotion. He arranged a meeting with influential undergraduates, got the gathering written up on the front page of the Poughkeepsie Evening Enterprise, and placed stories in five New York City papers: the Times, World, Sun, Tribune, and Post--all based on 15 cents collected from the students.
Officials at Vassar were not amused. "It could never have been inferred by any readers that it was a joke collection of fifteen cents, made, as the girls supposed, for a joke and nothing else," Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, head of the Vassar Alumnae Council's publicity committee, wrote Eddie several days after the stories appeared. In a separate letter to the Aid Society she wrote, "I surmise Mr. Bernays' advertising methods have simply run away with him without your cognizance, and I hope that you will check his use of the name of the college until there are facts here that warrant it."
Eddie was chagrined, but he insisted later that he had learned a lesson: "That it is sound to find out beforehand what people's reactions may be." His reason for finding out, however, was so he could adjust his tactics rather than change course. As he continued in his memoirs, "Vassar's timidity didn't slow my ardor. I was able to make arrangements for several Vassar alumnae nights at Daddy Long-Legs .... The Friday after Thanksgiving, there was a greater demand for tickets than the house could fill."
The up-and-coming press agent made an even bigger stir in the rarefied world of dance, handling publicity for the U.S. tour of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. Diaghilev, a-Russian aristocrat and veteran of the acclaimed Imperial Russian Theater, had assembled a company blending classical ballet with the modern dance of Isadora Duncan. He featured the most sought-after European dancers, including Waslaw Nijinsky; dazzled audiences with his use of music, set decoration, color, costume, light, and story; and revitalized a theatrical form that had become ponderous and stereotyped. Rave reviews poured in across Europe, and now, in the summer of 1915, it was announced that the Ballet Russe would make its American debut the following January.
It was left to a twenty-three-year-old agriculture student to sell the Ballet Russe to a country that didn't care much for European culture, knew and cared even less about Russia, and thought men had no business dancing on the stage wearing slippers and tights.
But Eddie was coming to thrive on just this sort of challenge. He began by acknowledging that he was as ignorant about the ballet as the public he sought to enlighten, then set out toward self-enlightenment. That meant digging up all the information he could from the library, secondhand bookstores, and the Metropolitan Opera Company, which was sponsoring the Ballet Russe tour. It also meant eliciting bits of dance wisdom from Fred A. King, the arts editor of Literary Digest, and from budding ballerina Natasha Rambova, who later married Rudolph Valentino. And it meant conducting what is today called opinion research, but in 1915 Bernays's research consisted mainly of chatting with people and forming educated guesses about what they thought of the ballet and why.
Having roughly determined what the public didn't know or didn't like about ballet, Eddie set out to educate them and alter their attitude. The packet he prepared for the press suggests the inventive slants he used to get skeptical editors interested in the ballet. It featured "4 pages sketch of Nijinsky's life, 2 pages Choreography Becomes Chirography, 3 pages Nijinsky's mother-in law brands him a spy, 3 pages Are American Men Ashamed of Being Graceful? 1 page World's Greatest Dancer Walks Broadway Unnoticed, 2 pages Dreaming a Ballet Into Being, 1 page Nothing Like a Stencil To Keep My Lady Warm, 1 page Life of Ballet Girl, 1 page It's Safety Pins that Keeps the Ballet Russe Together, 21 pages (15 stories) of fashions, novelties, and influence of the Ballet on modern dress."
Eddie's stints in journalism had also shown him where he could cut corners. Would a reader recognize that the ballet's press person had written the Vanity Fair story about the ballet? No problem, he would shuffle the letters of his name around and become Aybern Edwards. The Ladies' Home Journal wouldn't run promotional photographs for fear its readers might be offended by skirts that didn't reach below the knees? No problem. For $600 Eddie engaged a pair of painters to add some length to the ballerinas' skirts, and the pictures ran in a two-page color spread that reached millions of unknowing subscribers.
Then there was the problem of how to make the press pay attention to Flores Revalles, the principal ballerina in Scheherazade. He tried calling a press conference, but only the Morning Telegraph showed up. So a short time later Eddie had Revalles photographed in a tight-fitting fringed gown at the Bronx Zoo with a long, harmless snake draped around her body. The seductive shot was distributed across the country, with a caption saying the subject had selected a cobra, but through her charm and beauty had rendered it harmless, and that she could be seen almost every day in Bronx Park musing over the reptile's sinuous movements.
