New York Times Sunday Book Review
First Among Flacks
In no area of his life did Edward L. Bernays, the self-styled father of public relations, apply his powers of puffery more artfully than in fashioning his own image. This short, paunchy man was the sort of veteran bore who liked to steer visitors to a home wall lined with photos showing him hobnobbing with his Olympian clients. Even in his semi-senile late 90’s (he died in 1995 at 103), he regaled any-one within earshot with his storied exploits in the world of hype.
As Larry Tye recounts them in “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations,” those feats were often impressive, if not always socially useful. Bernays, who started out as a Broadway press agent, transcended the genre. To promote the Ballets Russes, he had the female lead of its ballet “Scheherazade,” Flores Revalles, pose for photographers at the Bronx Zoo with a snake coiled sinuously around her – an exotic touch that became her trademark. While flogging Ivory soap for Procter & Gamble, he overcame children’s congenital distaste for soap by sponsoring a National Soap Sculpture Contest; a million cakes were profitably sacrificed to carving each year. He had the cheek to turn his own wedding into a publicity stunt, with his bride registering for their honeymoon at the Waldorf-Astoria under her maiden name, an act of emancipation reported by 250 newspapers.
Yet despite his high-toned blather about professional ethics, Bernays did not balk at engaging in questionable publicity campaigns. While advising American Tobacco in the 1920’s, he tried to conquer the taboo against female smoking. During the 1929 Easter Parade, he had a troupe of fashionable ladies flounce down Fifth Avenue, conspicuously puffing their “Torches of Freedom,” as he had called cigarettes. He was audacious enough to try to make the color green the vogue an women’s clothing because it harmonized with the Lucky Strike package, then green where it’s white today. Bernays lined up “neutral” experts, many of them doctors, to applaud the benefits of smoking, all the while concealing the tobacco company’s sponsorship of his activity.
Since Bernays fancied himself not just the pioneer but the conscience of his profession, the section on American Tobacco is especially damaging to his reputation. As Tye documents, by the early 1930’s Bernays was privy to studies linking smoking and cancer. These early warnings about tobacco’s effect on health led him to tout smoking as soothing to the throat and good for a trim waistline. As he hypocritically seduced American women into smoking, he was trying to wean his own wife from the nasty habit. His daughter Anne Bernays, the novelist, recalls that whenever he discovered a pack of his wife’s Parliaments, “he’d pull them all out and just snap them like bones, just snap them in half and throw them in the toilet. He hated her smoking.” One merit of Tye’s book is the tough, unsparing way it debunks Bernays’s pretensions to superior morality.
He disseminated propaganda for the Government during World War I and tried to brighten Calvin Coolidge’s dour image during the 1924 campaign by importing Al Jolson and 40 other Broadway performers to the White House. A master at concealing base drives behind exalted rhetoric, Bernays in 1928 provided this defense of political work: “Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.” As if to mock this rosy view, Joseph Goebbels became an attentive student of Bernays’s theories five years later.
Bernays’s seamless transition from hawking products to psychological warfare was most glaringly evident in his work for United Fruit, the colossus of the banana market and Guatemala’s largest landlord in the early 1950’s. In the early stages, the P.R. work — rhapsodizing over the lowly banana as a peerless remedy for indigestion — seemed harmless enough. Bernays portrayed heavy banana consumption as a patriotic habit that helped maintain United Fruit’s vast fleet, which could be pressed into emergency service during wartime. Then, when Jacobo Arbenz Guzman became Guatemalan President in 1951 and started to confiscate the company’s massive landholdings, Bernays helped forge a network of intelligence agents in Central America expressly to discredit the regime. He circulated unflattering information to influential American newspapers, stigmatizing Arbenz with the Communist label and softening up public opinion for the eventual C.I.A.-sponsored overthrow of the reform-minded Government.
Bernays’s name is commonly paired with that of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and the parallels in their thinking are provocative. The ambitious American nephew appeared to exploit his uncle’s insights by wrapping products in a potent symbolic aura, sneaking past the rational defenses of consumers and creeping into their dreams. Instead of having companies adapt their products to the market, he would shape demand to supply and stimulate fresh desires. The Freud-Bernays relationship, which should have formed the intellectual heart of Tye’s book, is unfortunately handled in a superficial manner. Tye doesn’t broach the subject until three-quarters of the way through the book in an overdue chapter entitled “Uncle Sigi.” Instead of probing the fascinating interplay of ideas between the psycho-analyst and the publicist, Tye spends the chapter chronicling Bernays’s efforts to get his uncle’s work published in America, relegating the critical intellectual issues to three breezy paragraphs at the close.
Tye, a journalist at The Boston Globe, has scoured more than 800 boxes of material that Bernays bequeathed to the Library of Congress and interviewed more than 100 people who knew him. He excavates enough dirt that, midway through the book, the reader loses sympathy with Bernays, who comes across as an insufferable egotist and insecure, name-dropping arriviste. Tye is an honest writer who doesn’t pretty up his subject for public consumption, but his book pays a price for his investigative stamina. How can one warm to this charming boss who called his secretaries “Little Miss Nitwits” and once fired five employees on Christmas Eve? Bernays boasted of his partnership with his wife, Doris, while grabbing all attention for himself. The recollections of his children and grandchildren about him range from decidedly cool to downright acidulous.
Bernays lived long enough to end up in the hybrid role of being both a legend and a has-been. In his final years in Cambridge, Mass., he was an indefatigable lecturer and outrageous womanizer who remained stunningly priapic into his late 90’s. He seemed to live on from sheer stubborn refusal to yield the floor. Oddly, he’s far more vivid in his dotty final years than during his landmark publicity campaigns. Partly this stems from the book’s scrambled time sequence. Tye writes a flowing, supple sentence but lays out the story in a bizarre, crazy-quilt pattern. Bernays’s parents aren’t fully introduced until page 115, and we don’t get a basic description of his appearance until page 142. In the final chapter, Tye argues intelligently that Ivy Lee and other practitioners of P.R. before World War I can lay greater claim than Bernays to having fathered the craft. This would have been a valuable perspective at the outset, not at the end. And while the foreground is often meticulously rendered, the historical backdrop sometimes seems a foreign country to the author. To cite but two howlers: Tye imagines that the muck-rakers exposed John D. Rockefeller in the 1920’s and that the Jazz Age was hostile to businessmen and sorely in need of spinmeisters like Bernays.