If jobs were food, publicity would be chicken paprikash. The Hungarian recipe is spicy, a touch of danger. It begins, my Hungarian grandfather early advised me, "First, steal a chicken." Hungarians love that old saw. It captures something of the adventurism of their nature. The Hungarian word paprika describes not just a spice but a spirit of living on the edge. In publicity, as well, first you sometimes have to steal a chicken.. find some element of news currency, of media focus, and then steal a ride on it. In publicity, when someone says to you, "You've got your gall," that's a compliment. You have to have enough stupid self-belief to pull off the impossible
Hollywood entertainment publicity is fun, as I learned my first day as a pro, once upon a sunny California Christmas season. When I first moved from the mail room to junior press agent, my initial assignment was a tough one, and that usually means fun. It was part time, of course, since I was just still a student at UCLA. That notwithstanding, now I had a desk and the sometime use of a secretary at the film industry's biggest and most powerful PR firm, Rogers & Cowan. Warren Cowan looked in. "How's it going?" he asked. "Great," I said. I'd just sat down. "Do you know who Curt Jurgens is?" "Great German actor.. they compare him to Emil Jannings." "OK, you'll do. Come with me." We walked up the block to the office of Kurt Frings, a powerful agent who was about the most Germanic presence in town this side of Otto Preminger, with a Pemingeresque ego and temper in the bargain. They had another thing in common, raging talent. Kurt Frings got his clients the best jobs and the best deals. He was a Major Contact for Rogers & Cowan, representing some of the titled female stars in town and laying all of them on Henry's and Warren's doorstep in a basket, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn among them. On the short, fast walk to Frings' office, Beverly Drive was draped in holiday joy, in sharp contrast to Warren Cowan's sense of foreboding. He asked who Emil Jannings was, just in case it came up. "Great German character actor star of the UFA silent films. Made his first talkie around 1930 starring with Marlene Dietrich in 'The Blue Angel,' the film that brought Dietrich and director Joseph Von Sternberg to Hollywood. Studios think Jurgens is the second coming of Jannings." I wasn't far off. About a half decade later they starred him in the Jannings role in the remake of "The Blue Angel," but it was his turn with Ingrid Bergman in "The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness" a few years after that which would lock him in somewhat impermanently as a Hollywood star. For all the ballyhoo around him, he was a kind and courtly man.
Curt Jurgens may not have been Kurt Frings' biggest Hollywood star, but he was his biggest European star. Jurgens and his wife Eva Bartok were the most adulated and publicity-exploited and pursued acting couple of Europe, somewhat in the manner in which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would so long reign throughout the world. Kurt Frings conveyed this to us emphatically because he wanted it Clearly Understood How Important This Was. "They're coming in tonight. I have some deals cooking. I want this to be the biggest Warren Cowan arrival coverage you've ever had. They're like royalty in Europe. No! They ARE royalty." In the mid-'50s, airport arrivals were a standard promotional tool. Judy Garland back from tour? Twenty photographers and the seven local TV stations. TV news was starting to send cameras sometimes for quick interviews. There was some mutual agreement among the press that an arrival at an airport was some kind of news peg on a slow news day. And in the dead calm center of the apple-pie '50s, for anxious editors it was always a slow news day. The arrival thing was a holdover from the '30s and '40s tradition of turning out for stars arriving at train stations. I remember one instance when a dozen photographers and a couple of camera crews ambushed Laurence Olivier, something I didn't cover but rather saw on TV. "So what are you coming to California for, Mr. Oliver (sic)?" Olivier ruefully regarded the circling and snapping still guys and said, "Privacy" and then fled. But it was star power that brought them out, and on this side of Greenland, Mr. Jurgens' didn't have any. Not yet. "Don't cost me my most important clients," Frings commanded as we went out the door. An hour later, Warren and I reconvened. He'd had other people making calls, too.. not about to leave it to the guy who yesterday was the office boy. There wasn't a single bite on this arrival in town. It was mostly "Curt who?" although one guy sparked to it a bit and said "Jurgens, Jurgens... he the heir to Jurgens Lotion?" I was desperate enough to say , "You know, you could be right." But he didn't bite. Warren, who prided himself on always having some press in his pocket, must have worn his pocketless pants that day. He couldn't buy a taker. It was five PM. The plane was arriving at 7:30. It would be dark, well that' s a help. "Richard," Warren said.. he'd already settled on that as my name, "listen very closely." "Yes?" "I want to you.....to think of (he searched for the word and finally found it) ..something." Well, that narrowed it down. When I went out his door, the new office boy happened by, and I issued my first executive order. "Stan, I need you to run up to Thriftys and buy me an inexpensive camera." "OK" he said eagerly. "But listen closely (he came to attention) I need it to have a flash unit, right? With batteries... And a lot of flashbulbs." "A dozen?" "Six dozen." Christmas was coming up, and flash bulbs were flying off the shelves. Three drugstores later, he returned with them.