Newspapers ran that story on page one, which Eddie thought splendid. "I urged Revalles to make a pet snake her trademark and never to travel without one," he recalled. "She hesitated, but agreed--show people intuitively adjust themselves to getting publicity for themselves, whatever the method. When I saw how easily Revalles became a national celebrity, I recognized how necessary it was to look behind a person's fame to ascertain whether the basis was real or fictitious. Public visibility had little to do with real value.
"Without the snake or some equivalent, Flores Revalles, an attractive, provocative and talented girl, might well have had to wait years for national recognition. The snake took up a long lag time."
Stunts like that were standard for press agents of the day as they promoted popular movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Norma Talmadge. But Eddie had a flair few could rival. He worked for clients with profiles high enough to ensure that his gimmicks would assume mythic dimensions, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he learned from and grew with each new client. And recognizing that press coverage wasn't the only way to draw attention to clients like the ballet company, he enticed manufacturers of jewelry, handbags, lampshades, table linens, and other products to introduce models inspired by the color and design of Ballet Russe sets and costumes.
Adella Hughes, founding director of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, watched Bernays's machinations as the ballet prepared to visit the Midwest. "No project was ever better prepared for in the matter of publicity and promotion," she wrote in her 1947 autobiography, Music Is My Life. "The Metropolitan Opera people had placed this in the hands of Edward L. Bernays. The value and quality of the promotional material that came from his office have never been equalled by any other organization within my experience."
The New York Dramatic Mirror agreed, writing in its December 4, 1915, issue: "Congratulations are due Edward L. Bernays, general press representative of the Serge de Diaghilew Imperial Ballet Russe, for the excellent showing he has made in recent numbers of magazines. In these days of world crises it is, indeed, no easy task to secure publicity for mere amusements. One can scarcely pick up a periodical of late without finding illustrated articles about Karsavina, Nijinsky, Bohn and other leading members of the famous organization."
There were, of course, hitches, including some major ones that threatened to sabotage the tour. Nijinsky, who'd been ballyhooed more than anyone else in the company, was arrested in Hungary as an enemy alien and missed the whole first season. When he finally was freed, he sprained his ankle and missed most of the follow-up tour. French conductor Pierre Monteux also was missing in action at first, in his case fighting Germans on the French front during World War I. And it seemed everyone on the tour was romantically entangled with everyone else. The most titillating and tumultuous of those relationships, according to Bernays, involved Diaghilev; his longtime lover, Nijinsky; Nijinsky's new wife, Romola; and Diaghilev's new lover, Leonide Massine, who had replaced Nijinsky during the first U.S. tour.
What kind of impression did those affairs of the heart and of high culture have on the young promoter? His three years with the ballet "taught me more about life than I have learned from politics, books, romance, marriage and fatherhood in the years since," he wrote five decades later. "I had never imagined that the interpersonal relations of the members of a group could be so involved and complex, full of medieval intrigue, illicit love, misdirected passion and aggression. But while it happened, I took it all for granted as part of a stimulating job."
And it wasn't just Bernays who was profoundly affected by the whole ballet experience. A nation that was used to chortling over Charlie Chaplin or rejoicing with the high-stepping Ziegfeld girls found itself drawn to this more refined, decidedly European entertainment. "The whole country was discussing the ballet," Eddie wrote. "The ballet liberated American dance and, through it, the American spirit. It fostered a more tolerant view toward sex; it changed our music and our appreciation of it .... The ballet scenarios made modern art more palatable; color assumed new importance. It was a turning point in the appreciation of the arts in the United States."
While he was wrapping up his work with the Ballet Russe in 1917, Eddie was presented with another European artistic sensation to introduce to America: Enrico Caruso, the greatest tenor of his time and one of the music world's greatest characters.
Plugging Caruso meant following what was becoming a familiar pattern. First came the press releases, then the visits to editors and publishers. He also coined phrases aimed at capturing public attention, dubbing Caruso "the man with the orchid-lined voice." What distinguished this assignment from earlier ones was the amount of time Eddie spent observing the artist up close, staying in the same hotels and remaining on call twenty-four hours a day during a swing through Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Toledo.
