The Long and Influential Life of the Original Spinmeisters

by Charles E. Jackson

When Edward L. Bernays died in 1995 at age 103, he lost the opportunity to manipulate to his own advantage one aspect of his long and richly experienced life: his biography. His loss has now become our gain. Those who are drawn to discover the man and assess the work of this elfin giant of the business of public relations are fortunate that the first biography of Bernays turns out to be a fact-driven and fundamentally fair account written by Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye.

The task of separating the facts from the fictions surrounding the life and work of “Eddie” Bernays is not easy, especially considering that the fictions were often created and perpetuated by Bernays himself. A hundred years is a long time to blow your own horn. But Tye’s well-researched effort in “The Father of Spin” lights a fire under the whole caldron of contradictions that make Bernays a fascinating subject from his first birthday on a steamer as a baby immigrant to his soap operatic last years in Cambridge.

Edward L. Bernays is not exactly a household name. Unless you have connections with the public relations or advertising business or belong to the Cambridge/Boston literati, you are probably blissfully unaware that in 1923 this nephew of Sigmund Freud wrote the seminal book on the fledgling business of public relations (“Crystallizing Public Opinion”). Thereafter, he partly earned and partly appropriated the tag line that may forever follow his name, “the father of public relations.” Tye makes a concerted effort to validate the merit of that paternal title, but in the end we are left to make our own call.

Bucking any trend to base biography on the revelations of personal secrets, Tye opts instead for an issue-oriented approach to Eddie Bernays. “The Father of Spin” offers a detailed analysis of the sometimes flamboyantly funny and sometimes devilishly devious public relations campaigns that bear the imprint of Bernays during his prime. Tye dissects those campaigns under an ethical microscope using today’s lenses.

It is Bernays’s efforts to promote the use of tobacco, especially among women during the 1920s and ’30s, and his proactive efforts on behalf of United Fruit Co. to overthrow the government of Guatemala in the 1950s, that most pointedly raise the ethical sword over Bernays’s reputation. There is potential injustice in judging a human action out of the context of the time in which it was taken. But the Nixonian question arises: What did Bernays know about the harmful effect of his work and when did he know it? In seeking an answer, Tye’s research does not spare Bernays, who later in life was torn between wanting to be the holy father of his craft and facing some of the darker consequences of his acts.

Many of Bernays’s exploits, such as having debutantes step out of churches along the route of the Easter Parade in Manhattan, “puffing away” on their Luckies, appear downright ludicrous to our minds. But Bernays always based his methods on the fundamental premise that attitude shapes action. Change the attitude and you can change the behavior. “Hired to sell a product or service, he sold instead whole new ways of behaving, which appeared obscure but over time reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life,” Tye writes.

Tye cites Walter Lippman and Freud as Bernays’s principal mentors: “He was as driven as his uncle to know what subconscious forces motivated people, and he used Freud’s writings to help him understand.” Identifying those forces without the aid of sophisticated marketing research techniques was the mark of Bernays’s genius. He used sheer intuition in deciding what society thought and what it could be made to want. And more often than not, he was right.

When Tye delves into the personal life of Eddie Bernays, he does not attempt to apply pop psychology to this 5-foot-4-inch man who thought so big. He allows Bernays’s character to emerge through interviews with family, former employees, and fellow PR folks. The bottom line is that in public life Eddie was a stingy, tyrannical boss who could carry a grudge for decades.

In his family life, he failed to appreciate fully the greatest human values in his life, his loyal and brilliant wife, Doris, and his two daughters, Doris and Anne. He was a good husband and father when he chose to play the role, but most of the time he was acting in some other theater. His daughter Doris notes that “he defined himself entirely by his work.” Anne, a novelist and writing instructor, sounds a firmer judgment: “I don’t think he was meant to be a father, really.”

After seven decades in New York, Bernays moved his family to Cambridge, seeking a conducive environment to write his memoirs. The Victorian manse on Lowell Street buzzed with social affairs where Eddie could hold court as the king of public relations he believed himself to be. In 1980, he caringly nursed his wife in her last days, after which Eddie Bernays slowly began to unravel.

The final five years of Eddie’s life are the stuff of soap operas: a woman lover half his age who claims that sexually Eddie “was not a man very easily sated” even in his late 90s; lavish expenditures draining away his wealth; charges of kidnapping; lawsuits; a guardian ad litem; senile dementia; and a stubborn resistance to death until Eddie Bernays just “faded away” in 1995. There was no funeral. Edward L. Bernays did not believe in God or death.

“The Father of Spin” is more than the tale of a completely self-absorbed man. It raises important issues about the presentation of information to the American public by the media in 1998 that affect us more than we realize. That Larry Tye has condensed so much in so few pages is a tribute to his research and writing talents. Better yet, it’s a good read.