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Last of Old-Time Hollywood Press Agents : Ex-Studio Publicist Harry Brand Dies

February 23, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Harry Brand, the fun-loving one-time sportswriter who became the first publicity director of 20th Century Fox at the studio's birth in 1935 and who at his death was recognized as the last of those beloved heralds of hyperbole known as the Hollywood Press Agent, died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home.

He was 92 and had been in failing health for several years.

Until his retirement in 1963 Brand probably produced a greater stable of publicity talent than any other studio. Men who learned their craft at Fox and went on to other areas included novelists Mort Thompson, Gordon Gordon and Will Fowler and journalists Ralph (Casey) Shawan, Maxwell Stiles and Mark Kelly. Stan Margulies, an Emmy-award winning TV producer ("Roots"), was also molded in the Brand tradition.

In an era when film publicists were paid not to just promote pictures but to sometimes keep their bosses' peccadilloes out of print, Brand was a master of film fanfare.

His standard response to any official question was "Before I tell ya' . . . did ya' ever hear the one about . . . ?" There would follow whatever joke Brand had heard last, most of them told in a style a modern comedian would envy.

It was a time when stars looked to the studio for all their needs. There were no personal press agents, business managers or answering services.

As a result, Brand probably knew more about the inner workings of old Hollywood and its sometimes brutal star system than any man alive. Yet he was Sphinx-like in his discretion and tireless in his loyalties.

His friends ranged from American Presidents (Nixon and Truman) to California governors (both Browns and Earl Warren). He swapped yarns with Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and Walter Winchell and was on a first-name basis with most of the country's leaders.

Crippled by a childhood illness, Brand had a wry sense of humor about the world in general and himself in particular.

Encouraged once by producer Sy Bartlett to get more exercise despite his withered leg, Brand replied, "I get all my exercise as pallbearer for my athletic friends."

'Getting an Outfielder'

His best publicized bon mot came after Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio. "We're not losing a star," Brand told the world. "We're gaining an outfielder."

Or the not-so-well-known occasion when he was consoling George Jessel, America's late "toastmaster general," who was famous for his eulogies. On this occasion, