IN THE beginning, more or less, was Henry Rogers.
Actually, the dapper, 74-year-old press agent recalls, a handful of independent publicists were already peddling tidbits to the columns when he came to Hollywood, fresh from the University of Pennsylvania, in 1934.
But Rogers soon founded a firm that would become known as Rogers & Cowan--and helped launch an industry that moved publicity out of the studios and into the hands of the celebrities.
"Rita Hayworth made me a star," says Rogers, who maintains that his success in taking the actress from obscurity to the cover of Look magazine in the early 1940s set his own Hollywood career ablaze. Rogers made an even bigger name for himself by representing such clients as Claudette Colbert, Jane Wyman, Olivia de Havilland, Rosalind Russell and Lana Turner.
Even so, some movie moguls, leery of feeding star egos, resented outside publicists enough to banish them from studio lots. But Jack Warner led the way in lifting such bans in 1945, after Joan Crawford waltzed off the busy set of "Mildred Pierce" to confer with Rogers.
"In a rage, Warner asked why she had walked off," remembers Rogers, who still reports every day to his New York office. "She said, 'I had an appointment with my associate Mr. Rogers.' Warner said, 'Let him in.' "
For decades, studios such as Warner Bros. and MGM maintained enormous publicity staffs, which included in-house photographers and editors, and mirrored the structure and hectic pace of the newspapers they were largely designed to feed. To hear veterans tell it, studio publicists lived and died by the gossip columns, which competed fiercely for news of a car accident, a pending divorce or other personal snippets that helped create the mystique of stardom.
"If you ever had an accident, you could always get a Harrison Carroll lead," one Hollywood publicist recalls of a celebrity columnist who wrote for the Hearst newspapers.
But that system broke down in the 1950s and 1960s, as competition from TV weakened the studios, and many stars, no longer under contract to a single studio, hired personal publicists to help advance their interests.
Rogers & Cowan, by the mid-'50s the biggest outside firm in the business, became a training ground for many publicists, including Pat Kingsley, Jim Mahoney, Dick Guttman, Dick Grant, Dale Olson and Bobby Zarem, all of whom went on to found their own companies.
Warren Cowan, now chairman of the board, teamed up with Rogers as a young Army vet in the 1940s. "We've always done it with dignity," he says of his company's approach. "We made a very simple difference in the business. We said, 'It isn't just about getting press. Let's help advance careers.' "
Today, Rogers & Cowan still claims to be the biggest of Hollywood's PR firms, with nearly 200 employees, annual revenue of about $13 million and a client roster that includes Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Paul Newman and Michael Keaton.
Much of the company's growth in recent years has come from expansion into corporate accounts, including Ford Motor Co., AT&T, Polaroid, MGM Grand Air, Weintraub Entertainment Group and Aaron Spelling Productions.
President and chief executive officer Dick Taylor says Rogers & Cowan--which was acquired last year by London-based Shandwick PLC, a PR conglomerate--plans to use the tricks it learned in Hollywood to branch still further into public relations for corporations, sports, the arts and other fields.
"We are very good at imagery," Taylor says. "We add pizazz to products."