Bacall photo with Harry Truman was selfie gone viral for 1945

Written by New York Times | Updated: Aug 16 2014, 07:32am hrs
Most of the photographs that appeared with obituaries of Lauren Bacall, who died on Tuesday at age 89, showed her in scenes from her films like To Have and Have Not, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express and The Mirror Has Two Faces. But just about every article also included one of several photographs taken on February 10, 1945, when, on a visit to the National Press Club in Washington to entertain servicemen, Bacall perched atop a piano being played by US vice-president Harry Truman.

The photo series took on additional fame when, two months later, Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt. As for how the photographs came to be taken, the story goes, Bacalls press agent, Charlie Enfield, who was also the publicity chief at her movie studio, Warner Bros, prompted her to pose with Truman. It was an era of what were known as publicity stunts, when disc jockeys fried eggs on sidewalks on hot summer days, sets of twins toured the country to promote Toni home permanents and the Texas oilman Glenn McCarthy threw Houstons biggest party to celebrate the opening of his Shamrock Hotel, a ploy that made its way into Giant, the novel and movie inspired by his life.

As quaint as those promotions may seem now, how different are they at heart from the modern-day marketing tactic of using social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share content created by advertisers In 1945, a press agent pulled off a publicity stunt. In 2014, a marketing content specialist tries to create a brand message that goes viral as when the Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz took a selfie with President Barack Obama during a ceremony in April honouring the teams World Series victory.

It turned out that Samsung, which has a deal with Ortiz to use its Galaxy Note 3 smartphones for social media posts, distributed the photograph to its millions of Twitter followers, inciting the ire of White House officials, who seek to prohibit the use of the president and the office of the presidency for commercial purposes.

I love the analogy, Owen Dougherty, the chief communications officer of the Grey Group, who served as a press aide to three Chicago mayors, said in an interview. It was a publicity stunt then, which became a photo op, which morphed into the selfie that is todays activation.

In this age, when public relations people are only as good as the amount of tweets or internet hits they generate, the series of photos of Bacall and Truman are the gift that keeps on giving in that so many women climbed up on that piano in the ensuing years that the cabinet collapsed and had to be rebuilt, Dougherty said. It remains to this day in the Truman Lounge at the club.

Everyone credits the Kennedys with creating the nexus between Hollywood and the White House, but Truman was no slouch, Dougherty added. He saw the power of pop culture and the value of humanising his image. In other words, the photos may have done as much for Truman as for Bacall.

Back then, you needed press agents, and you hoped that when they sent a photo out the newspapers would pick it up, said Barbara Lippert, an editor at large at MediaPost. Now, its more unmediated: The photo is all over social media, and the traditional media will pick it up after. And the brands have become the press agents.

Is that progress she asked. I dont know.

Lippert said she was struck by the idea that for a vice-president to have a movie star draped over him in 1945 was unusual enough for the photos to become iconic, whereas now President Obama poses for selfies, and Queen Elizabeth II even appeared in the background of a selfie taken last month by Australian field hockey players at the Commonwealth Games.

Lippert also wondered whether a line could be drawn from Bacalls publicity coup to her later career as a pitchwoman for Madison Avenue. (She lent her face and voice to ads for brands like Fancy Feast cat food and High Point coffee.)

The Bacall-Truman photographs broke through because they were disruptive, which is what people are trying to achieve now, said Grace Leong, partner and chief executive of Hunter Public Relations. Were doing the same job now as they were doing back then.

It is exactly the same decision tree, she added, but now we have more branches on our tree.

Back then, that Warner Bros publicist had only a few media outlets for the photographs, said Leong, who, along with her partners at Hunter, sold a majority stake in the agency on Wednesday to MDC Partners. Today, we have so many more opportunities to get those images out and get that click, get that engagement, get the attention and make them go viral.

And while stars once depended on press agents to handle publicity for their films and careers, modern-day celebrities have the ability to cut us out of the mix, Leong said, and market themselves.

That may help todays stars in some ways, but in others it can prove problematic when they put out things that are inconsistent with their brands and how their brands should be built, she added.

Or as Lippert put it, People like the Kardashians give selfies a bad name.