Townsley’s debut biography tells the story of Steve Hannagan, who rose from humble Midwestern beginnings to pursue an illustrious career in public relations in Miami, eventually becoming known as the “prince of the press agents.”
Hannagan was born in 1899 in a rough section of Lafayette, Indiana. He grew up poor but fastidious, often wearing formal shirts and ties while managing to avoid typical boyhood scuffles. In high school, he talked his way into a reporting job at the local newspaper and quickly became sports editor. He parlayed this experience into a stint with the Indianapolis Star, and from there, he got into the advertising industry, where his savvy and assertiveness were a perfect fit. His campaign for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the struggling venue famous. He also ran successful publicity campaigns for the cities of Miami Beach; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Las Vegas as well as Republican presidential candidates between 1940 and 1952 and even Coca-Cola. The key to his success was his fealty to “the Hannagan Way,” a credo of best practices, good instincts, and life lessons that guided all of his business dealings. Townsley explores the details of Hannagan’s life and times, emphasizing his charm, creativity, work ethic, and devotion to truth. One of the best stories here involves Hannagan’s efforts to persuade Al Capone to move out of Miami Beach, as residents feared that the gangster’s presence would compromise their safety—and depress property values. Hannagan is shown to have treated everyone with respect, from a low-ranking clerk in his ad agency to such famous figures as Henry Ford, Jack Dempsey, and Walter Winchell. Throughout, Townsley makes it clear that Hannagan wasn’t simply a nice guy; the author also shows how his subject’s considerate treatment of others gave him a competitive edge. The author also evokes 1930s and ’40s America with particular precision and skill. This makes it surprising, however, that the book’s editing is occasionally uneven; some photos lack captions, and the bibliography’s excessively long website addresses can be daunting.
A well-researched, entertaining story of one of history’s forgotten standouts.