Being on call sometimes meant handling crises--like the time when, at the banquet following a nine-encore performance in Cincinnati, the great singer suddenly slid under the table and wouldn't come out until Eddie ordered someone to shut a nearby window, the source of a draft that Caruso worried would give him a cold. Or when, at Pittsburgh's Shenley Hotel, the tenor insisted on two extra mattresses and seventeen more pillows. With help from the hotel manager Eddie dug up the extra bedding, and Caruso supervised the construction of a triple-tiered bed with pillows placed around the edges to keep out breezes.
Then there was the time a hotel wedding party on the floor below was keeping Caruso awake. He called Eddie, who called the manager, who called the revelers, who, when they heard who the complainant was, willingly agreed to be relocated nine floors down.
Of course, Eddie was well compensated for his labors as advance man and nursemaid. The Metropolitan Musical Bureau, which had hired him, took 15 percent of all concert receipts, and he earned 25 percent of the bureau's profits, which meant thousands of dollars. What really thrilled the twenty-five-year-old promoter, however, was Caruso's acceptance of him as an equal.
"We acted like two boys toward each other--boys who like and understand each other," Eddie recalled. "We never had to translate our feelings into words. After I had seen him several times he called me by what I suppose was an Italian diminutive added to my name-Bernaysi."
Eddie also was fascinated by the public's adoration of Caruso. And, in a lesson he'd learned while working with the Ballet Russe and that he would later apply in behalf of corporate moguls and American presidents, he realized that such impressions could easily be fashioned or reshaped. "The overwhelming majority of the people who reacted so spontaneously to Caruso had never heard him before," Eddie wrote. "The public's ability to create its own heroes from wisps of impressions and its own imagination and to build them almost into flesh-and-blood gods fascinated me. Of course, I knew the ancient Greeks and other early civilized peoples had done this. But now it was happening before my eyes in contemporary America."
The press agent's own image got a lift from Caruso's American visit. In a tribute repeated by other profilers, music critic Pitts Sanborn of the New York Globe referred to Eddie as "the Caruso of press agents and the press agent of Caruso."
While most of his time in those early days was taken up boosting the careers of other artists, he also experimented, at a time when anything seemed possible, with composing his own art. His proudest was a ten-poem set that ran in The Broadway Anthology, a sixty-page book of poetry by four press agents.
Like his other verses, the one about Caruso, titled "The Pillow Cases," sought to make press-agentry seem poetic, but it also underscored the thin line between cleverness and chicanery:
On the platform patiently nestled were twenty-six pieces of
Twenty-six pieces of luggage, containing more than their content,
Twenty-six pieces of luggage would get him the story, he had
not given himself
Craftily, one lured the reporters to look on this bulging baggage.
"Pillows and pillows and pillows," was whispered, "Tonight he
will sleep on them."
Vulture-like swooped down the porters,
Bearing them off to the taxis.
Next morning the papers carried the story: "Singer Transports
His Own Bedding,"
But the artist slept soundly on Ostermoors that night.
The baggage held scores for the orchestra.
The war raging in Europe affected Eddie, as it did most Americans, long before America joined in.
First there was its dampening effect on grain exports, which effectively shut down Ely Bernays's lucrative grain-trading business. Americans' demand for news about the war also complicated the job of Broadway press agents, who fought even more fiercely for the meager space that remained. And the enmity from the battlefields spilled over even to the Ballet Russe, where Pierre Monteux, Diaghilev's French conductor, agreed to conduct the works of dead German composers like Beethoven but not live ones like Richard Strauss, whose Till Eulenspiegel Monteux was scheduled to conduct.
Eddie launched his campaign to enlist on April 6, 1917, the very day America declared war on Germany. He signed up for the army, then wrote to top army and navy officers to press his case. Finally he used a contact from the music world to reach a colonel at the recruiting office, who scheduled him for a physical.
The verdict: flat feet and defective vision. He demanded and received a second exam, which produced the same results, and was officially turned down for active duty.
