Alan Gordon, the Zany King of the Plants
By Leslie Raddatz
Talk about your flacks; this one even got himself on a cover
When the roll of legendary Hollywood press agents is Up Yonder – or wherever it is that Hollywood press agents go – the names of Russell Birdwell, Howard Strickling and Harry Brand will all be there. The name Alan Gordon probably won’t be – and it’s a shame. Because, although Gordon was in the publicity business for only a few years during World War II, what a press agent he was. And not just for his clients.
Have Birdwell, Strickling or Brand ever had their pictures on the cover of a movie magazine? Gordon did. Were they ever on the front pages of newspapers all over the country? Gordon was. Did Walter Winchell ever say that they drove the most expensive cars in Hollywood? That’s what he said about Gordon. Did they ever delight the Hollywood paparazzi by squiring glamour girls to nightclubs and premiers? Gordon did.
Not that Alan Gordon was a self aggrandizing publicist, as Birdwell had the reputation of being. Somehow, he just had the knack of working himself into stories that also made his clients happy. When client Lana Turner flew to Las Vegas to marry Stephen Crane in 1942, Gordon and client Linda Darnell went along to be their witnesses. Upon their return, after an airport photo session featuring the foursome, Gordon told the press that the happy couple had met and fallen in love at client Andre’s restaurant in Beverly Hills and were now on their way to client Mocambo on the Sunset Strip to dance the night away. A likely story – but it was picked up by the wire services and made front pages from coast to coast.
In truth, most of the stories emanating from the office of Alan Gordon and Associates were phony. Witty sayings were attributed to client Arthur Murray, who never said a funny thing in his life. Twosomes made up of people who weren’t even acquainted were reported at client restaurants and nightclubs. Completely fictitious dramatic stories about clients made the treasured lead in Harrison Carroll’s popular Herald-Express column.
Occasionally, stories would backfire. Carroll once called a client for further details of how he had saved a child from drowning. The client, to whom the story was news, said he knew nothing about it. Another time, Carroll printed a Gordon story about client Helen Forrest, who was said to be adrift in a boat on Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, it was the dead of winter, and the lake was frozen solid. Carroll got an indignant telegram from the Chicago Chamber of Commerce on the one.
If only Carroll and his fellow columnists had known that here was a quite simple way of divining whether the story Gordon was planting was true or not. When it was genuine, Gordon always prefaced it by saying, “I swear this is the honest-to-God truth!”
Then there were those clients sans “name.” The Gordon office had a small, confidential list of people who didn’t want it known that they had retained the services of a Hollywood publicist. One of these was a prominent producer, now dead, who was trying to dodge the draft. In order to make a case for deferral, he wanted the world to know that he was giving his all on the home front, putting on shows for the troops. Gordon and Associates helped keep him out of the service, which may have been their most important contribution to the war effort.
Or take the case of actress Virginia Hill, who spent money freely and was rumored to have mob connections. These rumors gained credence some years later when gangster Busy Siegel was gunned down in her home, and after that when she was called to testify before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime. But back in the early ’40s, Gordon publicized her as a southern heiress who threw star-studded parties – one of them at a bordello on Washington Boulevard – and who once gave her mink coat to a Mocambo check girl as a tip. Unlike the legend of her aristocratic southern heritage, these stories were the honest-to-God truth.
The Gordon office also privately handled one Johnny Meyers, Howard Hughes’ press agent, who felt it would be unseemly for anyone to know that a press agent had a press agent. Meyers’ duties included procuring girls for the lavish parties Hughes put on for military brass – an activity that got him plenty of unwelcome publicity after the war, when Congress started checking up. Some of these girls were among the frequent female visitors at the Alan Gordon office where the all-male staff (except for a secretary) always welcomed them.
The headquarters of Alan Gordon and Associates was a small corner building on the Strip, across from Ciro’s, which had since been replaced by a high rise apartment building. Its street level was the working office, with desks, phones, shelves of scrapbooks, and autographed pictures of stars. On the wall of Gordon’s own office were framed copies of his diploma from USC—where he had been a Big Man on Campus—and the certification of his most recent Wasserman test. Downstairs, on the south side of the building, was a half-story semibasement room and bath. Because of its modest oriental décor—cheap bamboo blinds and straw mats—it was dubbed the Bamboo room. Here Gordon often entertained girls. And vice versa.
One of the office visitors was a girl who later sued Errol Flynn for statutory rape. In court for the trial, she wore pigtails and dirndl dresses—every shapely inch of her proclaiming innocence. When a lawyer mentioned that Flynn had nicknamed her “Strumpet” and asked her what the word meant, she replied, “It’s some kind of an English biscuit.”
Now, Errol Flynn was an important man to Alan Gordon. Gordon’s first job in publicity was at Warner Bros., and his finest hour there was the press junket for the world premiere of Flynn’s Dodge City. It just so happened that Gordon had some provocative 11-by-14 photographs of the nearly nude young woman Flynn had allegedly ravished. He quietly turned them over to the defense. Flynn beat the rap.
The English biscuit and other aspiring-starlet types visited the office, naturally, in hopes of a mention in the columns or a night on the town with Gordon. But at Mocambo, Ciro’s and the premieres, Gordon was seen with the likes of Linda Darnell, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Ann Rutherford, Carole Landis and Ann Miller. No month went by without a picture of Gordon with one or another of them featured in a fan magazine – until, finally, Movie Life put him and Linda Darnell on its cover. A publicist’s dream come true.
This publicist, indeed, had charisma before it became a household word. HE liked everybody, and – with the possible exception of the girl in the Flynn case –everybody liked him. He was able to charm women and men alike; and he was a dashing, flamboyant figure: blonde, blue eyed, muscular.
In fact, publicity was, for Gordon, a career that had always been more fun than business for him anyway. He had gotten into it almost accidentally, encouraged by his uncle, Carol Byoir, whose public-relations firm was one of the world’s biggest, and by his best friend, Jack Warner Jr., who got him the first job at dad’s movie studio. (Dad later fired Gordon because he had a habit of returning to the office after a date and keeping the lights burning late at night.)
And, by the mid ’40s, his waning interest began to show. In 1945 he was introduced to Vera Shaw, a stunning New York showgirl and he promptly forgot all the others and married her. Also, at this point, he began buying and selling war-surplus material, then started a motion-picture-equipment company that would eventually become a multimillion-dollar operation. Meanwhile, he put his flackery biz in the hands of his long-time associate, Glen Rose, who, noting that Gordon was less and less involved, causing Rose to do more and more of the work himself, finally went to Gordon and tearfully told him things weren’t working out and there’d have to be some changes made. Gordon sadly agreed, and he reached into his pocket and took out a set of keys. “Here are the keys to the office –the business is yours,” was his reply.
That was the end of the short but spectacular career of Alan Gordon, press agent. But he never lost his touch in 1969 when he and Vera celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary, he ran this classified ad in the LA Times:
VERA 1945. Rare model and finest of its type ever produced. A real beauty made by Irish labor. Runs cool but is responsive. Superb chassis. Gold top. Exquisite finish, loaded with fantastic features. Only for the man who wants to possess the world’s best. You’ll love her. I do. – ALAN GORDON
A week later, he was dead. That old heart condition finally caught up with him at, of all places, the Golden Door. But then, Gordon always did believe in going first class.