Biography of an Idea: The Founding Principles of Public Relations

Biography of an Idea: The Founding Principles of Public Relations

by Edward L. Bernays

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The father of public relations looks back on a landmark life spent shaping trends, preferences, and general opinion

A twentieth-century marketing visionary, Edward L. Bernays brilliantly combined mastery of the social sciences with a keen understanding of human psychology to become one of his generation’s most influential social architects. In Biography of an Idea, Bernays traces the formative moments of his career, from his time in the Woodrow Wilson administration as one of the nation’s key wartime propagandists to his consultancy for such corporate giants as Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and Dodge Motors. While working with the American Tobacco Company, Bernays launched his now-infamous Lucky Strike campaign, which effectively ended the long-standing taboo against women smoking in public.

With his vast knowledge of the psychology of the masses, Bernays was in great demand, advising high-profile officials and counseling the tastemakers of his generation. His masterful and at times manipulative techniques had longstanding influences on social and political beliefs as well as on cultural trends. Biography of an Idea is a fascinating look at the birth of public relations—an industry that continues to hold sway over American society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497698673
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 857
Sales rank: 710,594
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Edward L. Bernays (1891–1995) is commonly referred to as the father of public relations. Born in Vienna, Austria, and a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays moved to the United States as a young child. His belief that popular opinion could and should be manipulated led him to create psychological and sociological techniques that allowed businesses, industries, and even governments to influence the public. Lucky Strike, the Waldorf Astoria, General Motors, General Electric, and Ivory soap numbered among his illustrious clients. Woodrow Wilson even hired Bernays to promote the American efforts in World War I. Famous for popularizing the use of the press release and developing memorable campaigns, Bernays is responsible for creating the field of public relations as we know it.

Read an Excerpt

Biography of an Idea

The Founding Principles of Public Relations

By Edward L. Bernays


Copyright © 1965 Doris F. and Edward L. Bernays
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-9867-3



My first memory of home is of a modest house and a small back yard, with a square of green grass surrounded by a flagstone walk and, on three sides, a narrow grass border. Our house was one in a row of new brownstones that had sprung up among the scattered mansions and country estates on New York's East 139th Street. In 1895, living there was like living in a semirural suburb of New York City; there were no subways to pump people in and out.

I remember, too, a gray stone mansion, set in a pleasant garden nearby, where I attended kindergarten. Here, in my short blue-serge pants and jacket, broad red bow knotted over a white blouse and long black ribbed stockings and button shoes, I played with other genteel children. Our kindergarten teacher lined us up in order of size, the tallest first, and took her seat at an upright piano; then, at her signal, we marched around outside in the garden to the rhythm of the music. I was glad my height put me in second place, though I wished I were a little taller so that I could lead the procession. I tried to gain height by imitating the walk of the boy just ahead of me. Each time he stepped forward on his right foot, he raised himself nonchalantly on his toes; I did the same and felt the better for it. Under huge shade trees and rolling lawn, which were swept away much later by tenements and then by housing developments, we sat on tiny chairs in a large circle and clapped our hands to the music, wove mats and arranged small colored wooden balls as starlike mosaics in frames.

Playing with other boys and girls filled me with a warm glow of companionship, a sense of adjustment and belonging. Only three years before, in 1892, my parents had emigrated from Vienna to New York. My first birthday had been celebrated on the voyage. With characteristic foresight, my father had explored business opportunities in New York on a previous trip and had found a niche on New York's Produce Exchange. We lived in boardinghouses in Manhattan until Father was established as a grain exporter on the Exchange, when he bought the house on 139th Street and sent for my two older sisters, Lucy and Judith, who had remained in Vienna with my uncle, Sigmund Freud, and my grandparents, the Jakob Freuds. My two younger sisters, Hella and Martha, were born in New York.

My father had lived in Vienna for slightly over a decade. The Bernays family from Hamburg had been distinguished in Jewish culture, its roots in Spain. My great-grandfather Isaac Bernays, chief rabbi (Hakaam) of Hamburg in the early nineteenth century, introduced the Germany vernacular into religious services. He was related to Heinrich Heine, the poet. Two of his sons became well-known teachers, Michael and Jacob Bernays—the former a professor of literature at the University of Munich. He embraced Christianity and became an adviser to the King of Bavaria, Ludwig. He wrote a profound book on Goethe. Jacob Bernays taught Latin and Greek at the University of Heidelberg. Isaac Bernays' third son, Berman, a merchant, was my grandfather. He moved his family to Vienna in 1869 and became the secretary to the well-known economist Lorenz von Stein. When Berman died of heart failure on the street in 1879, my father Ely, aged 19, took his father's place as the economist's secretary. Here he remained several years. In Vienna my father met Anna Freud, fell in love with her and married her in 1883. Three years later his younger sister Martha married Anna's brother Sigmund, a young physician just establishing himself.

