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);

Steve Hannagan’s Birth

Steve Hannagan’s family and his Irish-American neighborhood played a significant role in preparing Steve to become a master publicist.

Steve Hannagan was born on April 4, 1899, on Green Street, one block off the infamous Bloody Plank Road that ran next to the muddy Wabash River in the Irish district of Lafayette, Indiana. Bloody Plank Road was anchored by St. Anne’s Catholic Church and Parish School, an island of quietude compared to the houses of sin and depredation running up and down the avenue. Bloody Plank Road came by its name honestly because of the score of Irish saloons and houses of ill-repute. When payday arrived, some men headed for the saloons where they got into their cups and into numerous fights that spilled onto Bloody Plank Road. Other louts, in search of a little playtime with the ladies, would head to the brothels.

Steve’s Family

Steve’s parents were Johanna Enright (Aunt Jo) Hannagan and William J. (Uncle Billy) Hannagan. When Steve was born, his mother, Johanna Enright Hannagan, was forty-one and his father forty-three. His father the son of Patrick Hannagan, a native of Ireland, died in the 1840s. William Hannagan was born in 1857 in Lafayette, Indiana and reared by his mother who died in 1870 leaving a family of five orphans. In 1880, William married Johanna Enright, whose family origins are not known but she is believed to have born near Lafayette. They had four children, one child died early, and the child’s name is not known. Three boys survived into adulthood: William Jr., Frank, and Steve. Steve was the youngest of the four. Steve’s father was an ironwright, his mother, affectionately known as Aunt Jo, to the family was responsible for rearing the boys.

Steve’s and his older brother Frank, were close friends when they lived at homes. However, they drifted apart as they grew older. Frank, a gifted telegrapher, traveled cross-country from one high-paying telegraphy job to another. Later in life, Steve arranged with Coca-Cola, to grant Frank a lucrative bottling franchise in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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Frank Hannagan (left), William ‘Uncle Billy’ Hannagan, Johanna ‘Aunt Jo’ Hannagan, and Steve Hannagan (right).

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Frank and Steve Hannagan

The Hannagan Home

The Hannagan home was typical of the neighborhood, one room width with a central entrance and a porch with railings across the front. Entry to the house led directly into the parlor with the kitchen in the back. Upstairs there was a bedroom for the brothers and a bedroom for their mother and father. Running water came from a hand-pump at the kitchen sink that supplied water for drinking, bathing, shaving, and morning ablutions. In the winter, The Hannagans were fortunate that their water was not soiled by runoff from the two-hole privy in their back yard. Although privies were common in most homes in the Midwest, the Hannagan privy became a talisman that Steve later used to embellish his story about his impoverished youth.

Dangers near the Hannagan Home

The rail tracks which ran next to the Hannagan home was the main switching and repair yards for the Monon Railroad and these tracks also carried high-speed passenger express trains hurtling to Chicago, Indianapolis, and other points in Indiana. Crossing the tracks took care and agility because train traffic was constant and warnings were rudimentary.

Besides the danger of the trains, the Wabash River flooded every spring and inundated the homes of Bloody Plank Road with muddy, sewage-polluted water.[1] The Irish section homes were the dike for the rest of Lafayette. Fortunately, the Hannagans, chose a home at highest point on Green Street. So they missed the big floods of 1913 and 1948 that put most of the cities along the Wabash River under water.

Auntie Shea

Auntie Shea (Mary Shea), Steve’s Great Aunt, had a mythic trek in the 1840s from the east coast to relatives in Lafayette. She found Lafayette by traveling from one fire station to the next, where she usually found someone who spoke Gallic and who guide her on to the next stop. Auntie Shea imbued Steve’s mother with the magic and prayers from old Ireland.

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Auntie Shea

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  1. Cities along the Wabash flooded the rivers with sewage and polluted waters from local manufacturing operations. Every thirty years or so the river would flood the area up to the bluffs below the main part of Lafayette. The water often rose above the rail tracks and threatened the homes on Green Street. It was not uncommon during the flood season for cholera, typhus, and other water-borne diseases to strike the families of Bloody Plank Road.