Steve Hannagan: Prince of the Press Agents and Titan of Modern Public Relations

Steve Hannagan: Prince of the Press Agents and Titan of Modern Public Relations

by PhD Michael K. Townsley


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“With its behind-the-scenes views of the newspaper world during the first half of the twentieth century, the book is a valuable historical record of a time prior to seismic journalistic shifts. On-point descriptions impart Hannagan’s keen understanding of what stories appeal most to editors and readers. Accounts of his agility at straddling the sometimes fine line between journalism and publicity deliver insights into navigating this complex territory.” Foreword Reviews

Steve Hannagan, a highly successful pioneer of public relations, built groundbreaking publicity campaigns for Coca-Cola, the Indy 500, Miami Beach, Sun Valley, Las Vegas, Union Pacific Railroad, and the 1940 presidential campaign. Yet Hannagan, whose personal friends included the likes of Ann Sheridan, Ernest Hemingway, Eddie Rickenbacker, Gloria Swanson, Gene Tunney, Morton Downey, Pop Myers, and Toots Shor, feared he was an abject failure who had contributed little and would leave the world forgotten.

With Steve Hannagan: Prince of the Press Agents and Titan of Modern Public Relations, Michael Townsley seeks to put the man back on the map, introducing readers to the gregarious, charming, whipsmart press agent who never pulled a phony deal while becoming the toast of Hollywood, Broadway, and executive suites across America. Learn how an Irish kid from Bloody Plank Road rose to become a major power broker who shaped the history of marketing, public relations, and business—and how his commonsense approach to press relations, called the Hannagan Way, became deeply embedded in the ethics of modern advertising.

Dr. Michael Townsley’s career dealt with studying, managing, and developing financial tools for colleges and universities. He was the senior vice president for finance, marketing, and administration at Wilmington University in Delaware After leaving Wilmington University, Dr. Townsley was named professor of business at Becker College in Massachusetts. Later, he was named dean of the Business Program.

Dr. Townsley has authored Financial Strategy for Higher Education, Weathering Turbulent Times, and Small College Guide to Financial Health: Beating the Odds, Financial Strategy for Higher Education. In addition, he has contributed chapters and numerous articles on finance, management, IT systems for financial management, and higher education marketing.

Dr. Townsley holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, a master of arts from the University of Delaware, and a bachelor of arts from Purdue University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781457565700
Publisher: Dog Ear Publishing
Publication date: 07/27/2018
Pages: 378
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt


Mr. Hannagan, Judge Landis on The Phone!

"Mr. Hannagan," his executive assistant, Margaret Ray, leaned in the door. "Judge Landis on the phone. Do you want to take the call?"

"Yeah," drawled Hannagan.

In 1938, Hannagan had not met the fabled Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. When Steve was a boy, Landis had levied a $29 million fine on Standard Oil. Later, as baseball commissioner, he had disciplined the Chicago White Sox (forever after known as the Black Sox) for throwing the 1918 World Series. Now, Landis was calling Steve.

Steve answered the phone. "Hello, Judge Landis."

Hannagan, look! Some damn fools in the baseball industry want to spend $100,000 to celebrate the centennial of baseball next year. They have given me the money. I understand you're honest and won't try to steal it or throw it away. You probably won't be able to do any good, but will you take this money off my hands and spend it?

Landis's reference to Steve's honesty pleased him; Landis's statement about Steve's ability to deliver on the project, however, affronted him. When Landis called Steve in 1939, he was well-known as the super press agent acclaimed for his press campaigns for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Miami Beach, and Sun Valley. Nevertheless, Steve controlled his notorious hair-trigger temper and said, "Sounds interesting to me, Judge ... If we don't spend all this money, we'll return the unexpended portion at the end of the campaign."

Landis sneered, "You boys always spend all the money you get, and I don't expect you to return any!" Apparently, crusty old Judge Landis did not trust either Steve's integrity or his ability to deliver a successful campaign.

After a few final words with Landis about the centennial campaign, Hannagan hung up. As Steve turned back to his desk to ponder Landis's remarks, he sat at a desk covered with phones (each phone a separate line) in an office reminiscent of a city editor's office at a small-time town newspaper. On the walls were pictures of the great, near-great, and the women he had courted. Parked against one wall, there was a bookshelf filled with patent medicines, because Steve was both a hypochondriac and an early practitioner of exotic medicines to preserve his youth. Behind Steve was a sunlamp to maintain his Miami Beach tan. Steve's sunny Irish face and disposition, despite his hot temper, was a major asset to his firm. His tanned face was offset by jet-black hair parted on the left side and raven-colored eyebrows that framed a pair of twinkling and sometimes mischievous eyes.