Anna Freud, my mother, was one of six children of Jakob and Amalie Freud. My mother often spoke about her father's broad liberalism and of his generosity. When fashion made one of its sudden switches, and Jakob's sons by his previous marriage lost their investment in an ostrich farm in South Africa, he voluntarily sold his factory to liquidate their debts, although he had no legal obligation to do so.

In 1892 he wrote a letter to two of my cousins which I understand was typical of his human approach:

My very dear little girls,

I was at Baden with your Aunt Anna [my mother] and she sends you a thousand greetings and kisses. Little Edward is the most charming boy and very kind. He awakens his wet nurse with song when he needs her. He was at the table for breakfast and participated busily in our breakfast. At lunch he came as our guest and ate cereal, eggs, and meat. He wants beer and wine and already sings pretty songs of his own composition. He kisses, laughs, eats, drinks, and speaks in a lively way, and weighs 19.2 pounds. Judith and Lucy have asked me to give him a pet name. I did, calling him Chap IV of Austria, because with Sigi's three fellows, we now have four good-looking chaps in Austria. This nickname was unanimously accepted and I undertook the job of conveying the information to all the relatives. I am announcing it to the uncles in England, to you, and to Aunt Martha in Reichenau.

Your Grandfather, Jakob Freud

I remember, as a young boy, the day a cable arrived from Vienna for my mother, bringing news of her father's death. I had never before seen her cry. She wept and wept. I was not sad because I did not understand why she wept. I had never been at a funeral or visited a cemetery. But despite this, an age-old impulse impelled me, as a little boy, to bury my defunct goldfish and canaries under the back-yard sod in a cardboard shoebox and to mark their graves with half a clothespin. My childhood interest in burial is past; I regard burial as a primitive, unsanitary rite and have left instructions for my body to be used for scientific research.

My mother was close to me when I was a boy and she treated me with great tenderness. I first remember her in her early thirties. But to me she was ageless, an all-pervasive and beneficent influence. It is difficult for me to describe her looks. She was always there when I needed her or wanted her; she solved all my problems. Her looks mattered as little as her age.

She insisted that she looked like a Freud—rather short, plump, with regular features and a button nose. She usually was tightly corseted and wore a neat white shirtwaist and a long black mohair skirt, the contemporary uniform of the middle-class matron. The dresses she wore at dinner were like armor plate, made for wear rather than for style or fashion. She was too busy caring for five young children and catering to a meticulous, moody husband to devote time to herself and her wardrobe. I do not recall ever seeing her in evening dress.

Her life revolved around the family. She did not participate in outside affairs, except intellectually. She read the Staats-Zeitung, a German-language daily, delivered each morning to the house, together with the New York Times and the New York Sun, which my father read. Mother avidly read German literature and enjoyed quoting Schiller and Goethe. She left international affairs, finance, business and politics to my father. But the United States was a special concern. When she visited Europe she became an articulate and enthusiastic supporter of her adopted country and boasted gleefully to her friends and relatives about America. At home she often voiced her distaste for America; rocking chairs, breakfast foods and chewing gum; yellow journalism, Tammany Hall and filthy streets. She refused to adopt English as her second language, although she read English perfectly and spoke it when necessary. She conversed with us in German, which became our second language.

The household during the day centered around Mother. In the evenings and on holidays and Sundays my father dominated everything and everyone, intimidating all of us with his unpredictable temperament. My earliest recollection of him is that of a heavyset man leaving the house every weekday and Saturday morning for a place called "downtown" to make money. His eyes were bright, his nose was aquiline, his pointed black beard was carefully groomed; once met, he was not easily forgotten.

He dressed most carefully, his well-fitting suits made to order. He wore high black kid pullon shoes (later replaced by high-laced black shoes of soft leather). On Sundays he put on a Prince Albert and a top hat, which he smoothed out on his left sleeve while holding the brim in his right hand. This uniform and a cane were de rigueur for attendance at lectures or in visiting friends, his usual Sunday activities. His zealous attention to detail extended down to his socks. They were pinned to his long underwear with safety pins. Six safety pins, three for each sock, were placed on the same spot on the carpet next to a low chair every night before he went to bed. At the same time each morning he sat on this chair and carefully pinned his socks. I wondered how old I would be before I was permitted to do this too.

My father was impeccably logical about subjects in which he was not emotionally involved. In decision-making on a grain transaction he weighed all the factors pro and con and came as close as a human mind could to the operation of a computer system. But when he became emotionally involved he was often illogical. As I matured, without conscious analysis, I was undoubtedly affected by my father's logical and illogical approaches. I decided to become logical as much as I was able to. I saw then that only by adhering to objectivity could I cope effectively with complex and involved situations. Whims and moods were wearing, wasteful and inefficient.