Rejection only made him more determined. He'd always been a bit insecure about his Austrian roots, his Jewishness, and most of all his diminutive 5-foot-4-inch stature. Now he was determined to prove he was a true American capable of defending his country. A string of successful publicity campaigns had taught him how to get his way, so he decided to conduct a campaign in his own behalf. He wrote to the Red Cross in France asking for "any position for which you believe my qualifications and past experience fit me." He wrote to the Commission on Military Training offering to get musicians to perform at army camps. He even helped out at his local draft board, organizing its statistical and clerical functions.
When none of that produced results, Eddie helped sell U.S. bonds and war saving stamps, promoted recruitment rallies, and arranged publicity for a patriotic music festival. He also outlined in Musical America what the journal called a "vivid, dramatic, convincing" plan for musicians to pitch in to the war effort. Whenever singers performed, he advised, they should include a song about the military. Same for orchestras and songwriters, while music store owners were urged to donate instruments for the troops. And "naval recruiting would take on tremendous impetus if there were daily parades of bluejackets through the city streets, headed by the ship's band."
Being involved on the periphery was frustrating, however, and he finally wangled an interview with Ernest Poole, head of the Foreign Press Bureau of the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI), the closest thing to a propaganda bureau the government had back then. Poole seemed impressed by a stack of testimonial letters Eddie brought along, but he insisted, given Eddie's birth in an enemy country, that any assignment with the CPI await a complete investigation by Military Intelligence.
The probe took several months, but the result was a letter from the chief of Military Intelligence attesting that Eddie's "abilities are unquestionably remarkable. We have nothing in our files to indicate any disloyal activity and the suspicions that might arise from his infancy in Austria and his Austrian parentage are far outweighed by the extremely cordial vouchers for his loyalty contained in letters from Captain F. P. Adams, Earl Derr Biggers, Frank Crowninshield, and many others, all well aware of his Austrian nativity but convinced of his desire to serve this country."
Finally given his chance to serve, Eddie recruited Ford, International Harvester, and scores of other American firms to distribute literature on U.S. war aims to foreign contacts and post U.S. propaganda in the windows of 650 American offices overseas. He distributed postcards to Italian soldiers at the front so they could boost morale at home, and he planted propaganda behind the German lines to sow dissent. He organized rallies at Carnegie Hall featuring freedom fighters from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other states that were anxious to break free of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And to counter German propaganda he had American propaganda printed in Spanish and Portuguese and inserted into export journals sent across Latin America.
In short, he helped win America over to an unpopular war using precisely the techniques he'd used to promote Daddy Long-Legs and the Ballet Russe.
Eddie wasn't part of the CPI brain trust, as some of his reminiscences suggest; he was head of the Export Section and co-head of the Latin American Section of the Foreign Press Bureau, which was one of several bureaus of the CPI. Still, with most bureau staffers plucked from newspapers or universities, he was one of the few versed in the hard-nosed tactics needed to capture and keep the attention of the war-weary public in America and abroad. And, as always, he outhustled almost everyone else and exhibited more flashes of inspired salesmanship. Poole later remembered him as "one of the ablest and most devoted younger workers on our staff." And in 1918, when there was question about Eddie's being drafted for a military clerkship, CPI Chairman George Creel drafted a letter saying, "As you know, our policy is not to interfere with military service in any degree, but it is most certainly the case that Mr. Bernays' present position is far more important to the Government than any clerkship that he might fill."
When it came to his role at the Paris Peace Conference, where he was part of a sixteen-person CPI press team, the reviews were less glowing. Before the team set sail, Eddie put out a press release announcing the mission, and the New York World ran a story saying the "announced object of the expedition is 'to interpret the work of the Peace Conference by keeping up a worldwide propaganda to disseminate American accomplishments and ideals."
That set off a firestorm, with Republicans in Congress charging that Creel and the CPI were perpetuating their censorship of the press even though the war was over and skewing coverage to favor the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. Creel insisted the mission was never intended to influence coverage by American reporters, and in a book published two years later he blamed the whole mess on Eddie's statement, although he didn't name him specifically. James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, in Words That Won the War, confirmed that "Creel was not uniformly pleased with the post-Armistice work of Bernays."
The battles over Paris can only be understood in terms of a wider disillusionment in America over the bloody war the nation was emerging from. Many Americans still weren't sure why they had fought or what they'd achieved, and they didn't want to get further entangled overseas. The Senate, sensing those sentiments, voted down the Treaty of Versailles and repudiated the League of Nations, which President Wilson had passionately promoted and which Eddie had enthusiastically embraced.
