Steve Hannagan’s Blog will tell the story of a peer without peers among press agents in the first half of the twentieth century. Hannagan was a highly-successful pioneer of public relations who built ground-breaking publicity campaigns for the Indianapolis 500, Miami Beach, Sun Valley, Las Vegas, the 1940 Presidential Campaign, and Coca Cola. He developed, tested, and refined many of the press and publicity principles commonly used today.

Steve Hannagan at the Height of His Famei

Along the way, Steve Hannagan knew or worked with most major figures and celebrities of his era. His colleagues and friends spanned business, Hollywood, Broadway, New York’s Café Society, the news media, politics, and sports.

Hannagan was a garrulous, charming, whip-smart press agent who never pulled a phony deal. His honesty and charm opened doors to the powerful. His press campaigns were sensational or subtle and always caught the eye of the intended audience. His success always ensured a steady stream of business to his firm.

The Hannagan Blog will be issued regularly with new stories about Steve plus his promotional principals called the “Hannagan Way.” Below are several vignettes that will introduce you to Steve Hannagan and to the stories and pictures that you will see in future editions of the Blog.

Steven Hannagan’s Indianapolis 500 Campaign:

From 1919 to 1945, Steve Hannagan and his firm were the publicists for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Steve came to the Speedway in 1919, when Carl Fisher, founder and President of the track, asked Russell Seeds for help in spurring track attendance that had stagnated after several years of spectacular growth. Seeds sent Steve to the track, where he turned the Indianapolis 500 into a household word during the month of May.

Steve Hannagan with good friend Ralph De Palma,

Indianapolis 500 Champion and fan favoriteii

Steve Hannagan and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker

Steve Hannagan Multi-State Promotion with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker

Steve met Eddie Rickenbacker in his first years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At that time, Rickenbacker was setting out on a 48 state promotional trip of his new metal monoplane and need a publicist. Rickenbacker enlisted Steve as a flying publicist to deliver press releases to local newspapers at each landing. Steve also sent a running commentary of the large crowds meeting them and several emergency landings due to loss of fuel. They reached more than forty states before Rickenbacker abandoned the publicity tour after the third emergency landing damaged the plane. After the conclusion of the flight, Steve provided Illustrated Weekly, a national popular scientific publication, with the full story of the flight.

Steve with the crew next to the plane.

Steve is on the left and Rickenbacker is holding a Panama hat. iii

Steve promotes Rickenbacker new auto venture. In the early 1920s, Rickenbacker organized the Rickenbacker Motor Company. The car was handsomely designed technological marvel. He began production of the Rickenbacker in 1922 and soon after asked Steve Hannagan to help promote the new car. However, the automobile struggled because of its high price, $5,000 ($70,000 in current dollars). Rickenbacker did not enjoy manufacturing and soon told Steve that he should move to Miami Beach to work for Carl Fisher, where there were greater opportunities.

Steve Hannagan in the Rickenbacker

The 1926 Indianapolis 500 Pace Cariv

Steve and Rickenbacker – Lasting Friends; in 1922, Steve was Rickenbacker’s best man at his wedding. They remained close friendship to the end with Rickenbacker as executor of Steve Hannagan’s will.

Steve Ballyhoos Miami Beach

In the mid-twenties, Carl Fisher brought Steve Hannagan to Miami Beach for the same reason that he placed Steve in charge of publicity at the Speedway. Fisher knew that Hannagan’s could juice sales of Fisher’s properties on Miami Beach. Within a few years, Steve turned local Bathing Beauties into icons of the sun and fun open to travelers to Miami Beach. Steve remained head of publicity for the Beach until 1945, when the town wanted to make a change and Steve had moved on to promoting Coca-Cola.

Swimming Dresses in the early 1920sv

Hannagan’s Icons in the 1930svi

Icons in the 1940svii

Hannagan‘s Bathing Beauty Over the Years at Miami Beach

Steve Hannagan Names Sun Valley

Averell Harriman Needs a Destination for Union Pacific Passenger Traffic. During the middle of the Great Depression, the President of the Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman, sought a location for an upscale ski resort to spur Union Pacific passenger traffic. Harriman sent Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian ski instructor, to scout locations in Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho. The main condition was that the location had to be near the Union Pacific mainline. The Count found a valley outside of Ketchum, Idaho surrounded by mountains that could be groomed for skiing trails. Harriman liked the proposal, but he had one big question – was the location marketable. This is when Steve Hannagan comes onto the scene.