My father was strong-willed. He would not or could not compromise. This prevented his developing to his fullest as an individual and playing the role in affairs his fine mind and strong personality warranted. I am for no compromise on basic principles dealing with such values as justice and honor, but leadership in a democratic society can be accomplished only by some adjustment to others, by give and take on issues that are not fundamental. My father refused to do this, resigned from societies and rejected friends, because they didn't do something, whatever it may have been, in his way.

My father was self-indulgent. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and usually he got it. He addressed my mother as Frauchen. In German, Frau means both woman and wife and chen is a diminutive suffix, so Frauchen had the doubly affectional meaning of "little wife" and "little woman." Mother could never be sure, when she heard herself addressed, what would follow this endearing appellation. A vase or ashtray out of place when he returned in the evening completely upset him; a chipped plate at dinner was an unnerving experience; a roast that did not come to the table piping hot a desecration. My mother was constantly on the alert to prevent explosions of Father's temper. Cooking odors were anathema. He would sniff the air like a lion when he stepped into the vestibule of the house each evening. If someone had forgotten to close the dumbwaiter and odors sifted up from the kitchen through the house, he would call out in a loud, stern voice, "Open the windows!" My mother would rush to the windows and throw them open regardless of outside weather. I never knew why my father was so obsessed with details. Whatever the reason, I later consciously avoided demanding perfection in my own home.

I lived with the family until I was seventeen and never saw my mother cross my father. It was her policy and she always achieved it, although the price was often high. Today wives rarely subordinate their egos and personalities to their husbands so completely. My mother was brought up in a culture that took this for granted, and she no more thought of rebellion than an Indian bride did in the days of suttee.

My father's attitude toward his children was Victorian: human beings had children as other primates did. A husband accepted the children born to his wife—and let her take care of them. But the discipline came from him.

My sisters and I stood in awe of our father. We observed silence in his presence until we were addressed. When he left the house in the morning he called goodbye to us from the hall. We then ran from wherever we were and pecked a farewell on his bearded cheek. After dark he returned. I saw him for a few moments after supper, before I was sent to bed. My mother said he worked very hard. He occasionally raised his voice to us in commanding tones, which had the shock effect of a New York traffic cop on a timid motorist. His awesome personality made corporal punishment unnecessary. I was never spanked. This was unusual, for "spare the rod and spoil the child" was then no idle maxim.

On his forty-fourth birthday, February 6, 1902, my sisters and I presented him with a coffee cup and saucer we all had chipped in to buy. I had written a greeting on a small sheet of paper: "To our dear Papa so that he may enjoy his coffee in quiet until he is one hundred twenty years old."

In a good mood that morning, he made a formal little speech of thanks. After he had finished he returned to his New York Times, neatly folded into small compass so that he could hold his paper with his left hand while handling his coffee cup with his right.

Because he had become his family's sole support at an early age, my father's education had not included college, but his knowledge was broad and deep and he remained intellectually curious all his life. He was extraordinarily well read in German and English literature. He read contemporary biography, history, international affairs, the North American Review and The Nation and, like Mother, quoted Schiller and Goethe to suit practically any occasion. They were like Shakespeare to the Englishman and the Bible to an evangelist. He was fluent in English, German, Italian and French. Our neglect of languages was a subtle manifestation of America's isolationism. We represented so many stocks that English was eagerly adopted as a binder for the nation. Subconscious resentment against foreigners and foreign languages fostered disdain for languages other than English. Later sophistication of this attitude brought us "American" English.

My father's individualism was evident in his changing religious affiliation. He founded a neighborhood temple during the few years we lived on 139th Street; later he attended Merle St. Croix Wright's Unitarian Church on Lenox Avenue because Wright's liberal religious viewpoint coincided with his own religious rationalism. Later, Dr. Felix Adler's Ethical Culture Society lured him to Sunday-morning meetings at Carnegie Hall. But he tired of this too and aligned himself with Stephen Wise's Free Synagogue, of which he became vice-president. When he felt that Wise had grown too dictatorial, he severed this association. He made his own synthesis of Unitarianism, an ethical religion that acknowledges the greatness, though not the divinity, of the Jewish teacher, Jesus; and the Ethical Society, an outgrowth of the Hebraic tradition; and Stephen Wise, a liberal Jewish thinker.

Despite his dictatorial nature, Father never tried to impose religion on any of us. Religion in many parts of the world is women's domain, but in our family my father had it to himself. Neither my mother nor my sisters shared his religious interests, and they had no appeal for me. None of us attended religious services or received religious instruction, nor did my father or mother discuss religion with us. Father believed that choice of religion was an individual's inherent right, to be exercised, if he wished, when he became an adult at eighteen or twenty-one. That is what he told his children.

