March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

by Candice Jacobson Fuhrman

In the mid-1860s, newspapers all over the world ran pictures of a beaming Tom and Lavinia Thumb, the midget couple who were one of P.T. Barnum’s leading attractions, proudly displaying their new baby. “Shortly thereafter the borrowed baby was returned to its real parents,” writes Fuhrman in this brief but amusing history of colorfully hyped nonevents. “The Thumbs never did have any children, but the publicity stunt had served its purpose—attendance at their appearances had increased substantially.”

P.T. Barnum was, of course, a master of the publicity stunt, which Fuhrman, a former publicist herself, defines as an event “created specifically to attract media coverage.” For example, when John D. Rockefeller was getting bad press early in the century, press agent Ivy Lee advised him to start handing out dimes to the public (when “a suitable number of reporters were there to record it,” Fuhrman notes).

Sample stunts: One of Frank Sinatra’s early press agents paid teenage girls $5 to show up at a concert at New York City’s Paramount and squeal, “Oh, Frankie! Oh, Frankie!” every time Young Blue Eyes sang a slow song. Expert publicity hound Jim Moran made news in 1938 by selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo in Alaska.

Hollywood has always known the value of a good publicity stunt, from the days of Charlie Chaplin look-alike contests to the 1974 premiere of Blazing Saddles—shown for more than 250 viewers on horseback at a drive-in. Movies still generate some first-rate publicity stunts. But, Fuhrman notes sadly, long gone are the days when every studio had a 75-man “exploitation department” turning out reams of faked biographical press releases—like the one that claimed Marilyn Monroe had been discovered while baby-sitting.

While Fuhrman’s book will be of greatest interest to publicists (and their gullible prey), its appeal is much broader. This is a fun book with an informative text and wonderfully wacko pictures, including a truly pathetic one from 1906, which purports to show a captured sea serpent. The monster bears an amazing resemblance to a painted log. But, hey, the picture got printed and that’s what counts. (Chronicle, paper, $12.95)

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