Anonymous in Her Own Name: Public Relations Pioneer Doris E. Fleischman

Article excerpt

The photograph, taken in August 1925, shows a well-dressed man and woman standing on the deck of an ocean liner. They look seriously into the camera while he holds a piece of paper in both hands. She is Doris E. Fleischman; her husband, Edward L. Bernays, is clasping her new U.S. passport-the first ever issued to a married woman in her birth name.1

Doris Fleischman's fight for, as she put it, "the right to sign her own name under her own face" on her passport was a popular newspaper story.2 Yet three years earlier she had received even more media attention the first time she asserted her right to "sign her own name." On September 16, 1922, after she and Edward Bernays were married, they checked into the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan for their honeymoon weekend, signing the register "Miss Doris E. Fleischman" and "Mr. Edward L. Bernays." The hotel had never before permitted this kind of registration for a married man and woman and at first refused to let Fleischman sign her birth name. But when it reversed its decision, more than 250 newspapers carried news stories or commentaries on the event.3

The papers did not note, though, that something far more important had happened when Fleischman and Bernays married: The two became equal partners in the firm of Edward L. Bernays, Counsel on Public Relations.4 Remaining partners until Fleischman's death in 1980, they were among a handful of people who invented the field of public relations. They operated one of the country's premier public relations agencies from the 1920s through the 1950s, and Bernays and his work have received tremendous attention. A 1978 bibliography lists more than 3,400 published references to him.5 But the fact that Bernays had an equal partner in his work has been ignored or barely acknowledged by most who have written about him, and the partnership itself has never been examined.6 Similarly, very little has been written about women's considerable involvement in American public relations history.7

This article examines Doris Fleischman's pioneering work as a public relations consultant and the many reasons her work has received scant recognition. Focusing on her personal and professional partnership with a highly visible man, it argues that this relationship was typified by the 1925 photograph in which Bernays, rather than Fleischman, held her passport, and that Bernays both advanced and restrained her achievements in "her own name."

Fleischman was born into the most traditional of American families on July 18, 1892. Her father, Samuel E. Fleischman, was a prominent New York City lawyer whom Edward Bernays characterized as "a highly conservative character" and "a humorless, stern man with an Old Testament prophet's viewpoints."8 Rigid, authoritarian, and unemotional, Samuel Fleischman exerted strict control over his four children and his quiet, compliant wife, Harriet Rosenthal Fleischman.9 In her own middle age, Doris Fleischman described how her parents' marriage had affected her: "Independence was something I yearned for, but hopelessly. My Mother's attitude showed the futility of any struggle. She was completely docile, never argued with Pop, always followed his wishes."10

Despite his conservatism, Samuel Fleischman believed women should be educated and lead useful lives. He encouraged Doris to learn and, especially, to read, making sure she had a good education; she was graduated from New York's Horace Mann School in 1909 and received a bachelor's degree from Barnard College in 1913. Still, she did not consider herself well-prepared for a career or knowledgeable about the world when she left Barnard. She was interested in psychology and had studied music with the thought of becoming an opera singer, but she instead joined the New York Tribune as a women's page writer in 1914. Her friend Edward Bernays helped her make the contacts that led to her Tribune job offer, but she did not immediately accept it, explaining that she first would have to ask her father for his approval. …