IN HIS HEYDAY, they all came to Edward Bernays: Henry Ford, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He counseled Chaim Weizmann in the 1920s and Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1940s. He accompanied the American delegation to the Paris peace talks after World War I, and found an American publisher for his uncle, Sigmund Freud. From the electric light bulb to the American civil rights movement, Bernays was always called in -- to promote the product, enhance the image, win the favorable press notices.
Things have slowed down for Bernays lately. The "father of public relations" has just celebrated his 100th birthday. Bernays, like his distingished relation, was born in Vienna. It seems fitting that a nephew of the man who first plumbed the human unconscious would excel at shaping public opinion.
"People ask me how I learned about psychology," Bernays told a recent visitor. "Well, when I was young ... we children would sit at the table while the parents talked. Now, my father was the brother of Freud's wife, and my mother was the sister of Freud. So there would be talk of Freud's ideas and the children would listen.'
Bernays is a little shaky on his dates these days: He insists that he last saw his uncle during a 1956 trip to Europe. (Freud died in 1939). But he does remember how he came to arrange publication of Freud's "Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis." While in France for the post-World War I peace talks, Bernays asked an American envoy headed to Austria to take a box of Havana cigars to his uncle.
"They were the first cigars he had received since before the war," Bernays recalls. "He sent me a thank-you note and a copy of the Introductory Lectures' in German. When I got back to the U.S. I called up a friend, a publisher, and said, Would you like to publish this book?'"
Later, Freud was wiped out financially in the hyperinflation that struck Germany and Austrian in the 1930s. "When the crown sunk to nothing, it was the [dollar] royalties from that book that kept the Freud family going."
In the world of public relations, the tales of Bernays's triumphs have become legends. Retained by the White House to doctor President Calvin Coolidge's gloomy persona, he sent a trainload of singers and starlets down to Washington for a well-covered breakfast at the White House. The next morning, a sub-headline on Page 1 of the New York Times read: "President Nearly Laughs." When the American Tobacco Association wanted to entice women to smoke, Bernays arranged for ten elegant debutantes to stroll down Fifth Avenue, lighting their Luckys while press photographers recorded the scene.
In 1919, he founded the first PR firm in history. Four years later, he wrote the first book on the subject, "Crystallizing Public Opinion," and taught the first college course.
Bernays knows well that public relations can be used for evil as well as good.
He was chagrined to learn in 1933 that a copy of his textbook was in the library of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. But PR is a weapon of ideas, Bernays notes, and "you can't prevent ideas from being used by anybody -- for any purpose."
Though cluttered with books, awards, and mementos, Bernays's rambling home near Harvard Square is free of any Jewish influence. Early in the century, he "helped some of the Jewish charities in New York," he remembers, "but I was never particularly active in them." Nor has he visited Israel. "But I helped the fellow who started it," Bernays claims. Asked whom he means, the name eludes him, but his autobiography, "The Biography of an Ideal" (1965), offers this clue: "In those days (the late 1920s), we had often entertained Chaim Weizmann, then a prime minister without a country, who was touring the United States to raise money to further the Zionist cause.
"I had turned down a provisional offer to be foreign minister of a country, Israel, not yet in existence. I greatly respected Weizmann, but I was not in sympathy with his goals."
Bernays insists that his differences with Weizmann stemmed from concern about the vulnerability of small countries. "At the time, any small state... was in great danger. What they did around that time was just to raid them. All these small states wanted to exist, but large states took them over."
Asked if he would take on the government of Israel as a client, he answers "Sure!" And here, gratis, is some public relations advice for Israel from the man who invented the game:
"What I would do, which apparently Israel has not done, is to establish much closer relationships with the democratic countries of the world and get those countries to make much more visible in the public mind how much they support Israel and how much they believe in freedom of religion, just as the democratic countries believe in freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of petition.
"Israel should appoint an international public relations committee, made up of all the best public relations people in the democratic countries of the world England, France, Germany, Italy, even Spain."