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Publicist Mark Borkowski

PUBLISHED: 09:55 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski

Top publicist Mark Borkowski is known for stunts - for getting Harrods to gift-wrap a helicopter; for planting a field of Cabbage Patch Kids. But who were the men who came before him - the 'fixers and fakers' who shaped the publicity industr...

When beautiful Lupe Velez, the actress known as the Mexican Spitfire, finally crashed and burned in 1944, she ended it all by downing fistfuls of pills. But it wasn't the pills that got her. Feeling ill as they began to take effect, she rushed to the loo, tripped, and drowned in the pan. It wasn't quite the romantic ending the star-dazzled, film-going public would have expected - nor that her publicist, Howard Strickling, might have hoped for. So what did Hollywood do? It simply rewrote the story: Lupe was discovered in her bed, beautiful as ever, and smiling beatifically.


In mid-20th century Hollywood, a publicist wasn't just someone who generated publicity. No, Sir! Their job was to manage history itself: when the facts didn't fit the image, it was the facts that had to change.


History - the genuine article, that is - has always fascinated Mark Borkowski. Founder and owner of one of the UK's most successful PR agencies, Borkowski, he was born in Stroud and started his glittering career in none other than the Wyvern Theatre, Swindon. But it was while he was working on The Pirates of Penzance in the West End that his interest in the history of his chosen profession was stirred.


He'd persuaded the producer, Paul Eliot, to fly Douglas Fairbanks Junior over on Concord to give the cast sword-fighting lessons as a great publicity-generating stunt. "And there I was, star-struck in my early 20s, having to look after Douglas Fairbanks Junior - this incredibly polite and well-mannered individual who insisted we had afternoon tea. As we chatted, he said to me, 'This is very reminiscent of the stuntsters, young man'. And I said, 'What are stuntsters?' and he started regaling me with names and stories."


Fairbanks was referring to the early PR men who arranged headline-grabbing events to promote the movies. But that wasn't all they did. These were the engineers who oiled the Hollywood dream machine; who kept it running smoothly, even when the stars who powered it clogged its works. They arranged an abortion for Joan Crawford after her affair with Clark Gable; hid Dietrich's and Garbo's lesbian tendencies; covered up for Spencer Tracy when his addiction to alcohol got him into trouble. They broke people too: when the silent movie actor Jack Gilbert fell out with Louis B Mayer, the MGM studio boss got his fixers to destroy him, falsely putting it about that his voice was too squeaky for the talkies.


It gets even murkier. The MGM film director Paul Bern was found naked and shot in July 1932, just two months after marrying the film star Jean Harlow. The top players almost certainly knew he'd been murdered (probably by a jealous common-law wife); but they managed to obtain a verdict of suicide (despair over his alleged impotence, was the official story) and a whole lot of sympathy for Jean... A less messy outcome, shall we say.


But why did Jean Harlow allow that to happen to the man she loved?


"Those sorts of stars at that time were bullied and treated particularly badly," Mark says. "They didn't have any power themselves; the people who owned them made sure they would never suffer bad publicity because deals were made. And as far as the stars themselves were concerned, they were sucking on a dug that provided them with money. They were surrounded by 'pushers', who created a lifestyle the actors became dependent on."


If it sounds sinister and sordid, then that's because it was. One of Mark's aims in writing the book, he says, was to expose the dark 'underbelly' beneath the shiny surface. To do that, he had to persuade people to talk. Some of the information came to him in an almost Philby-Burgess-style manner - a package thrust into his hands in the lobby of a Hollywood hotel. In other instances, he had to work hard to gain the trust of people who'd never before told their stories. "I went out to America sometimes three or four times just to meet someone and persuade them I was OK. By the third time, they trusted me. Two people I interviewed have now died - Freddie Fields [who once handled Judy Garland's career] and Jay Bernstein [the 'walking publicity stunt' who represented Farrah Fawcett]. I now understand why they talked to me - certainly in Freddie Field's case it was because he knew he was dying."


Alongside an ability to manipulate the media, these people also had an intuitive understanding of psychology. "Edward Bernays is deemed to be the father of public relations. He was a nephew of Freud and he understood what Uncle Sigmund taught about the power of the crowd. A reporter who interviewed Goebbels in the 1930s saw all Bernays's books on his shelves."


All the publicists in The Fame Formula were powerful; some were unscrupulous. But at the end of the day, they were employees, controlled by the powerful studios who 'owned' these stars. Nor did these early spin doctors lead much better existences than the celebrities they promoted. "Very few of these people had stable lives: a lot of broken marriages, dysfunctional families, a lot of loneliness. One or two I didn't include were very bitter; they felt they were Dr Frankenstein who'd created a monster. Frank Sinatra went through seven publicists and that's why his fame was maintained. He chose people to breathe life into him and then he'd move on."


But it's not all doom and gloom. Some of the stories the book relates are innocent and amusing. The great publicist Harry Reichenbach was inspired, as a young lad, by seeing a fellow in overalls walking along the main street of Frostburg, Maryland, carrying a roll of paper and a brick in each hand. A crowd slowly gathered, overwhelmed by curiosity, as this man continuously placed one brick on the pavement, walked 10 paces ahead to set the other down, and then returned to the first. He ended up at the local playhouse, where the throng saw him paste up a sheet announcing that the 'Cleveland Minstrels' would be in town the next week: the perfect dupe. Another - Jim Moran - sparked interest by taking a bull into an up-market china shop to see whether the old saying held true. And then there was Russell Birdwell who was paid by a company to boost falling sales in men's hats. Via a column in a Dallas paper, which claimed that only homosexuals went hatless, he sparked a panicky buying spree by thousands of insecure men.


But the million dollar question is: do these sorts of shenanigans go on today? (And with inflation, that's literally a billion dollar question now). Well, you've only got to look at Jade Goody for the answer. How on earth anyone could suspect that her cancer announcement could have been a publicity stunt is something Strickland himself might like to explain.


The advantage we have nowadays, Mark Borkowski says, is that we're not reliant on one particular media source. "The power lies in whether or not the audience believe what they're being told, and they are becoming more cynical," he says. "It's up to us to question what is put in front of us; we need to look at various viewpoints on offer and make our own decisions. And there are lots of cross-references we can use to do it: newspapers, television, bloggers on the internet, and so on."


The Fame Formula is not only fascinating and entertaining, it's a warning: Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse take note, for the parallels are there to all to see. Gwili Andre, the clothes horse of her day, couldn't bear the aging process and, the day after her 51st birthday, lay on a pyre consisting of old press clippings and photographs, set it alight, and killed herself. Or Barbara La Marr, whose drug-related death was more palatably described as TB.


It's a warning to us, the public, too: when it comes to anything that makes money, reality can be an expendable product. Or, to put it more simply, don't believe everything you hear - and that includes the myth that fame itself is desirable.


"The real profiteers of infamy and fame are the people who own the franchises. Once it was the studios who needed the star collateral to bring these franchises alive," Mark Borkowski says. "The modern day equivalent is Endemol [the company behind Big Brother] who sell the idea to a generation of kids that there's a dream. They need breathless large personalities to buy into Big Brother, but what they don't tell them about is the debris that fame can bring.


"I'm toying with the idea of going into schools with a 'Say NO to celebrity' campaign. Fame is a prefabricated heaven and an inescapable hell. People are looking for love and adoration, but the truth is, you simply don't get that through fame."



The Fame Formula: How Hollywood's Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, by Mark Borkowski, is published in hardback by Sidgwick and Jackson, price 16.99.

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