Steve names Sun Valley; Steve’s first visit to the proposed resort was by rail y handcar from the mainline to Ketchum, Idaho, and then by sleigh. As he rode bundled against the deep freeze temperature of the valley, his first reaction was that the place was too cold to sell as an upscale ski resort. As they entered the valley, he began to shed layers of heavy winter coats. Immediately, he knew the name to give the resort – Sun Valley.

There are many interesting stories about Steve’s contribution to the design of the resort that will be reported in future blogs. For instance, it was Steve Hannagan who came up with the idea of the ski chair.

Steve Hannagan with Averell Harriman during

Construction of the Sun Valley Resort Hotel

(As the photo shows, Steve did not have the physique of a winter athlete.)

Steve Competes with Joe Kennedy for the Affection of Gloria Swanson

Gloria Swanson, Hollywood movie star and paramour of the fabulously wealthy Joseph P. Kennedy, became a close companion of Steve’s during his early years in Miami Beach. It is hard to imagine how Steve could compete with Joe Kenned. Nevertheless, Steve briefly gained the upper hand before Joe took his affair with Swanson seriously. Whenever Swanson stopped by Steve’s office to see him, work stopped, and all the unregenerate men ogled the sleek actress. Dan Mahoney, editor of the Miami Herald and close friend of Steve’s, later said that “Miss Swanson was crazy about Steve.

Swanson in the 1920sviii


Steve Hannagan told his associates and friends, Coca-Cola was the best job that he ever had. Steve’s two responsibilities at The Coca-Cola Company were to act, first as a buffer between the press and President, Robert Wordruff, and second to assist in marketing Coca-Cola. As Woodruffs buffer, Steve advised him on how to deal with national and international issues affecting the Company. A later edition of the Hannagan Blog will cover what he did to help Coca-Cola expand globally by overcoming an attempt by the French government to ban the soft drink. For the second responsibility, marketing of Coca-Cola, Steve devised a massive product placement campaign in Hollywood movies, the radio, and television.

Product Placement; Jack Benny in the left-handed picture advertised Coca-Cola on his shows but also included Coca-Cola in his radio and television. Before Steve passed, he refined product placement into a well-honed tool for publicizing a product. Product placement became a major component of the ‘Hannagan Way’.

Another device from the ‘Hannagan Way’ that Hannagan applied to Coca-Cola involved the addition of a beautiful young woman to the sales pitch. In the picture below and to the right is Kaye Williams, a favorite of Hannagan’s in the 1950’s. Later she became Clark Gable’s last wife and the mother of his only child.

Jack Bennyix Kaye Williamsx


i Photograph of Steve Hannagan (January 1950); Image 50712327 Photo Lofman/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

ii Photograph of Ralph DePalma; retrieved July 1, 2012;

iii Photograph of Steve Hannagan and Eddie Rickenbacker next to the monoplane (retrieved February 2, 20/13);

iv Photograph of Steve Hannagan in the 1926 Pace Car (June 28, 2011) ; copy from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photograph Library.

vi Photograph of a model with an umbrella in the 1930s (retrieved March 5, 2013);

ix Photograph of Jack Benny (retrieved December 28, 2014);

x Photograph of Kay Williams in Coca-Cola Advertisement (retrieved November 25, 2014);

This issue talks about Steve Hannagan’s move to Indianapolis and how Dot Rice, his Lafayette girlfriend, facilitated the move. Steve Hannagan was born on Bloody Plank Road in Lafayette, Indiana in the Irish Ghetto. As a young lad in high school, he was the City and Sports Editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, the local newspaper. While working for the paper he parlayed his sports writing at the Lafayette Courier & Journal into a stringer job for the Indianapolis Star. His articles covered the high school scene around Lafayette and Purdue’s games within the state. Three articles about Purdue’s teams during World War I surfaced during a search of the Indianapolis Star. In one article in April of 1918, he reported that the military draft during World War I was depleting the major teams. He set a patriotic tone as he reported that

“… Athletes have been dropping out of school to fight for Uncle Sam and to help make the world safe for democracy. Immediately after war was declared the athletes – the cream of the youth of the land – responded in groups [.]… One sees them marching away with manly stride, set jaws, denoting that same determination that makes them a success in athletics-and life.”i

In an October 13th, 1918 article, Steve reported that “Purdue in Same Boat as Others; Unable to Play.”ii The football teams schedule was disrupted when the football team, who had joined the army but remained at Purdue, could not leave military training for more than half-a-day. The half day rule meant that the team did not have enough time to travel to away games. As a result, Purdue could not travel to away games and many home games were cancelled because traveling teams could not field a full team.

