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When PR Was Young: Warren Cowan and Lee Solters

Jun 16, 2003  •  Post A Comment

They have an accumulated 164 years of experience in Hollywood publicity, but neither likes to dwell on his age. “It makes it sound like I’m retired,” said Warren Cowan. “And I’m still struggling to do the business here. I’m very active.”
“Retire?” said Lee Solters. “The day I stop learning is the day I’ll retire.”
They have had a front-row seat for more than six decades and in many cases, played a key behind-the-scenes role in shaping the perception of many landmark personalities and events. While they have led completely separate business lives, there are parallels in their careers and even their backgrounds. They have both been pioneers in their profession and each has mentored generations of publicists who have gone on to become competitors.
So in separate interviews at their offices a few miles apart in Beverly Hills, I asked Mr. Cowan, an active 80, and Mr. Solters, a feisty 84, about their long careers. As always, both preferred to talk more about clients than themselves. In a business of high turnover each can boast relationships that span decades. And what a list of clients it has been.
Even today Mr. Cowan continues to represent acting legend Kirk Douglas, whom he first took on to promote the movie “Champion” in 1949. His current active list includes actors Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Tony Curtis as well as producer Aaron Spelling and MPAA President Jack Valenti, all of whom he has worked with for more than half a century. He has also repped, for almost that long, singer Liza Minnelli and talk show host turned producer/hotel owner Merv Griffin. “I’m also interested in our younger clients,” Mr. Cowan quickly added, “like [former “Baywatch” star] David Hasselhoff.”
Mr. Solters, now partners with publicist Jerry Digney, represented the notoriously difficult Frank Sinatra for 26 years, super-sensitive singer Barbra Streisand for 33 years and pop singer Michael Jackson for about 16 years. He had even longer relationships with singer and actress Carol Channing and late legendary producer David Merrick, each more than 40 years. From the 1940s through the 1970s, his firms had a near monopoly on Broadway, not only handling Merrick shows such as “Gypsy,” “Annie” and “Hello Dolly” but also shows for the Shuberts and Nederlanders as well as stars such as Walter Slezak, Ethel Merman, Ricardo Montalban and Lena Horne.
They are both from New York City, and each began in the era when the primary job was planting items in one of the dozens of columns (such as Walter Winchell’s, Earl Wilson’s, Jack O’Brien’s) published by 11 daily papers in New York as well as half a dozen in L.A. (including Hedda Hopper’s, Louella Parsons’, Jim Bacon’s, Hank Grant’s and Army Archerd’s).
Mr. Solters’ first major show business client was Robert Q. Lewis, a talk host who at one point in the 1950s had seven different sponsored radio and TV programs all on at once.
Mr. Cowan moved West with his family when he was barely 20 and soon was hired by the late Henry Rogers to help with clients such as Claudette Colbert, Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford.
“When Henry was hired to handle Crawford,” recalled Mr. Cowan, “she had just been named `Box Office Poison’ by the theater exhibitors. After years at MGM, she went to Warner Bros. to do a movie called `Mildred Pierce.’ Three or four weeks into production, I sat at my typewriter and wrote an item, which I sent to Hedda Hopper. To my amazement, she printed it word for word. It said everyone in the front office at Warners is jumping with glee over the rushes of Joan Crawford in `Mildred Pierce.’ They are all saying she’s a cinch to be nominated for the Academy Award.
“And she ran that word for word. Didn’t call anyone, didn’t check with anyone. I remember studying that article and saying to Henry, ‘We should repeat this for the next year.’ All we should do is try to reach the 3 or 4 thousand members that constituted the academy at that time. As a result, we took the first academy ad in a trade paper for Joan Crawford, quoting Hedda Hopper and a few others. It didn’t use the words `for your consideration,’ but it was that kind of ad.”
After Ms. Crawford won the Oscar, others flocked to the agency. The following year they handled Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda,” and she won an Oscar. The year after it was Claire Trevor, as best supporting actress for “Key Largo.” “Then everybody started to copy what we were doing,” recalled Mr. Cowan.
Not long after Henry Rogers made Mr. Cowan his partner. Beginning in the 1950s Rogers & Cowan became both the Tiffany and the General Motors of Hollywood entertainment. “It was the first company that had a sense of class,” said Mr. Cowan. “Henry and I took a business approach. We weren’t gofers and we weren’t errand boys. We weren’t in the ego business. We tried to help careers.”
