1 Starting with Symbols
2 Lighting Up America
3 The Big Think
4 Setting the Spin
5 Rationale for a Profession
6 Getting Personal
7 At the Office
8 Going to War
9 Uncle Sigi
10 The Cambridge Years
11 One Last Ride
12 A Question of Paternity
The Father of Spin
By Larry Tye
Edward I. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations
(C) 1998 Larry Tye
All rights reserved.
Read BW's Review of This Book
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
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
"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
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
* * *
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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