A week later, Hannagan reported that the 1918 influenza pandemic forced the cancellation of classes through October at Purdue. Even though classes were canceled, the football team remained at school to practice. Apparently the possibility of resuming play later that semester was more important than the health of team.

Steve continued his stringer assignments for the Star after he was hired by an Indianapolis public relations firm. The stringer assignments brought in extra cash and kept his hand in journalism which he loved. Later to Steve’s chagrin, he was told that while journalism may be his first love; he was not a very good writer.

Steve Learns to Count

Early in Steve’s life, he learned a valuable lesson about money from a cobbler. Steve needed two tacks replaced in a pair of shoes and took them to the family’s cobbler. Like many a naïve boy, he thought cobblers, bakers, and others small tradesmen did their work for free. Somehow his mother would be given a doughnut at the bakers and he never noticed that money exchanged hands. When he returned to the cobbler for his shoes and was leaving without paying, the cobbler called him back and said “I want to tell you something [young man] don’t ever do anything for anybody unless you get paid for it. Now, give me a nickel”.iii Later on when Steve had made his mark, he said that he lived by the old cobbler’s rule.iv This rule would hold him good stead when he promoted an auto thrill show on the edge of Lafayette.

Picture of Barnstorming Challenge Racev

The “Old Professor” Bill McCarney and Bill Pickens staged barnstorming auto shows in small towns throughout the mid-west. McCarney was an impresario of the track and Pickens was from the P.T. Barnum School of press agency, where a sucker is born every minute. The first sucker that they found was Steve promising him a cut of the ticket sales to promote the shows.

McCarney who ran publicity for the team was ill and Pickens was too busy to do publicity and set-up the show. Hannagan was recommended even though he appeared to be wet behind the ears. Pickens thought that Steve’s enthusiasm would help build a crowd, and maybe they could bamboozle him, when it came time to parcel out the cash. They discovered that Steve though maybe new to the scene of barnstorming race events was not a fool. .

McCarney and Pickens’ other goal was to lighten the pockets of the rubes who came to see daredevil jumps, flying car wrecks, two-wheel races, and races challenging the locals to beat the shows drivers. Most of the challengers left the track without their cars because they lay in a heap on the racecourse.

When it came time to split the ticket sales, Steve was there with his news clippings to show the work that he had done to sell people on coming to the show. Pickens could care less about clippings now that the race was over, and it was time to pack and head to the next town. As Steve said, he learned that his clippings were worthless, and he was the one clipped. He went over to Pickens, and told him. “On our next job I’ll count the tickets”vi. Pickens response was, “Son, if you’ve learned that [lesson] this early, you’re coming along fast”.vii

Steve’s Swan Song at the Journal & Courier

When Steve left Lafayette, the Lafayette Journal & Courier reported that he taking a job at the Russel Seeds Advertising Agency in Indianapolis. Russel Seeds ran a well-respected advertising firm in Indianapolis. The news column reported that Steve was the top newspaper man in Indiana and said that no one knew more than Steve Hannagan about running “every phase” of a newspaper.”viii Even though the article is not by-lined, it is obvious that Steve probably wrote it as the City Editor.

When Steve moved to Indianapolis, he did not immediately take the Russell Seeds position. Even though Steve could make substantially more money at Seeds than in the news business, he wanted to continue to be a reporter. He saw reporting not advertising as his route to success. Steve believed that his credentials as a stringer for the Indianapolis Star and as City Editor of the Journal & Courier established his bona fides for a full-time position with the Star.ix

Nevertheless, Steve did not leave his fate with the Star to chance; he asked his friend Tom Johnston, the Director of Publicity at Purdue and a former editor for the Star, to set-up a meeting with an editor at the paper. Tom came through for Steve with a letter of introduction to Ralston Read, the Sport’s Editor at the Star,x While Steve pursued the Star connections, he kept Dot’s offer in the back of his mind.

