Steve Hannagan at the founding of the Quiet Birdmen

Steve Hannagan found himself at an early meeting of the Quiet Birdmen, a club of twenty aviators many of them who had flown in WWI. The group met at Marta, an Italian restaurant located at 75 Washington Place in Greenwich Village. Steve brought a guest artist who recorded the Quiet Birdmen. The article and sketch appeared on February 21st in his byline column “This Little World” that was carried by NEA news services. The following picture is a reprint from the original article.[1]

Aviators included in the picture are: Harry Bruno, S. H. MacKeon, Wallace James, Richard R. “Dick” Blythe, Earle D. Osborn, Charles S. “Casey” Jones, Harold T. “Slim” Lewis, Ernest Loftquis, Paul G. Zimmerman, Donald Mcllhenny, Ladislas d’Orcy, Richard H. DePew Jr., George Hubbard, R. B. C. Noorduyn, and J. E. Whitbeck.

When the Quiet Birdmen grew too large (or perhaps because the noise bothered other patrons) Marta prohibited any further meetings at the restaurant. Subsequent meetings were held in a different location each time at a restaurant.

The Quiet Birdmen originated in France in November 1919, when a group of World War I aviators started a drinking club called “The American Flying Club”. After returning to America, they reconvened in New York City, only to be barred from their first clubhouse by the bailiff. In January 1921, between ten to twenty aviators began meeting fairly regularly on Monday nights in New York City at the Marta restaurant.

Harold Hersey, the editor of Aces High magazine, ironically called the group The Quiet Birdmen as a wisecrack about their boisterous meetings. The cost of a lifetime membership in the 1920s was one dollar. In the 1920s the emblem of the club was created – a blue shield with the letters QB in silver, the shield being flanked by silver wings. “In 1938, the club’s meetings settled into the building owned by the Architectural League of New York.”[2]

Hannagan’s attendance at one of the meetings may not have been an accident. During the prior year he had flown with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker as he toured the country in a 15,000-mile trip to market his new monoplane (See picture below). Rickenbacker named Steve honorary Captain and guaranteed that Steve would not be injured regardless of what happened with the airplane.[3] Rickenbacker’s was good for his word, because the plane made four emergency landings, and Hannagan walked away each time.

Steve had met Rickenbacker at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they became fast friends. Later, Hannagan would be Rickenbacker’s best man and Rickenbacker would be the executor of Hannagan’s will after his death in 1953.

“From the left – Lloyd Bertrand, a prominent flyer; Belvin Maynard, called the ‘Flying Parson’; Eddie Rickenbacker; Eddie Stinson, his co-pilot; and Steve Hannagan.”[4]


  1. Reprint of Picture from Steve Hannagan’s article in 1922 (March 1922); Beam Magazine
  2. Article in Beam Magazine (March 1922).
  3. Hannagan Steven; (March 1922); “Thrills and Laughs with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker; Illustrated World; p. 828.
  4. Hannagan Steven; (March 1922); “Thrills and Laughs with Captain Eddie Rickenbacker; Illustrated World; p. 829.

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);

In this issue, Steve turns over publicity at the Indianapolis 500 to his top assistant Joe Copps, and then at the end of World War II, says goodbye to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By the mid-1930s, Steve’s public relations business was expanding far beyond his ability to serve his first love of the Indianapolis 500. He needed someone as his surrogate at the Speedway well. He assigned his top assistant Joe Copps who had partnered with Steve since the mid-1920s.

Steve initially brought Joe to the Speedway to help him expand his publicity efforts there. He also knew that Copps had the style to be an effective representative of the Speedway with the government and leading citizens of Indianapolis. It did not take long for Copps to endear himself with the citizens of Indianapolis and to the ownership of the Speedway.

Joe’s fondness for the Speedway was evident when he and his wife chose to be married by the Speedway Chaplain at St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Miami. Eddie Rickenbacker, by then the owner of the track, showed his admiration of Joe and his new wife by hosting a wedding breakfast at the fashionable Indianapolis Athletic Club (the Club is now a condominium).

Steve’s relationship with Copps blossomed into a strong friendship with Copps asking Steve to be his best man at his 1939 wedding to Ruth Recops.

Steve was the Best Man at Joe Copps Wedding to Ruth Edith Recops.1

Steve’s Mother Admonishes Steve

Steve’s mother, the famous Aunt Jo, was at the wedding breakfast and heard Steve complain about his sore knees. Steve had to kneel on cold marble during several periods of the famously too-long high Catholic Mass conducted during the wedding. His mother “looked at … [Steve] sharply and said: [Stavia, as Aunt Jo called him], it’s probably because you haven’t had enough practice [kneeling] lately.”i

Joe Copps Daughter Kathleen

By 1940, even Copps’s daughter, Kathleen, had joined her father in the headlines of the Indianapolis Star.ii The paper announced the news of the birth of Joe’s daughter back in Florida.

Joe Copps was an outstanding press agent and knew how to navigate the labyrinths of the Speedway, the Indianapolis news media, and the city’s social circuit. Joe followed the Hannagan principle and flooded the newsprint media with press releases about the Speedway and its drivers. Copps, like Steve, became synonymous with the Speedway.

Rickenbacker Sells the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Steve was the chief publicist at the Speedway for nearly twenty years until racing ended when the United States entered World War II. The Track closed during the War. During World War II, the Speedway was a fallow field on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Pictures at the time showed weeds growing on the main straight in front of the checker flag stand.

When the war ended, Eddie Rickenbacker had to decide whether or not to reopen the track. Rickenbacker had owned the track since 1927 and was now pursuing the development of Easter Airways, where he was President, into a national powerhouse. Rickenbacker determined that renovating the Speedway and restarting the Indianapolis 500 would divert him from his business goals at Eastern. He decided to either sell the Speedway or close it.

Rickenbacker found a buyer for the Speedway in 1946. Tony Hulman, the starch-king of Terre Haute agreed to purchase the Track. When the Speedway passed to Hulman, Steve ended his involvement there. Steve’s career had taken a different trajectory. Coca-Cola was now his major client and he and the Speedway believed that it needed someone new to act as Director of Publicity.

Sale of the Track Ended Steve Hannagan’s Connection

Pop Myers (left rear) at Sale of Track to Anton Tony Hullman (left), Captain Eddie Rickenbacker (seated) and Wilbur Shaw, Speedway President (seated right)iii

Steve Leaves the Track

Steve greatly enjoyed the Speedway. He craved the excitement, the drivers, and the crowds. Of course, Steve’s biggest kick was the attention he garnered from the press as he roamed the Speedway during racing season.

When Steve left his beloved track, friends from the press gave him a parting present – “Ye Olde Hokum Bucket. ” The bucket was a play on the Old Oaken Bucket2 football game played between Steve’s quasi alma mater Purdue University and Indiana University.


1 The maid of honor is the bride’s sister, Gay Recops Zehner.

2 The Old Oaken Bucket was supposed to be a relic from the famous raid of Southern Indiana during the Civil War by the notorious Southern Cavalier, John Morgan.


i Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source; New York University Archives; p. 55.

ii Copy of Picture in the Indianapolis Star of Kathleen Copps with Joe Copps; date according to picture: April 2, 1940; copy provided from the private collection of Kathleen (Copps) Katz (Received on June 18, 2012).