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 Carl Fisher hands publicity for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Steve Hannagan. By 1919, attendance at the Indianapolis 500 was flagging, and Carl Fisher needed a new publicity campaign to reinvigorate the Track. The existing campaign focused on cars, engines, and the technology of racing, and it was not drumming up enough new ticket sales. In order to get a different perspective on the race, he asked for Russell Seeds best press agent. Steve was assigned to work with Pop Myers, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway General Manager. Seeds knew that Steve would file stories that sports editors would run in their papers. Seeds also recognized that with Steve’s nose for news, he might even get front page news coverage about the Track.

Hannagan knew from his experience that editors and readers preferred stories about people and not things. So he changed the focus of the Speedway stories from cars to drivers and their heroics. The public craved heroes like race drivers who seemingly did the impossible. According to the notes of Edward Ross, the conduit for Steve’s stories were the” Nearly three hundred sports writers [who] covered the race each year. Very quickly, Steve got to know all of them.”i

Steve began to feed the public stories about drivers and their fears, successes, failures, hopes, families, and superstitions. Many race fans were especially interested in stories about the driver’s superstitions which they believed protected them during the race. . Superstitions often involved rituals, such as wearing the same socks, cap, pants, or shirt for each race. Other rituals could involve how the driver got into the car or who they talked with immediately before the start of the rates. Besides rituals, some drivers believed that certain actions would jinx their car or their chance of winning. A jinx could happen if a woman touched the car, the color of the car, or its number. For years, drivers at the 500 refused to drive green cars; it was not until the British invasion in the mid-1960s that this prejudice ended.

Because these stories piqued the interest of readers as they turned to his byline for the latest news from the Track. It was not long before his editors were including his columns beyond the borders of Indiana but throughout the mid-west, and into the east.

Here is a small sample from several newspapers that indicate Steve’s growing reputation at the Speedway.

  • From the Miami Daily News: “Spring may officially begin on March 21, but it is not an accepted fact until the day comes that marks the arrival of Steve Hannagan, publicity director for the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”ii
  • From the Detroit Evening News: … [Hannagan is] the press agent has been greatly responsible for the success of the Indianapolis event each year.”iii
  • Indianapolis Star: “Steve Hannagan, who out-groundhogs all groundhogs as a sign of spring, arrived in Indianapolis over the week-end with a new enthusiasm to add to the weather and the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway [on] May 30.”iv
  • Florida Star: Some editors, such as the Florida Star’s, printed Steve’s stories without editing. For example, the Star printed this headline and his press release without a change: “HANNAGAN GIVES “LOW-DOWN ON 500 –AUTO CLASSIC.”v

Press Clippings, Conflict, and Bigger Job

When the press clippings began to arrive by the bushel at Pop Myers Speedway Office, Steve expected the Pop Myers to show his appreciation. One day, after a particularly successful set of press releases, Steve ran over to Pop Myers Office and harangued old Pop that the Speedway did not appreciate Steve’s efforts. During the middle of Steve’s diatribe, Carl Fisher stepped into Myers office, and Myers told Steve to get out. Fisher wanted to know why Steve was ranting at Myers. Steve told Fisher, whom he did not know, what he had done for the Track and how well his campaign was working. Fisher’s response was classic Carl, “From now on [you are] publicity boss around here.”vi

The press clippings about the Speedway included a side benefit to Steve. His name was front and center as the by-line on each clipping. The clippings were a very neat way of building his reputation throughout Indiana, the mid-west, and nationally.

Dealing with Recalcitrant Editors

Steve was a wily publicist, who could use guile to get what he wanted from editors who refused to publish his press releases. For example, the managing editor of the Detroit Times, Joe Mulcahy, did not like press agents. He ignored their press releases, which meant that he ignored Steve’s releases.vii Steve responded by flooding all the Detroit papers except the Times with colorful stories about the Speedway. After several weeks Steve visited Mulcahy and turned a little game of praise to damn the editor. Steve’s gambit worked as follows, as reported by Edward Ross:

“I hope you don’t mind, said Steve, his mint-blue eyes all innocence, if I tell you I think your lay-out on page one was swell. Two days later he called Mulcahy on the phone: Just wanted to tell you that was a grand yarn you broke today. A few days later he popped his head inside Mulcahy’s office to grin: Good looking paper you have today!”viii

After the last exchange between Steve and Mulcahy, he snarled at Steve:

“Say, you’ve been handling me a lot of crap about what a great paper we’re putting out, but if you’re so crazy about this sheet, how does it happen that you’re breaking all your race stuff in the other papers?”ix

The next day the Times ran a three-quarter page story on the Speedway. Steve’s gambit worked. Steve and Mulcahy became lasting friends because he appreciated Steve’s dance to get the Times to report on the Speedway. From then forward, Mulcahy regularly published whatever Steve sent him.

Most News Editors printed Steve’s stories not to scratch the back of a friend. They published Steve because his stories were good copy that caught eye of the reader

Steve Becomes Synonymous with the Speedway

After several years as the Speedway’s publicist, Steve made the track a household word on Memorial Day, the day of the Indianapolis 500. For example, The Detroit Evening News said that Hannagan was the “the press agent who has been greatly responsible of the success of the Indianapolis event each year”.x

Although Carl Fisher invented the idea of the Speedway, many in the news business agreed that it was Steve who made the track and the 500 mile race famous and something more than an event held in the back waters of a prairie town in the mid-west.

Steve hawked the race as an event that lived up to Carl Fisher’s assertion that the track would be a test bed for designing more reliable and safer automobiles for the consumer market. In reality, a few years after the first 500 mile race, major auto manufacturers abandoned the idea of testing cars at the race. They opened their own test tracks because they needed a facility where they could continuously test their product. Consumers expected on-going improvement to their autos and a race run only once a year did not provide this kind of information.

The Hannagan Way’ Starts to Takes Shape

The ‘Hannagan Way’ (HW) describes Steve’s successful methods for generating publicity for his campaigns. Steve used his experience as a reporter, city editor, and Speedway publicist to frame HW. Here are several of the early components: :

    • Hang out with journalistsxi
    • Smooze editors
    • Write personal stories.


i Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 50.

ii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

iii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

iv Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

v Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 47.

vi Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 40.

vii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

viii Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; pp. 46 – 47.

ix Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 47.

x Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 46.

xi Ross, Edward Ellis; Hannagan Research Document; source: New York University Archives; p. 307.

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

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