In 1964 R&C represented all five best actress nominees in the Oscar race, including winner Patricia Neal (for “Hud”). They used those connections to build a company that was a pioneer not only in personal publicity but also in representing movies and TV shows as well as in corporate PR, where they used stars to sell an endless range of products and services.
In the early days, almost all of Mr. Cowan’s dealings were with sponsors and ad agencies. “I noticed at lunch [the ad execs] would drink two or three double martinis,” Mr. Cowan recalled. “I thought, how can they function when they start drinking at noon? So I said to Henry, from now on we make our deals on TV shows only in the afternoon, because they can’t be as much in control as they would be before they start their daily drinking session.”
In the 1980s they sold R&C to Shandwick, a U.K. PR company. By the 1990s Mr. Rogers had retired and Mr. Cowan left to form his own firm, complaining that he had to do too much budgeting and paperwork.
“The big change has been the electronic influence in everything,” Mr. Cowan said. “What I did was almost entirely in print when I started. Now you have many more TV interview possibilities.”
Mr. Solters, who grew up in Brooklyn, began free-lancing for PR firms in New York while he was still at NYU, and even when he was in the Army during World War II. He had a job waiting when he returned, but later quit to save a colleague’s job. He used his Broadway connections to expand into movies, TV, personalities and Las Vegas.
He began representing Caesars Palace even before it opened, which led to his association with Caesars’ big star of the time, Frank Sinatra. Mr. Solters recalled that at that time Mr. Sinatra had a reputation for fighting and getting into trouble. “I said, `Mr. Sinatra, I’ve got to be honest with you, your press isn’t too good,”’ Mr. Solters said. “`I want to make a suggestion. In each city, let me invite one or two columnists to see you five minutes before you go on. You give them the rare opportunity to see you face to face.”’ The result was tons of free favorable publicity, which went on for years, and the local columnists were heroes at home because they “knew” Sinatra personally.
It was in the early 1960s that Mr. Solters attended an audition for the musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” and first set eyes on Ms. Streisand. “She came in looking like a horse’s blanket, carrying a shopping bag,” he chuckled. “Then she started to sing, and I said, `She’s beautiful. I want to handle her.”’
For three decades he dealt with her moods, perfectionism and career issues and basked in the glow of her success. He took her calls and met her demands nearly round the clock. Then one day a decade ago he woke up and, “Asked myself, like in an old Warner Bros. movie: Did you have enough? And I said yes. So before I showered, shaved, whatever, I typed a letter of resignation and had it delivered. I didn’t want to weaken.”
Mr. Solters still represented talent such as Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg at various times, but shifted more toward corporate clients, who paid better and never called in the middle of the night. “People would ask me what’s the difference between a press ag
ent and a public relations man,” said Mr. Solters. “I said about $50,000 a year.”
No client cost him more sleep than Michael Jackson. “He wanted promotion, promotion, crowds, crowds,” recalled Mr. Solters. “We never had to worry about selling out [concerts]. That was automatic. All the rest was image promotion.”
“Don’t write this, but I finally quit because he wanted me to lie too often,” Mr. Solters said. “When he first married Lisa Marie [Presley] he told me to deny the marriage. For six weeks, I kept denying it. I would say, `I deny it. This is a recording.’ The press knew. Then finally the Enquirer or the Globe found a judge in the Dominican Republic. He was probably paid enough for five lifetimes, and he handed over the marriage certificate. When the press called and asked me why did you lie, I said, `That’s showbiz.”’
When he started, Mr. Solters recalled, the studios paid off the police and newspapers to hide arrests and keep bad news the out of the papers. Today that would be impossible. “Now you’ve got to tell them the truth,” he said, “and you’ve got to come up with an angle.”
One thing hasn’t changed. PR still gets less respect and less compensation than the rest of the Hollywood machine. Agents, managers and business managers get a percentage of earnings; but publicist get a flat fee, which doesn’t work out nearly as well. It is a reality both men long ago accepted. And they wouldn’t trade a minute of their lives.
“The business is as exciting, interesting, challenging as it was when I started,” Mr. Cowan said. “There’s just a lot more competition out there now.”