Steve Prepares for Indianapolis

When Steve arrived in Indianapolis, he immediately had a professional photographer take a business picture of him (Adjacent picture of Steve Hannagan,xi). Steve’s picture clearly states that he was not a rube, nor an untutored Irish kid from Bloody Plank Road, but rather a young man ready to make his way in the big city. (The photograph is in the archives of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

Steve Arrives in Indianapolis

Steve’s first meeting with the Star editor recommended by Tom Johnson, mirrored his brash style with the President of the Lafayette Journal & Courier. As Steve remembered it, he demanded $30 a week because he was a City Editor and not just rube from a small town. The paper hired him at the rate that he demanded.

Several weeks later, after a good review by editor, Steve said he deserved a $5 a week raise or he would quit. Steve got his raise and a lesson. The editor told Steve, “You are too lippy. … I could have given you $35 a week when I hired you, but you shot off your mouth and demanded $30.”xii Steve learned nothing about humility from the dressing down. However, Steve told his friends that what he did learn was to never underestimate his value. It was unlikely that Steve would undervalue himself with his view of his own worth and his belief in his own destiny.

While Steve was pushing his way into the Indianapolis scene, he lived at the downtown YMCA. Steve never owned a permanent residence; a homestead was not what he wanted. He usually lived in a hotel room as his income went up the quality of the room improved. His only requisites remained the same: a place to lay his hat, spread out his work papers, and a flat surface to type press releases.


The YMCA in Indianapolis xiii

The Indianapolis Star

The Star was published downtown among the local watering holes favored by reporters. Among outsiders, Indianapolis was a prairie town where nothing happened and the good folk went to church and otherwise lived a life of drudgery. However, as we will see with another part of Steve’s story, Indianapolis was more than “Naptown”, as it was nicknamed by people passing through to somewhere else. Under the surface the city was a hot mix of Germans, Italians, Irish, African-Americans, and whoever was cast on the banks of the White River passing through the center of the city.

While working at the Star, Hannagan did not hang out in his YMCA room reading the bible or taking correspondence courses. He frequented nearby saloons gravitating to the money men. There he met the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the owners of major car makers like Stutz, Marmon, Empire, Duesenberg, and National.

Steve’s new monied friends opened his eyes that they needed someone who knew the ins and outs of the newspaper business to promote their products. This insight meant that he could make more money being a press agent than working as a lowly reporter. Money and lots of it is what Steve wanted more than anything else. It was a simple yardstick to measure his success. At this moment, he was ready to take advantage of his beloved Dot Rice’s offer to introduce him to her uncle at Russel Seeds. Steve was edging away from direct involvement in the news business.


i Hannagan, Steve (April 14, 1918);” Purdue Sports Are Hit by War” Indianapolis Star; Proquest Historical Newspapers: Indianapolis Star (1903-1922); p. A3.

ii Hannagan, Steve (October 13, 1918); ” Purdue in Same Boat as Others; Unable to Play” Indianapolis Star; Proquest Historical Newspapers: Indianapolis Star (1903-1922); p. A4.

iii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 22.

iv Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 22.

vi Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 34.

vii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 34.

viii “Resigns Work As City Editor” (circa 1920); Lafayette Journal & Courier

ix Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; pp. 24 and 25.

x Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; pp. 24 and 25.

xi Photograph of Steve Hannagan; taken approximately 1923; Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

xii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 35.

xiii Photograph of YMCA (retrieved 7July 12, 2012) ;

xiv Photograph of Steve Hannagan (January 1950); Image 50712327 Photo Lofman/Pix Inc. /Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

When Steve Hannagan left Lafayette, the Journal & Courier reported that he was going to Indianapolis to take a job at the Russel Seeds Advertising Agency. Russel Seeds ran a well-respected advertising firm in Indianapolis.


Russell Seedsi


Russell Seeds came into advertising by way of his political career in Indiana Republican politics in the nineteenth century and as the City Editor of the Indianapolis Star. He like many presidents of small companies of the era did not brook mistakes or shoddy work. Steve Hannagan not only survived stern supervision, and Seeds showed his appreciation of Steve’s work by trusting him with greater responsibilities.

Even though Steve wanted to stay at the Star, the Russel Seeds Agency offered the chance to make more money. Russel Seeds was a well-respected marketing agency for auto and auto parts manufacturers (see the nearby advertisement for National Motor Vehicle Company).ii Seeds ‘clients included Stutz Motor Company, National Motor Vehicle Company, and other major automobile companies in Indianapolis. While the Seeds Agency clients were located in Indianapolis, their advertisements were published in national magazines. The Stutz endorsement campaign discussed later is an example of how Seeds put together a national campaign.