Despite Landis's cutting remarks, Hannagan was going to take on the project and prove to the commissioner that he could do the job — and do it less expensively than the judge expected.

We will return to the Judge Landis story in a later chapter ...


The Boy from Bloody Plank Road

Hannagan was born on April 4, 1899, into humble circumstances in Lafayette, Indiana. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Lafayette was home to 18,000 inhabitants, with a small Irish section located between the Monon Railroad and the Wabash River. The main street through the Irish section was Wabash Avenue, popularly known as Bloody Plank Road.

Evident from its nickname, Wabash Avenue had a rough-and-tumble reputation due to it being the home to fifteen saloons and several houses of ill-repute, where sin, corruption, and mayhem were available day and night. St. Anne's Parish, the only parish church for the local Irish neighborhoods, was located in the midst of this insalubrious maelstrom. While Bloody Plank Road was a source of amusement to men from Lafayette and visitors from up and down the Wabash River, it was an irritant to St. Anne's priests.

The priests of St. Anne's Parish worked mightily to rid Bloody Plank Road of its saloons and sin houses. They saw their holy duty as saving the souls of their parishioners — in particular, the men and boys of the parish. The priests prayed, sermonized, and led boycotts to drive these dens of inequity out. The priests were fighting a determined enemy, however, and one that seemed to be associated with the benighted nickname of the street.

When Steve Hannagan entered St. Anne's Elementary School around 1906, the parish priest was Father Michael Byrne. He was an early practitioner of spreading the "social gospel," in which priests preached about immorality and also actively campaigned to curtail public drunkenness. Father Byrne, along with the women of the parish, picketed houses of prostitution and saloons. He also encouraged parishioners with political clout to enforce vagrancy laws, file charges against the operators of the houses and saloons, and petition the city council to pass ordinances to outlaw houses of prostitution and limit the time saloons were open. His heroics successfully drove away most of the prostitution and changed the way saloons conducted their business. Father Byrne believed that he reduced the sinful temptations for husbands, fathers, and sons, and made Bloody Plank Road a safer place for wives, mothers, and their children.

St. Anne's Parish nurtured the Irish community on Bloody Plank Road and was a bastion against the community's fleshy enticements. It defined the community, helped fight their battles, cared for its parishioners, and forgave their sins. Most importantly for an Irish parish, it prepared their sons to defend the faith and to stand tall against the locals who tormented Irish Catholics. For the Hannagan family, St. Anne's enveloped Steve's mother with a purpose and provided a place to do good works while attending mass weekly — and when possible, daily.

Steve Hannagan's mother, Johanna, and his father, William, were solid members of the Irish community in the Bloody Plank Road section of town. They would produce four children; Steve and his elder brother, Frank, lived the longest. One son died in infancy. A third brother, William J. Hannagan, born in 1881 and christened with his father's name, died under mysterious circumstances in 1912. He collapsed in his father's arms as they walked to their Auntie Shea's funeral. The stricken son was taken home, where his father, mother, and William's wife administered to him, but he passed the next morning. Later in life, William's widow, called Sis by everyone, became a caretaker for Steve's mother after his father died.

Johanna "Aunt Jo" Hannagan

When Steve was born, his mother, Johanna Enright Hannagan, was forty-one, and his father was forty-three. Johanna was a short, cheery woman of ample proportions with a loving personality. Her parents came directly from Ireland, but their ancestry in Ireland is not available. This is typical of many Irish immigrants who left their country behind and never talked about their life in Ireland, what county they lived in, and what they did when they arrived in the States. It is often a mystery of how or why immigrants like Johanna Hannagan's parents traveled from the East Coast to places like Lafayette. This mystery of the trek to a river town in Indiana is also true for the Hannagan ancestors.

Steve's mother was known as Aunt Jo by her family, friends, and fellow parishioners at St. Anne's. She lived under the precepts of church doctrine and from adages that followed her family from Ireland. For ancestors of the Irish like Aunt Jo, life was often a vale of tears. In those times, she turned to the church through daily mass, evening prayers, and her beloved rosary, worn thin by years of her fingering the beads. Her beads were always nearby and available for her prayers of supplication for the parish priest, her friends, her family, and for whomever the parish priest believed was deserving of God's intervention. As a devoted member of St. Anne's Parish, Aunt Jo installed herself as queen of the parish hall, organizing potluck dinners, cleaning the church, and serving the priests and nuns in their ministrations of the lonely, widowed, and lost souls of the parish.