Nevertheless—strange anomaly—from early childhood my sisters and I performed a ritual as routine as the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at school. Each night before going to sleep I knelt on the bed and repeated:

Ich bin klein,
Mein Herz ist rein;
Niemand soll drin wohnen
Nur Gott allein.

(I am small,
My heart is pure;
None shall live there but God alone.)

It was the one religious rite my father insisted upon. When he was absent, my mother supervised the ritual. It took less than five seconds. I don't remember when I gave it up—probably when I felt so independent of everything and everybody that I could fall asleep without benefit of deity. I may have been eleven or twelve.

In keeping with contemporary patterns, Father and I never discussed our relationship. My father sought intellectual stimulus in his complex business. He enjoyed the nerve-wracking grain-export business; it offered him opportunity to exercise his insights, follow his hunches and satisfy his ego, for he was often right. A member of an intellectual family, he was accustomed to dealing with complex ideas. On the Produce Exchange he bought and sold grains, classified by standards like "Number 2 Hard Winter Wheat." He didn't see the grain or even samples of it. He appraised and estimated factors of the future, such as currency exchange rates, ocean freight costs, weather, competition, prospects of crops and crop failures in far countries. Both his integrity and his judgment were highly respected by his fellow traders.


Excerpted from Biography of an Idea by Edward L. Bernays. Copyright © 1965 Doris F. and Edward L. Bernays. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Epigraph
  • Part I Beginnings [1891–1916]
    • 1 Childhood at Century’s Turn
    • 2 Barren Years at Cornell Agricultural College
    • 3 Looking for Life
    • 4 Sex O’Clock in America
    • 5 On Park Row
    • 6 On Broadway
    • 7 Metropolitan Musical Bureau
    • 8 Nijinsky and Diaghileff’s Ballet Russe
    • 9 On Tour with Caruso
    • 10 Movies and Rallies for Democracy
  • Part II Adjustment [1917–1922]
    • 11 Words Win the War and Lose the Peace
    • 12 Interval in Paris
    • 13 Publicity Direction
    • 14 Fighting Jim Crow in the South
    • 15 Marriage and Life in Greenwich Village
    • 16 Great Hotels
    • 17 Two Magazines and the Sell Mania
    • 18 Correspondence with Freud
    • 19 Horace Liveright, Pioneer in Publishing
    • 20 Counsel on Public Relations
  • Part III Fulfillment [1923–1929]
    • 21 Art Comes to Industry
    • 22 The Worlds of Fashion
    • 23 Pierre Cartier: Diplomat in Trade
    • 24 Jacques Seligmann and Company
    • 25 Breakfast with Coolidge
    • 26 Procter & Gamble: 99 44/100% Pure
    • 27 Notes on the 1920s
    • 28 George Washington Hill: Industrial Tornado
    • 29 Ramifications in Oil
    • 30 Keeping the Auto Industry Rolling
    • 31 Bread on the Assembly Line
    • 32 Broadcasting: CBS and NBC
    • 33 E. A. Filene: The Unsuccessful Millionaire
    • 34 Light’s Golden Jubilee
  • Part IV Depression, New Deal and Challenges to Democracy [1930–1941]
    • 35 President Hoover Attempts to Exorcise Unemployment
    • 36 The Committee on the Cost of Medical Care
    • 37 Book Business
    • 38 Power Struggles for Proxies
    • 39 Construction in the Depression
    • 40 The Ladies’ Home Journal
    • 41 International Mountains Out of National Molehills
    • 42 Fighting for Credit Expansion
    • 43 Giant Motors Purr
    • 44 Sphinx of Wall Street
    • 45 America Self-Contained
    • 46 Philco: The Rise of Radio
    • 47 Nash-Kelvinator
    • 48 Oriental Pearls
    • 49 Beer: The Beverage of Moderation
    • 50 Speak Up for Democracy
    • 51 Fore for Democracy
    • 52 The Pullman Company
    • 53 A. P. Giannini: America’s Number-One Banker
    • 54 World’s Fair, 1939
    • 55 Personalities of the Twenties and Thirties
    • 56 Depression Miscellany
    • 57 The Whirling Wheel of Change
    • 58 Underwriting Fire Insurance with the Public
  • Part V World War II and the Postwar World [1942 to the present]
    • 59 In Time of War Prepare for Peace
    • 60 Publications Woo Their Publics
    • 61 Postwar Competition Spurs Corporate Public Relations
    • 62 Personalities of the Forties and Fifties
    • 63 Gaining Good Will for India
    • 64 The Theater
    • 65 Georges Wildenstein’s Gallery
    • 66 The United Fruit Company
    • 67 Public Acceptance of Public Relations
    • 68 Turning Point
    • 69 Leisure and Pleasure
  • Image Gallery
  • Among Our Clients
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author

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