When Steve was offered the job at Seeds, he asked his friend Tom Johnston back at Purdue for advice. Tom recommended that Steve take the roll of the dice and go with the new job.iii Steve decided to take the job with Seeds to parlay the advertising work and to learn how a former city editor operated at a major newspaper.

Initially, Steve found the work at Seeds boring. He gave up the thrill of reporting on sports to write advertising copy about cough syrup and Chinese tonics for improving egg production. Nevertheless, within a short time Russel Seeds was sufficiently impressed with Steve’s work that he assigned Steve to the Stutz account and then to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to devise a new publicity campaign. (A later issue will recount Steve Hannagan’s experience at the Speedway.)

Stutz Bearcat Account

The Stutz Bearcat admired for its elegant styling and reliability. (See accompanying picture of a 1921 Stutziv) Stutz’s were not mass produced like Ford’s Model T. The Stutz like many sports cars of the era were handmade and often customized for each customer.

The Stutz Bearcat was a snazzy roadster weighing more than two tons, powered by a four cylinder engine that had a top speed of eighty miles per hour.v A later version of the Super Bearcat built in the early 1930s had a top speed of one hundred miles per

Steve Hannagan drove a Stutz, but it is not clear whether he owned the car or whether he was assigned the car to promote. There are pictures of him visiting his friends and relatives and showing off his Stutz.

Russel Seeds sent Steve to Hollywood to solicit an endorsement of the Stutz Bearcat from Wallace Reid. Reid was a major star whose films included “Birth of a Nation,” and major films of daring do. Seeds believed that men wanting to emulate Reed by buying a Stutz, despite the fact that 99% of American working men could not afford the car. The plan was to place Reid’s endorsements in national magazines and Photoplay, a popular magazine about Hollywood. Photoplay was an unusual magazine to reach a males because its target audience were women.

Steve faced two challenges before he could ask Reid to do a publicity photo shot for the Stutz. First, Steve had no cache in Hollywood and second he was from Indianapolis of all places. Even Steve’s unabashed personality was not enough to open doors. So Steve quickly turned to James Quirk of Photoplay, his Speedway friend to gain entrée to Reid. Quirk told Steve that Adela Rogers St. Johns, his western editor for Photoplay, could reach Reid.

Adela Rogers St. Johnvii

Adela Rogers St. John like Steve was young, but unlike Steve, she already was a recognized figure in Hollywood because of her Hollywood interviews, screen plays, books, and her peevish sense of humor. One of her most famous sayings about Hollywood and life in general was; “I just want to live long enough to see how it all turns out.”viii

Adela grew up in Hollywood and knew everyone worth knowing in Tinseltown. Even better, Adela was godmother of Reid’s son. Steve’s soon charmed Adela into introducing him to Reid. Not only did she make thee introduction, she persuaded Reid to endorse the Stutz.ix Steve’ owed Adela big time for doing his heavy lifting in his first major assignment outside of Indianapolis. Though, Adela was not particularly happy about promoting his career. Yet, as time passed, Adela and Steve became good friends. They kept each other in the loop about the latest gossip in Hollywood and New York, after Steve moved there in the 1930s.

Wallace Reid Manic Star and ‘Wanna Be’ Indianapolis Driver

Reidx showed his appreciation for the Bearcat that Steve delivered to him from Stutz Motor Company by introducing him to the hard-drinking, fast-living world of Hollywood. Steve was enthralled by the movie stars, directors and moguls that he met. While Steve was in Hollywood, he squired around town several of Mack Sennett beauties. It was not long before Steve would have his own ‘bathing beauties’ to promote Miami Beach. In addition, Steve would return to Hollywood to work some of the same moguls and directors to promote Coca-Cola.

Twenty-year old Steve was cautious about partying with his new found Hollywood friends. He soon grasped that he was little more than a “little brother to the rich”. Steve’s ambition was not to match drink for drink with the celebrities. Rather, he wanted to protect his most important goal – climbing the ladder of success. Getting dead drunk had propelled many a press agent into the gutters. The good news for Steve is that Reid posed for the pictures that Seeds wanted.