INSIDE THE BELTWAY - Ever been called a ’flack’? Do mags tag your firm a ’Tubthumpery’? - Ah, the good old days

Vanity Fair, a magazine whose research must indicate that readers over 20 are endlessly interested in accounts of movies from the ’70s, ’60s and ’50s, describes at length in the current issue the making of a strange but memorable movie called Sweet Smell of Success, a story about thinly disguised people from the PR business in what we sometimes called ’the good old days.’

Vanity Fair, a magazine whose research must indicate that readers over 20 are endlessly interested in accounts of movies from the ’70s, ’60s and ’50s, describes at length in the current issue the making of a strange but memorable movie called Sweet Smell of Success, a story about thinly disguised people from the PR business in what we sometimes called ’the good old days.’

Vanity Fair, a magazine whose research must indicate that readers

over 20 are endlessly interested in accounts of movies from the ’70s,

’60s and ’50s, describes at length in the current issue the making of a

strange but memorable movie called Sweet Smell of Success, a story about

thinly disguised people from the PR business in what we sometimes called

’the good old days.’



(Candor, at this point, compels me to say that Sweet Smell - as it was

called - was produced by a company, Hecht-Lancaster, which was a client

of a law firm at which I was a new associate at the time.)



The movie featured Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, two genuine stars of

the period, playing a powerful gossip columnist based on the real-life

Walter Winchell (Lancaster), and a conniving, cunning press agent

(Curtis).



’Press agent’ was the dignified name for the profession - if anyone had

thought of ’public relations counselor,’ or even ’corporate

communications executive,’ it would have been kept a guarded secret.



Daily Variety, the self-proclaimed bible of the industry, preferred to

call press agents ’flacks’ and their agencies either ’flackeries’ or, if

there was space for a longer headline, a ’tubthumpery,’ one of my

favorite Variety words. Every few days, someone would leave one agency

or another, and the headline would read, ’Smith Ankles Tubthumpery,’ and

everyone knew what was meant - another flack had moved on.



The movie was written by Ernest Lehman (West Side Story and The Sound of

Music are just a few of his credits), who was recalling - he told Vanity

Fair - his days as a scrambling press agent and somehow expiating his

guilt feelings for having catered to the likes of Winchell in the hope

of ’planting’ an item in ’the column.’



Winchell would make the rounds of New York nightclubs every evening and

more or less hold court while lesser flacks would feed him tidbits about

their clients in attempts to get the right name in print.



It was thought to be a degrading way to make a living, as Lehman saw it,

and his depiction of these two rather scurrilous types made Sweet Smell

a success and - one hopes - helped shed some of Lehman’s guilt.



Our industry has, of course, changed considerably. The crude Winchell,

whose most bragged-about source was J. Edgar Hoover, was the first truly

nationally syndicated columnist. There were few if any rival placements

available, and the flacks crowded around eagerly.



Today’s ’counselors’ and ’advisors,’ dealing with the likes of

’branding’ and ’corporate reputation positioning,’ wouldn’t recognize

the old tubthumpery.



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