While the church provided spiritual shelter for Aunt Jo, she also relied on Irish omens, fables, and fears to guide her and to use as sources of advice for her friends. Her sayings contained nuggets of wisdom that explained the vagaries of life and gave succor to her children and her friends when life tormented them.

Johanna dressed in the manner of an Irish matron. On Sundays, she wore clean white linens, but during the week, she wore dark clothing in the style of Irish women of modest income. As Steve became successful, however, his mother made a dramatic shift in her sense of fashion. A picture of Aunt Jo from 1935 shows her dressed in a fashionable frock with lively prints. It also appears that she regularly visited a hairdresser, something that she could not have afforded previously. Steve's mother, as evident in the picture, had a skeptical eye and some trepidation about events in her small and isolated world. Aunt Jo, like many Irish women of her era, fit the pitiless description by one of Steve's cousins that his mother had the "map of Ireland on her face."

If there was one thing that Aunt Jo loved throughout her life, it was dancing an impromptu Irish jig with the slightest excuse. A fancy Irish air at a parish hall affair, a happy moment in the life of her family, or just a hint of a tune would send her into a jig. Everyone who knew her delighted in the pleasure that she got from her jigs.

Aunt Jo also enjoyed a bit of whiskey, especially in the evening when her husband, William, would fix her a mixed drink. Her favorite saloon keeper was her husband's brother, Steve Hannagan (the namesake of her son — Steve Hannagan), who was the only saloon keeper capable of making a mixed drink that met her approval. In contrast, her son, Steve, was a miserable failure as a mixologist, according to Aunt Jo. After one ignominious failure in his thirties, he dumped the drink down the sink, saying, "Make it yourself if it is not right." Just as he finished the sentence, his mother slapped his face, declaring, "And don't waste good whiskey."

Besides homemaking and the church, Steve's mother had an artistic side, painting delicate flowers on pieces of china. She used Limoges blanks, mainly cups, saucers, and small dishes. Aunt Jo used her hand-painted china as dinner settings for her friends and as small gifts for friends and family. Her handiwork has been preserved by several relatives. One preserved piece was a moustache cup for Steve's uncle Mark, married to his father's sister, Katherine "Kate" Miller. The mustache cup had a lip across the top to help a mustache remain dry when drinking hot liquids.

Steve was his mother's favorite, and she was always available to him for advice, comfort, and a word of encouragement. His soul was more important to his mother than his fame and success. Aunt Jo, as a good Catholic mother with a strong Irish heritage, always hoped and prayed that one day Steve would become a good Catholic man and maybe, God willing, a priest. As we shall later see, the priesthood was not for her son.

Aunt Jo always made sure that Steve was turned out in his finest clothes, with his hair slicked down and his manners in place. As the youngegst child, Steve was pampered and smoothered with his mother's love. He was known, as a rejolt, as a goody two-shoes to other neighborhood children. For Steve, the most important lesson from his mother was her wise advice to please others. She encouraged him to avoid the pranks and fights of his classmates at St. Anne's. It was her tutelage that taught him how to make his way in life by pleasing others and avoiding trouble.

One of the obvious traits of Steve's close ties to his mother was that many of his closest friends were women. It was his attachment to his mother that would remain steadfast to the end of his and his mother's life. Even though he was a denizen of New York society, he was to be buried next to her in the family plot in St. Anne's Parish Cemetery on the south end of Bloody Plank Road.

William "Uncle Billy" Hannagan

William Hannagan, Steve's father and Uncle Billy to his pals and coworkers, was a small, wiry man with sparkling eyes and a splendidly bushy mustache. As mentioned before, Aunt Jo made several moustache cups for him with an inner lip to keep his moustache dry. Suspenders held his pants loosely from his shoulders, making look him as if he were wearing an old feed sack.

Uncle Billy's father, Patrick Hannagan, was an Irish citizen who crossed into this country from Quebec. Like many Irish of his era, he left Ireland to escape the devastating potato famines of the 1840s. Patrick Hannagan died soon after the Civil War without any evidence he had participated in the war. In 1870, Uncle Billy's mother, Johanna Kelley Hannagan, died, leaving five children, including Uncle Billy, to fend for themselves. Despite their childhood impoverishment, they led happy lives and found good work and good spouses. Two of Uncle Billy's siblings died young from minor illnesses, a common occurrence prior to modern medical practices.

