Bernays, Edward L.

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Bernays, Edward L.

(b. 22 November 1891 in Vienna, Austria; d. 9 March 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), public relations practitioner who profoundly influenced the professions of public relations, advertising, and marketing as well as the modern realm of the “spinmeister.”

Bernays was the son of Ely Bernays, a moody and strident man born in Austria who came to America in 1892 and earned his living as a grain exporter on the Manhattan Product Exchange, and Anna Freud, who managed the home and raised Edward and his four sisters. Ely’s younger sister Martha married Sigmund Freud. There was a second bond between the Freuds and Bernayses: Edward’s mother was Sigmund’s younger sister. Edward celebrated his first birthday on the steamer to America and spent his early years living in relative prosperity in a series of brownstones in fashionable neighborhoods of New York City. Summers meant trips to the spas of Sharon Springs, New York; to the Adirondack Mountains; or, on one special occasion, to Ossiacher Lake in Austria, where Uncle Sigmund paid a visit and took his young nephew on long walks that Edward would remember and recount for the next eighty years. At home, Edward’s typical setting was center stage, with his two older sisters and two younger ones playing supporting roles.

Bernays enrolled at Cornell University’s august College of Agriculture and graduated with a B.S. degree in 1912, fulfilling his parents’ dreams if not his own. He devoted most of his energies in school to picking up communication and marketing skills that would ensure he never again had to set foot on a farm. After school he took a series of jobs that let him indulge his desire for good living, but it was not until he went to work as a promoter that he was able to engage his creative energies. His clients ranged from the Ballet Russe to the greatest tenor of his time, Enrico Caruso, from the makers of Ivory soap to the U.S. propaganda agency during World War I. For each, he began with conventional techniques of blanketing the media with press releases, but in each case he went further, pioneering techniques that became trademarks for himself and his evolving public relations (PR) profession. With the ballet he enticed manufacturers of jewelry, handbags, lampshades, and other products to introduce models inspired by the color and design of Ballet Russe sets and costumes. With Ivory he enticed millions of American youth to carve its big white bars into soap sculptures, in the process helping shape the Procter & Gamble product into the ail-American soap. And with Caruso he coined the irresistible sobriquet “man with the orchid-lined voice”; in one of the many stories he crafted on the tenor’s tour of America, Bernays was promoted as “the Caruso of press agents and the press agent of Caruso.”

Over time the notion of promotion, and self-promotion, became so much a part of Bernays’s personality that it even seeped into his wedding plans. He and his bride-to-be, Doris E. Fleischman, had settled on a modern marriage, one that would take place in the austere chapel in the New York Municipal Building, with no family or friends to bear witness, no gown or tuxedo, and no band or bouquet. There was not even a wedding ring—a symbol, to such freethinking youth in 1922, of the spousal slavery they were determined to resist. Even the timing was designed to ensure secrecy, with the couple turning up at the chapel minutes before it was to close, ensuring the wedding could not be reported in the next day’s papers. In the end, however, the young publicity agent could not keep the secret. He had his young bride sign the register at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel using her maiden name, which he knew would trigger an immediate notification of the press—a policy that he as hotel PR man had instituted himself. In this case the result was headlines, in America and overseas, proclaiming “Bride Registers Under Her Maiden Name.” Why save the surprise, Bernays reasoned, when the marriage could become a major story, helping not only him but his hotel client and the women’s movement as well?

Those same powers of persuasion were put to use for hundreds of other Bernays clients. In 1930 he went to work for America’s biggest book publishers, who were desperate to increase sales. Rather than cutting prices, which was the approach other promoters took, Bernays reasoned that “where there are bookshelves there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, then persuaded architects and decorators to put up shelves to store the precious volumes—which is why so many homes from that era have built-in bookshelves. Shortly afterwards he signed on with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, convincing its leaders that the name of their illness was more of a mouthful than most Americans could digest. He got them to prune it back to MS, which helped make the obscure ailment into a favorite cause. His most famous campaign was one he waged in the 1920s and 1930s on behalf of tobacco tycoons, climaxing in a parade of cigarette-smoking debutantes down New York City’s Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday. Bernays managed to recast smoking as an act of female liberation, in the process helping to convince a generation of women to light up the cigarettes that he suspected were deadly.

His tactics differed from client to client, but his philosophy remained the same. Hired to sell a product or service, Bernays instead sold whole new ways of behaving that reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life. Sometimes his campaigns involved strategies so complex and oblique that even he had trouble following the script, which often involved front groups, letter-writing campaigns, and alliance after alliance. At other times his approach was artfully simple, like reducing a name to its initials. Sometimes he appealed to the best instincts of clients and consumers; at other times he launched schemes he knew were wrong and willfully deceived the public. Always, however, there was a grand concept, the brash, bold, big thinking that grew out of his being more ingenious than his competitors, more cocksure, and generally more expensive. His big fees made Bernays rich, but more important, they helped convince his clients that his advice was worth its cost and that, since he was earning as much as their chief executive officer, it was with the CEO that he should be plotting strategy. His way of doing things was part P. T. Barnum and part J. P. Morgan, blended in a way that was uniquely E. L. Bernays.

Bernays was short and plain, with a paunch that increased over time and that he accentuated by patting. But as soon as he entered a room, his audience realized how much he knew about almost everything and understood that he was worth listening to. That electric personality allowed Bernays to compete successfully on his own, with a small group of junior associates, when others in the public relations world were forming enormous companies. It also captivated his two daughters, Anne and Doris, although over time they resented what they felt were their father’s attempts to manipulate and stage-manage their lives with the same techniques he masterminded for his clients. Bernays gave up his formal practice in 1962 when he and his wife moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where their daughters lived with their families. But Bernays continued offering advice to a range of public and corporate clients during his thirty-three years of “retirement.” He died at home in Cambridge at age 103 of natural causes and was cremated.

Bernays’s impact on his profession and on American society was profound and at times troubling. Much as his uncle Sigmund Freud had revolutionized the way the world thought about individual behavior, so Bernays was able to transform attitudes toward group action. He used his uncle’s ideas in the commercial realm to predict, then adjust, the way people believed and behaved. Never mind that they did not realize it. In fact, all the better. And just as Freud was rewarded with the title of “Father of Psychoanalysis,” so Bernays became known around the world as the “Father of Public Relations.”

That was an image Bernays carefully sculpted in the 14 books he wrote on the profession and its practices, along with hundreds of articles, an 849-page autobiography (1965), the 774-page annotated bibliography he commissioned on his writings (1978), and the nearly 1,000 boxes of papers he left to the Library of Congress. Bernays was not the first modern PR practitioner, but he was the profession’s first philosopher and intellectual. He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice. In doing so, he was the first to demonstrate how powerful the profession could be in shaping America’s economic, political, and cultural life, for better as well as for worse.

Bernays’s personal and professional papers are at the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. His autobiography, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (1965), traces his personal and professional life until he was seventy. The only full-length biography is Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (1998). There are scores of long articles on his life, along with in-depth obituaries in the New York Times (10 Mar. 1995), Boston Globe (10 Mar. 1995), and other major American newspapers.

Larry Tye