PR scum are human, too

<strong>The Fame Formula: How Hollywood's Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Indus

I have no idea what publicists call journalists in private, but I can reveal that we hacks refer to our promotional colleagues as "PR scum". Now that Nick Davies has exposed the gullible and corrupt nature of contemporary journalism in his scaremongering work Flat Earth News, we might need to adjust our address.

Mark Borkowski goes one better. His history of Hollywood publicists exposes a world hitherto unseen, and the ongoing Faustian pact between public relations and the media, of which only one player is aware. It is sad to admit that many journalists have been duped just as much as the general public since time immemorial - or at least since 1825, which is the date Borkowski cites for the birth of modern PR.

It was then that the great showman Phineas T Barnum bought a slave from a plantation owner for $1,000 on the "understanding" that she had had been the nursemaid of George Washington. Barnum calculated that this would make her 163 years old. After displaying her to the public as a sideshow attraction for a while, he proceeded to create a controversy in the press by simultaneously revealing her as a fake (anonymously) and then, as himself, responding to these malicious lies. Result? Increased publicity and more crowds at his box office. The con was on.

A tale of grifters and conmen, deceivers and distraction artists, The Fame Formula follows a capricious chronological path from the turn-of-the-century hustlers and carnival barkers down to today's machine-tooled management, whose cuffs never fray, even when they are getting their hands dirty.

In the process, Borkowski shows us that the publicist was as creative as any Hollywood screenwriter, director or accountant. And while these practitioners of the dark art of spin have been toiling in anonymity for decades, they have been responsible for more outrageous stunts, illusions and downright lies than all their comrades in celluloid put together, but until now their secrets have been more or less safe.

Alighting on letters, fragments of memoir and diaries from such early players as Maynard Nottage and Harry Reichenbach - both of whom took their inspiration from Barnum - Borkowski shows how much (and how little) has changed. Technology has evolved and accelerated the delivery process of (dis)information, and the salaries have grown ever larger - though Reich enbach, who promoted the first Tarzan movie by releasing wild animals inside New York hotels, was pulling down $1,000 a week in 1912. But the freaks - and the people who sell them - remain objects of fascination. It is sobering to contemplate media interest in the antics of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Tom Cruise and the way they are presented to an ever-salivating public. This is what happens to stars when they wander beyond the control of their publicists.

If The Fame Formula is stronger on the early to middle decades of the industry, with stories of studio mergers and the shifting power relationships between stars and moguls, that is probably because Borkowski identifies more readily with the "romantic anarchy" of the flamboyant, pre-incorporated publicists of Hollywood's Golden Age. The antics of a gifted maverick such as James Moran - who led a bull through a china shop to see if the adage held true, with the result that "the only person to break anything was the star whose career Moran was publicising" - are obviously more interesting than the canny but dull manoeuvrings of the stone-faced Pat Kingsley, whom Tom Cruise sacked in a fit of Scientological stupidity.

It is somewhat shaming to be reminded of the lavish press junkets involving enormous quan tities of booze, and of the money that changed hands to bury potentially damaging stories of everything from sexual indiscretion to suicide, even if one wasn't born at the time of the greatest excesses.

The art of the publicist does two things: it promotes and evangelises material and stars in order to increase their profitability; and it distracts and diverts attention away from those whose secret lives and scandalous behaviour would have a detrimental effect on their careers. Howard Strickling, MGM's publicist, was a past master at the art of suppression. Such was his reputation at the studio that the stars were told, "If you get into trouble, don't call the police. Don't call the hospital. Don't call the lawyer. Call Howard."

In a book that is characterised by thorough research and theatrical prose, Borkowski attempts, with some success, to achieve two seemingly opposing things. On the one hand, he risks censure from his fellow "flacks" for revealing their secrets and the inner workings of the cabal; on the other, he has genuine feeling for his fellow publicists and wants to show that "PR scum" are human, too.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire