The Unseen Power: Public Relations, a History

By Scott M. Cutlip | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Ben Sonnenberg: Sui Generis

The story of Benjamin Sonnenberg, who made the transition from imaginative, flamboyant, and sometimes designing press agent in the middle 1920s to counseling the rich and famous by the 1940s, is another saga of rags to riches in the Horatio Alger mold, a career similar to those of Edward L. Bernays and Carl Byoir.

Born in Brest Litovsk, Poland, in Old World poverty on July 12, 1901, and later reared as the son of a pushcart vendor on New York's impoverished Lower East Side, Sonnenberg died a millionaire on September 6, 1978. In between he was creator of New York's most fabulous mansion, a confidant of celebrities, and very much a celebrity in his own right.

In his colorful heyday, Sonnenberg was tagged "the era's master publicist," and by a French magazine as "the father of public relations." (Public relations, it seems, is a vocation born of many fathers.) In his book, Merchant Princes ( 1979), Leon Harris described him as "American's most successful and most colorful public relations man . . . [who] was paid enormous fees by corporations and by individuals because his advice was unorthodox." Everything about Ben Sonnenberg was unorthodox; truly he was sui generis in the history of this field. Yet the contrived aura and glitter he fabricated for his persona has faded. Many of today's oncoming generation of PR practitioners may not even recognize his name.

Unfortunately, the story of this extraordinary career can never be fully told. The Sonnenberg will, written December 7, 1977, when he was terminally ill with throat cancer, directed the executors of this estate to destroy all his files and papers. His decision to leave no trace of his life's work left his friends, associates, and scholars with a paradox: Why did such

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