The Life of Edward L. Bernays: The Father of Public Relations

Edward L. Bernays
Born: November 22, 1891
(Vienna, Austria-Hungary)
Died: March 9th, 1995
(Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Edward Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 22, 1891. He was one of five children sired by Ely Bernays and Anna Freud Bernays and his uncle was none other than Sigmund Freud himself. Only a year after his birth, 1892, his family moved to the U.S, arriving in New York. As a young adult, Bernays attended Cornell University to pursue a degree in agriculture, at his father’s suggestion. Bernays, came from a well off family and was unaccustomed to physical labor, so his time studying agriculture at Cornell was spent feeling like an outsider in a world of country boys. It was at this university, however, that Bernays got his first taste of mass communication. Bernays worked at the Cornell Countryman newspaper, and though he wasn’t the greatest writer, he learned he had a masterful way with words.

Bernays graduated from Cornell in 1912 and continued bouncing from job to job, even ending up in Paris, France for a brief time, until money became a problem. When he returned to the states, an old school friend asked Bernays to help him run the Medical Review of Reviews as well as the Dietetric and Hygiene Gazette.

While working there, Bernays came across a medical review on a father who had genetically passed on an STD to his son. Bernays was intrigued by it because, at the time, talking about sexually transmitted disease was considered quite taboo, this review addressed the topic directly. “Damaged Goods,” the review’s title, was so unique that it caught the eye of a famous actor, Richard Bennett, who wanted to turn it into a play. Bernays was asked to help with the play and decided to use his newfound position to help transform a “controversy into a cause.1” During the play’s run time, Bernays opened a “sociological fund” and invited public figures to contribute to the fund in the name of bettering Sex Ed. The play was a hit but Bennett decided to take the play on as his own. After that, Bernays continued to work for theater companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, from 1913 to 1917.

For a brief stint after his work in the theater, Bernays worked with the Foreign Press Bureau doing propaganda work for the US government during World War I and into the Paris Peace Conference. Having finally dipped his toes in public relations, Bernays’ wondered if he could transfer his skills to a business environment.

In 1919, Bernays opened his first office with his soon to be wife, Doris E. Fleischman. Here they focused on influencing the public opinion for commercial ends. For starting out so small, the office managed to attract many fancy clients, such as the United Fruit Company, Procter and Gamble, General Motors, and even NBC and CBS.

Bernays’ methods of promotional were creative, to say the least. In the 1920s, the Ivory Soap Company wanted to get more kids to bathe, so Bernays set up a juvenile soap-carving competition, complete with his own panel of judges. Millions of bars of Ivory soap were carved away at, thanks to Bernays idea, and maybe some kids even used them to bathe.

Bernays’ real claim to fame, however, was his “Torches of Freedom” campaign. Lucky Strike cigarettes was struggling to promote their cigarettes to women, as it was seen as improper for women to smoke in public. Bernays combated that idea by parading smoking debutantes and claiming that smoking in public was an act of freedom. He would later deeply regret this campaign in the 1960s, when he became a public opponent of smoking.

Bernays never really stopped working and continued to advise clients up until he was well past 100.

A Closer Look at the Rest of His Life

In 1922, Bernays and Doris got married quietly. This came as a shock to his family as they thought he would be a permanent bachelor (to the extent that when his sister got married before him, they had her husband take their surname). The two would go on to have two daughters named Doris and Anne. Doris, his wife, died in 1962. They were together, romantically and professionally, for over 50 years.

Though Bernays didn’t consider himself the best writer, he went on to write many books about his ideas. In 1965 his best known book, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations was published.

As time passed and public relations began to evolve into what we know it as today, Bernays’ began to hate the thing he had fathered. He had always believed that PR was an honorable profession and felt that it had evolved into something disgusting. Around his 100th birthday, he campaigned to have all PR people be licensed in order to do their job. Ironically, he failed at this campaign. Edward Bernays died in his home on March 9, 1995 at 103 years old. He left behind his daughters, six grandchildren, four great grandchildren, and a world forever changed by his work in fathering public relations.


“Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103” New York Times, March 10,1995.

“Edward Bernays – Obituary” The Times (London, England), March 13, 1995.

Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. New York: Crown Publishers Inc, 1998

1 Tye, The Father of Spin, 7