Last week the Guardian asked me to write a feature on Jay Bernstein. It appeared this morning in the Media Section under the banner “End of a great Hollywood era”.
Jay Bernstein’s death a week ago at the age of 69 means entertainment publicity will never be quite the same again. He was a one-off – a kid from Oklahoma who rose to be as famous as many of the people he represented. He walked the walk and talked the talk and made the lifestyle of the humble PR man sexy.
Earlier this year, when I was on a research trip for my forthcoming book on the untold history of the great Hollywood “stuntsters”, a fellow publicist, Steve Jaffe, insisted that I should feature Bernstein. He trusted Jaffe implicitly, and agreed to a sit-down interview with me. We talked on the veranda of his Beverly Hills home, looking out at the gathering LA rush-hour smog. His house was a shrine to his success, fat rolodexes weighing down a nondescript desk in an office surrounded by decades of memorabilia. Framed front pages and pictures of Jay alongside every A-list film and entertainment star of a bygone generation covered every inch of wall space. Beaming out of all of them with a lugubrious smile, Jay the “main man” stood shoulder to shoulder with the who’s who of showbiz royalty, from Sharon Stone to Pamela Anderson, Michael Jackson to Stacy Keach, William Shatner to Lee Majors, Donald Sutherland to Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Fonda to Ron Howard.
Direct line to God
It is not hyperbole to suggest that to understand Jay Bernstein is to understand the influence the American entertainment industry has had on the world. The Hollywood Reporter said he “must have a direct line to God. When Jay starts talking, Hollywood listens.” He was easily the most flamboyant Hollywood personal manager, best known as the “star maker” who launched Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers to fame in the 1970s.
Bernstein, with Warren Cowan, did more than anyone to change the face of entertainment publicity. His legacy was to give first jobs to modern power-brokers such as Stan Rosenfield – the quiet and honest man behind A-listers Robert De Niro, Will Smith and George Clooney – who worked for Bernstein for many years. Rosenfield is grateful for his time with him: “Jay used to say he was the worst person in the world as he would plot your demise at night.” That ruthless energy on behalf of clients forged an empire that mattered. His style – part-stuntster, part-strategist – was the precursor to the brand management that is employed by the current generation of publicity folk.
He asked me what I thought about the movie Brokeback Mountain and I told him I had not seen it. Jay, who knew both Glenn Ford and John Wayne, pondered on what the great cowboy film legends would have made of the script. I’m sure you can guess what he thought.
As a publicist in the 1960s and early 1970s, his many clients included Sammy Davis Jr, Sally Field, William Holden and Burt Lancaster. He recalled many of his tricks, such as paying a woman to throw hotel room keys at singer Tom Jones: “The key to why it worked is because I never told Tom.” He rounded up the press in the winter to see Suzanne Somers at the Central Park skating rink clad in high heels, a mink and a bikini. He insured Entertainment Tonight anchor Mary Hart’s legs with Lloyd’s of London for $1m each.
Jay showed me his collection of walking sticks; he was known for carrying jewelled walking sticks as well as packing a loaded handgun. He was a big-game hunter and a scuba diver, and downstairs in his house he had an astonishing collection of stuffed animals from his various hunting trips.
When he married the model Cabrina Finn in 1993, he sold the occasion to network TV, staging the ceremony underwater. The hoopla was broadcast for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And the memory of the PR stunt lasted longer than the marriage: they were divorced two years later.
Biggest star in the world
His greatest creation was Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett. “I saw this golden glow and something happened and I realised she could be the biggest star in the world,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt that a legend was appearing before my eyes. The iconographic poster was not my idea – the promotion of the poster was my idea”. Showing Fawcett in a red bikini, the poster sold more than 8m copies. In a vote in America at the time, the three most popular people in the world were the Pope, Muhammad Ali and Farrah Fawcett. “I was Dr Frankenstein and Farrah was the Frankenstein’s monster,” he chuckled.
Bernstein had turned TV producer to capitalise on his skills. He noted the changes in the early 1970s and took advice from the stars who had been around the block. “Kirk Douglas and Globe photos were doing a home layout in his house. I called Kirk and said I was coming over. He said no, stay in your office. Don’t take calls and close the door. Just think about me for 15 minutes, that will do me more good! I wanted to be there because a magazine had written a bad story about Kirk. He said no, don’t read it to me, just tell me when they’ve stopped writing about me. People assume that means all press is good press but that’s not true. All the press used to be our friends, but that’s not true now. They didn’t write bad things about people then. No one said anything bad about Sinatra or they’d end up in the river.
“It changed with Nixon. When the big guy went down, we were all subject to the process. There was no current affairs, no Access Hollywood, no investigative programmes. You just had friends who you worked with or you made a deal.”
Jay said he was about to make a comeback: “I’ve made about $70m but I’ve spent $72m.” He had a plan for Fawcett but his real intention was to be in the seat of power. When I said that he was addicted to the job, he looked at me with a knowing eye, smiled ruefully and said: “We run on compliments. We fill our tank with compliments from people. We have what we need to keep going. Don’t forget: for publicity people, Hollywood is a very lonely, painful place! I don’t have anybody. It’s difficult to go through stuff without a partner. I sacrificed that for my work. My clients were all my children.”
As I said goodbye, we agreed to keep in touch but I had a sense we would never meet again. I felt privileged to have met a man of substance at a time when nobody saw the hand of the puppeteer.