I drove Warren to the airport in his car, and Frings followed in the limo he'd ordered for Europe's royal couple of the silver screen. Having worked there over a year on the grave yard shift, I knew the airport and I knew the airport by night. Planes didn't deposit passengers at walk-into-the-terminal jetways then but rather parked in the middle of the tarmac and staircases were rolled up for passenger descent. I parked us at the gate of a fence that we could access right after they got off the plane, and Frings had tipped heavily for their luggage to be collected and delivered to the Bel Air Hotel, where European stars felt most luxuriously at home. I led Mssrs. Frings and Cowan, two power courtiers in the castles of Hollywood, out to the tarmac where the plane would arrive. I'd unwrapped all of the flashbulbs, and my pockets bulged with them. When we got out to the arrival area, I realized that Warren had not told Frings the problem, but Frings, looking at the no cameramen there, knew. The two were pacing the asphalt like their water had just burst. They were on the edge of disaster or nervous breakdown or both. Warren, the master magician of publicity, usually could pick up a steaming pot even if it had no handles, but this one had him tense. If someone had handed him a neon light, it would have glowed. Kurt looked at the near-empty tarmac.. just the three of us, two other airport guys standing at the ready with the rolling staircase and a guy with two lights to signal the plane in. "Warren," Mr. Frings said, exasperated, "this is the best you could do? My PARROT could have done better." "Kurt," Warren said, "we have it covered," then looking at me in fervent prayer that it was true. At that point, he went into a kind of torpor, breathing about four times a minute and each breath sounding like a frantic sigh. Kurt was quietly seething, computing the vast moneys that would follow Curt Jurgens and Eva Bartok out the door. The plane had landed and was taxiing toward us. I suddenly thought of the one thing I'd left to Old Mr. Fumble Fingers.. chance. First rule of everything, don't leave anything to chance. It was a rule I would live and die by throughout my career. "Mr. Cowan," I said, " this is what I need you to do. When they open that door, I need you to get in there and you hold Mr. Jannings back until everyone else is down the stairs." "Jannings?" "Jurgens." It was probably the only time I ever saw his Elmer Fudd look, confusion without recourse... if I couldn't remember who the client was, how foolproof could my idea be? But then Warren looked at Frings who was collapsed and hopeless in his $3000 trenchcoat looking like Mary Queen of Scots just before the guy in the hood raised his sword. Warren straightened his back and edged over toward the staircase to position himself to get up the steps before the two guys could.
The plane was rolling towards us now, the ground controller pulling it towards him by swinging the two lighted cones backwards past his ears. Hitting his mark, he waved the pilot to a stop and crossed the cones in swooshing x's to turn off the engines. There was that short pause that always follows the disorienting cut to silence. The two guys started rolling the staircase up against the door on the forward fuselage. They were about three feet away when Warren leaped onto the stairs and he was halfway up when it bumped against the plane, harder than they intended, because they were startled by his short yardage charge straight up the middle. The stewardess opened the door from the inside, and Warren swung it open and leaped in. That was the last I saw of him until everyone else had disembarked and cleared the stairs. I had caught a glance of Frings who looked like he had no idea what was happening, but whatever it was, it wasn't going to be good. I moved in quickly along the sloping metal banisters of the stairs, as close as I could get and still get a great, clear bead on Mr. Jurgens and Ms. Bartok upon their exit. I had to blind them from the first moment so that they could never get a clear fix on the empty tarmac and all the people who weren't there.
Warren must have figured out by then what I had in mind, for he stepped out first to check if it was clear and if I was set. He nodded and then graciously welcomed Curt Jurgens and Eva Bartok to America and issued them into the dark airport night. I fired as soon as I saw the white of their eyes. I never stopped flashing bulbs and I never stopped moving. The descent of the steps was a Braille experience for all of them, including Warren who was sort of holding the scruff of the collar of Mr. Jurgens' overcoat and the strap of Miss Bartok's purse to keep them from falling. I never let them see anything but negative after-images, those green and red circles which swim around your retina after looking into the sun. Flash bulbs to the right of them. Flash bulbs to the left of them, flash bulbs in front of them volleyed and thundered. I kept yelling out in various voices, "Mr.Jurgens, Mr, Jurgens... over here." "Miss Bartok, Miss Bartok," "Give us a smile. Miss Bartok , you too." "Curt! Curt!" My flash unit was burning hot from the constant chain of explosions of light. I think it got the hang of it and was sucking them in, flashing them off, belching them into the night with only the merest touch of my finger. Mr. Jurgens kept saying, "Sank you, gentlemen.. sank you. Eva, where are you?" I finally blinded their way to the gate and Warren and Kurt hurried them to the limo. I stayed on the inside of the chain link fence so that any time Mr. Jurgens would turn to wave goodbye and to smile his thanks to the enthusiastic mob behind on the tarmac, I would flash three or four more shots-worth of adulation and visual impairment at him, and he could only chuckle at the wonder of it all. I gave them a little space and joined Warren and Frings as they were opening the doors of the limo. "They all loved it," I reported of the press corps. "They were very kind and.." he said. "Entusiastic," she finished. Jurgens turned to shake Warren's hand gratefully, "Are they always so..?" Mr. Jurgens asked, and Miss Bartok finished.. "Entusiastic?" Warren gave Kurt Frings a look and then accepted Curt Jurgens' hand, "Quite, honestly, Curt," Warren said, "I've never seen anything remotely like it." I walked back and looked at the tarmac, now scuttling with action, the plane and the ramp service guys driving in to lean their conveyor belts against the now open cargo doors exposing the innards of the belly of the plane, something I knew so well. The ground kept crackling under their feet as they stepped on the used and exhausted bulbs, and they walked gingerly and in some mystification. The litter looked a bit as though a family had just too-early stripped the decorations from their Christmas tree.
As we got into Warren's car he said, "I think you've got a feel for the game." So did I. You do all these practical jokes and you get paid for it. Not very much, actually. I was getting a dollar less a week than I had in the mail room.. and a lot less milage reimbursement. But I was happy. I was twenty and I was a press agent. I had sold my soul to a benevolent deviltry, and, as I found out down the line, I got paid off in fate. little chits of fate that always and always would be there for me and forever in ways related to publicity. It was a helluva deal.
TV Viewing notice: Catch the four great films I present as "guest programmer" with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Monday, January 11, 2016 starting at 8PM New York time.