Early in life, Uncle Billy regularly imbibed "Irish dew" and frequented many of Lafayette's saloons, holding court at the Democratic Party Hall, telling Irish tales with a rich Irish dialect. He charmed his friends with his stories of the "old sod," which he had apparently learned from his father and mother. His favorite storytelling venue was the saloon owned by his brother, Steve Hannagan.

Uncle Steve was an esteemed member of the Democratic Party and held numerous political offices in Lafayette. His saloon, conveniently located across the street from the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, was his bailiwick for the various offices that he held. Many children of Irish immigrants, like Uncle Steve, climbed the ladder of success within the friendly climes and ward healing of the Democratic Party. The party helped these descendants of Ireland escape the anti-Irish prejudice that had confined the hated "Micks" to Irish ghettos like Bloody Plank Road. The Democratic Party granted the perquisites of political power to Irish-Americans because the close-knit Irish families reliably delivered the necessary votes keeping the party in power.

As a favored member of the party, Uncle Steve found jobs for his family and their children, giving them a lift up the ladder. In one instance, Uncle Steve arranged for his nephew Harry Hannagan, blind since childhood, to hold the job of supervisor of weights and measures for the city. Sometimes in politics, the holding of the job was more important than doing the job!

By the time Steve was born, his father had taken the pledge and became a teetotaller. He still liked the conviviality of a saloon, however, especially his brother's. Steve's father would take him to Uncle Steve's, set him on the bar, and give him a nip of Irish whiskey. He thought that it was good for the health of Irish lads to have a taste of the "dew." Plus, it gave little Steve distance from his mother's unceasing efforts to make him into a saintly young boy and maybe even a future priest.

Uncle Billy was a patternmaker at an iron foundry for the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway Company, also called the Monon Railroad. Later, he moved to an independent foundry. Patternmakers fashioned molds to cast hot metal in the form of tools and other necessities in manufacturing and in repairing rail engines and industrial machines. During slack time at work, he often made castings of dogs, cats, and pigs for his friends and family. Some were simple doorstops, while others were nutcrackers or decorative knickknacks with no particular purpose.

Because Steve's father had a valuable trade, the Hannagan family did not fit the mold of the stereotypical impoverished Irish families of the early 1900s. Prior to World War I, William Hannagan's pay averaged fifteen dollars per week, which was good pay for a working man of that era. During the war, his pay shot up to seventy-five dollars per week. Aunt Jo, a frugal woman, took her husband's pay and doled out three dollars per week for him to spend at his pleasure as long as he did not come home broke the night after a convivial night of beer and storytelling at his brother's saloon. She kept the rest of the money for family expenses, keeping enough aside to dote on Steve and his brothers, especially taking care that they were well-appointed in their dress for school and church.

Uncle Billy was a quiet man who wanted his sons, especially his favorite son Steve, to learn the ways of the world and how to handle people. He feared that Aunt Jo was making them soft and that Steve and his brother would lack the keen edge needed to survive and succeed.


Excerpted from "Steve Hannagan"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michael K. Townsley.
Excerpted by permission of Dog Ear Publishing.
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

Chapter 1: Mr. Hannagan, Judge Landis on the Phone!,
Chapter 2: The Boy from Bloody Plank Road,
Chapter 3: Steve Hannagan: Boy Editor,
Chapter 4: Steve Hannagan: Master Publicist of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
Chapter 5: Steve Tests His Independence,
Chapter 6: Miami Beach: A Natural!,
Chapter 7: Land Bust, Hurricane, Capone, and Parting of the Ways!,
Chapter 8: Steve Hannagan and National Sports,
Chapter 9: Steve Hannagan Saves Samuel Insull,
Chapter 10: Hannagan Opens on Park Avenue,
Chapter 11: Steve Makes Sun Valley Shine,
Chapter 12: Steve Rides His Growing Fame,
Chapter 13: Politics: No Joy for Hannagan!,
Chapter 14: Coca-Cola: Steve Hannagan's Best Job,
Chapter 15: Steve Hannagan: Friends, Loves, the Mob, and the Peccadillos,
Chapter 16: Steve Hannagan Passes from the Scene,
Appendix: The Hannagan Way,
Author Biography,

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