Once upon a time a film that dare not speak its name ("The Sweet Smell of Success") cast an evil spell upon all press agents, decreeing that they should dwell and devise forever under a cloud of skepticism about the ethics of their craft. In that film, Tony Curtis portrayed scumbag Broadway PR hustler Sidney Falco, not a scruple to his name, and thereby befouled in perpetuity the honest repute and honor of all press agents. It's time to seek a reprieve.
As we approach the 60th anniversary of that film, a book has arrived on a white horse to rescue the dignity and legitimacy of publicity pros from over a half century of ignominy, distrust and distain. This call to emancipation is issued by a press agent who, like all of his fellow flacks, has borne throughout his career the scarlet letters PR with which Curtis, Burt Lancaster, novelist Ernest Lehman and screenwriter Clifford Odets branded an entire profession.
"Starflacker" was written in the hope it could help clear the name of press agentry. I had started with the idea that I would write a book about my friend Warren Cowan who so powerfully shaped our business of independent entertainment publicity. Although he lived 90 years, Warren did not live long enough to tell the exculpatory tale. My own escapades with the storied stars and the storied press agents of the Golden Age of Hollywood became impatient. They kept lining themselves up for my attention as I outlined the Warren Cowan story.
Celebrating the whole challenging and privileged adventure of being a press agent became the point, precisely because it's been told up to now primarily by writers who found flacks an easy target for satire and disdain. But in the funny and startling tales of superstars and legends which any top-rung starflacker can scoop up by the bundle.. a thousand or so in this book alone.. PR is revealed as an enviable craft, essentially honest.. well-intentioned when it isn't.. and criminally enjoyable.
Instead of speaking for one PR pro, I found myself speaking for all of them, all the admirable publicity guys and gals of my brief 60 years on the job.
PR people lead essentially similar lives. It's just the improbable narrative anecdotes
which vary from flack to flack. I offer in evidence my own most memorably whacky adventures as well as the rules of the game which I've recognized along the way, most of which guidelines are extremely ethical. The reader meets the extraordinary people who enriched my career and never failed to amuse me,. I sifted through my experience to provide those stories which allow these remarkable personalities to introduce themselves to you and, in the process, justify the secret, improbable wild-ride world of PR... an exercise of skills far more licit than illicit.
To set the mood:
Somewhere in the 1970s when we were all too young to think of death, at the
most vulnerable wee hour of a deep sleep I was awakened by a phone call from an
Associated Press writer in New York asking me to confirm a report that Michael
Caine had been killed.. automobile accident. It was a Sunday morning, too, when
I got the call about Sharon Tate, and so I mumbled, "What?" It couldn't happen
twice. It would, in fact, happen on sad occasion over the years, but Michael... I
rejected the thought. Maybe I misunderstood. However, the reporter repeated it. "Where
did this story originate?" I asked. "Radio station in Long Island." "Shouldn't they
be getting the story from AP and not the other way around?" "Whatever, but we
need your response or your checking it out." On a hunch, I asked if anyone else
was injured. "No.. single vehicle accident, no passenger." "I can verify right now,"
I told him, "that Michael Caine was not killed in that accident." "Yeah? How's
that?" he demanded skeptically. "Because Michael Caine does not know how to
drive, so he doesn't."
A life in PR entails a lot of rude awakenings. With some of them, you actually
can go back to sleep. Press agents are smart. They can pick their way around
disaster for their clients and for themselves like bomb-sniffing canines.
Within the deluge of tales in this book is one which made it very clear to me why I
undertook what proved to be a five year (I have a day job) venture in remembering
and evaluating and sharing: At one point in the wide-eyed year of 1956, I, a not-yet-
worldly 23 year old press agent working in Paris on Billy Wilder's romantic
comedy "Love In The Afternoon," arranged for Gary Cooper to be interviewed
one evening at the actor's Hotel George V suite.
Peer Oppenheimer, the editor of Family Weekly, a major American Sunday
supplement magazine of the time, and I arrived at the appointed hour to the
apparent consternation of Cooper's valet. After a half hour, the door to Cooper's
bedroom opened and Coop, immaculately dressed for an evening... looking like
Gary Cooper, super dooper... emerged preceded by two tall and gloriously beautiful
women dressed as though they were about to step onto the Balmain runway.
"Gentlemen," Coop said, 'I apologize. I recall having set the interview for tonight,
ignoring that I had prior commitment. Peer, if you'll pardon the inconvenience,
I'd love you and Dick to be my guests for a wonderful dinner tomorrow night,
and I promise to make up something that will give you a good story."
Fifty-five years later, Cooper's two guests at that epicurean dinner at Calvados
compared their recall of the events. The memory was a very warm one for Peer. "I
was very flattered that Gary knew that I would never reflect in my story the circumstances
of the night before," Peer said. "He never mentioned it. He trusted me."
Peer's remark reminded me that in a time before blogs and Facebook when
newspapers, magazines and radio were the sole and blindly trusted intermediaries,
a very legit and independent media interpreted stars to the world. The press understood their function as one of the three conjoined sides of the basic triangle of stardom. An important connective tissue of shared society, stardom is compounded of A. stars, B. media reportage of those stars and C. the public's image of the stars. That long period's intense esteem and
affection for movie stars, which helped power our optimism through wars and economic woes, was influenced to a very constructive degree by PR and by a media focused
on building stars rather than exploiting them. To a greater degree, of course, those
stardoms were constructed of the qualities and traits the public recognized in
each of those stars, and of the dreams they invested in them. The stars did their
part with winning and moving performances and by living up to the images and
charm quite accurately ascribed to them.
That was it. That's why I began this writing... and continued with it and further
continued with it until I was written out. The tall but invariably true tales of this book ("more tales than Scheherazade," as one key journalist recently said of the book) validated the thesis that flacks were not and are not conmen and conwomen, but rather legitimate interpreters to the world of its most beloved figures of fame. With their wit and scalawag ways described in "Starflacker," those Golden Age legends illustrate the inner workings and delights of a Hollywood which exists no more. I've tried to capture in sharp focus the spirit and essence
of that joyous time and to evidence how press agents so essentially kept it all ticking.
"Starflacker," the crowded recollections of one PR pro, speaks for them all, reflecting the
strange but common experiences which entice every press agent through a day or
through a career, a career that has dignity and purpose. It's time to shake Sidney Falco from our backs.
Those indestructible, imperishable stardoms we flacks polished and brandished were a national treasure... and Hollywood has sadly lost its ability to generate such legend. The Golden Age of Stardom was and no longer is. What made that time so different? What made its stars so bright and eternal? Those stars and their celebrity were, above all, the hallowed dreams of their audience. Today the public doesn't dream because it doesn't have to. It has the instant gratifications of digital babble and at-your-fingertips porn and worst-case scenarios. Every scabrous thing you want to know about anyone... true or probably and expectably not... is yours for the online asking. Today's public feeds on the miseries and foibles of its celebrities. Back in the golden day, nobody chortled over Judy Garland's struggles. They loved her.
"Starflacker" inducts you into the improbable adventures of life in a much-maligned and under-estimated business. I think you'll find my all-star companions of the road as amusing and amazing as I did. This all is written with abiding affection for those with whom I traveled
that road. Perhaps my peers, the people with whom I share this profession, will discover that my experiences correspond to their own. They share with me the intriguing challenge of serving artists in an industry whose first purpose is no longer that of creating great stardoms. Not that fine roles in fine films don't come along. But that's the problem. They no longer pour forth. They merely come along.