Eddie was convinced he was being made a scapegoat for the failures in Paris, and he sought to set the record straight in his autobiography. Poole, he wrote, had okayed his statement to the press. And Creel was "tired or disheartened by the criticism of the senators and the press. But whatever it was, it finally wore him down. I can't understand his giving up; he had always been a fighter. But it is tragically clear that he did not fight to maintain the functioning of our press mission, which he himself had created to serve as a press relations body."
Historians still debate those conflicting interpretations, but whoever's right, the controversy offers insights into the way Eddie operated then and until his death seventy-seven years later. He viewed activities with which he was involved in epic terms, as events that helped shape American and world culture, whether it was the Paris Peace Conference or the U.S. tours of Caruso and the Ballet Russe. He was exceedingly proprietary about his role in those events, seeing himself as having battled for the public good as others succumbed to temptation, and doing all he could to ensure that history would see him in the same heroic light. And he always got the last word because he outlived contemporaries like Creel, who died twelve years before Eddie wrote his autobiography and therefore was unable to defend himself.
Then there was Eddie's temper. He prided himself on his mild-mannered disposition, on speaking from fact rather than emotion, and on responding with reason rather than anger, but he was not one to be lightly crossed. Or, as Creel discovered, to play the patsy. It's apparent in his memoirs, in the many interviews he granted, and in his relationships at the office and at home that if you punched him, you'd best be prepared for a counterpunch or a barrage of blows. Question his motives or effectiveness, and he'd marshal all his tactical and creative resources to prove you wrong, doing so effectively enough to make you wonder whether you were wrong and to make you think twice about questioning him in the future.
All those personality traits were on full display in his battle with Creel and the others, which he described in his memoirs with a vigor that suggested it had transpired months or weeks before, rather than forty-seven years earlier. "I believe that Creel's failure to insist on effective handling of Peace Conference press relations--that is to maintain liaison with the public--helped to lose the peace for us," Eddie wrote. "In 1918 I was concerned about the future of the world. I still am. Lack of effective public relations between President Wilson and the people of the United States, historians confirm, was one of the reasons for the rejection of the League of Nations by the United States. The final breakdown of the League in the early Thirties was due in large part to the same lack of good public relations."
His experience in Paris may have left Eddie disillusioned about his government's failure to grasp the power of publicity but it reinforced his belief in his new vocation and how it could mold the public mind. He had an opportunity to test those tenets even before he got back to America.
At one of many cocktail parties he attended in Paris after the breakup of the CPI press mission, he met Haisan Kendry, an aide to Arabia's Emir Feisal, who fought alongside the fabled Lawrence of Arabia in the war against the Turks. Kendry and Feisal wanted Eddie's help in rallying Arab-Americans to push for U.S. recognition of Arabia as an independent state, one of the few hopes they saw for forestalling British and French bids to carve up the land.
Eddie did eventually talk to lots of Arabs in New York, who "were strong for independence for their homeland but had no inclination to dig into their pockets and back their enthusiasm with necessary funds." While things didn't work out with the emir, the experience planted in Eddie's mind an idea that "doing publicity for other nations, applying my experience to other countries, might be a fascinating, constructive career"--an idea he would later carry forward from Lithuania to Guatemala and from India to Israel.
That was one of many dreams he brought back from Paris. The world was changing, he realized, and he saw himself on the cusp of that change, ready to exploit the new optimism and opportunities infecting America and the world.
"I knew that musical and theatrical press-agentry and publicity would not satisfy me, after my experiences in the broader theater of world affairs," he wrote, looking back. "I was intent on carrying forward what I had learned in my work with Damaged Goods, the Russian Ballet, Caruso and the Committee on Public Information. The impact words and pictures made on the minds of men throughout Europe made a deep impression on me. I recognized that they had been powerful factors in helping win the war.
"Paris became a training school without instructors, in the study of public opinion and people .... The process was as fortuitous as the flight of windswept pollen."
Meet the Author
Larry Tye was a long-time journalist for The Boston Globe, where he won numerous awards for his work. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and is the author of Home Lands.
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