With all of Sonnenberg's papers destroyed and few of his intimates willing to contribute to a biography, business-writer...


ALWAYS LIVE BETTER THAN YOUR CLIENTS"": The Fabulous Life and Times of Benjamin Sonnenberg, America's Greatest Publicist

With all of Sonnenberg's papers destroyed and few of his intimates willing to contribute to a biography, business-writer Barmash (The Chief Executives, etc.) has put together a thin, slapdash portrait--heavy on stretched-out anecdotes, airy speculation, and repetitious verbiage. After a clichÉ-laden introductory sketch (no less than three references to the ""twinkle"" in Ben's eyes), Barmash follows the bright immigrant kid from Lillian Wald's Henry St. Settlement circa 1914 through a bit of college, assorted jobs, and then--thanks to Wald--a ""whirlwind year of richly rewarding activity"" as a field-worker in Russia for the American Relief Administration. In the 1920s Sonnenberg became a freelance press agent--""short, brash, foisting an aggressive personality that was really soft at its core,"" eventually moving from show-biz to corporate image-making. . . while crafting his own dapper, Edwardian, flamboyantly cultured image. By the 1950s he had legendary success in getting his clients on the cover of Time, in giving social/media guidance to insecure biggies in positions of power. And in the 1960s he divested himself of his large PR operation--becoming a solo consultant to the business/government figures, to wealthy widows looking for a new lifestyle; he also concentrated on his own vast art collection, his reputation as a host, and his ostentatiously lavish mansion on Gramercy Park. Barmash has little fresh insight into Sonnenberg's methods, drawing largely on old press-material and on the testimony of a few former employees. Tedious anecdotes from friends and acquaintances are given undue weight, with gushy asides of tribute to these interview-sources. (An entire chapter is devoted to dull Little stories from travel-companion Alistair Cooke.) Throughout, dialogue and thoughts are offered à la fiction--a style that's especially offensive when dealing with Sonnenberg's private Life. (His wife Hilda ""understood him and his hungers. The question was, she told herself, in the middle of the nights when he slept but she couldn't, whether he understood her."") And, with no documentation, Barmash periodically switches from hype to hatchet-job: ""He pimped for some Wall Street bankers""; ""his opportunism was never far from the surface""; he suffered ""serious pangs of guilt"" for neglecting his family; there was ""a fleeting sense that he had an ulterior motive in certain friendships. . . ."" A fairly informative collection of bits and pieces for those who don't know the Sonnenberg story from New Yorker profiles and other sources--but a spotty, poorly written stab at warts-and-all biography.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Dodd, Mead

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983

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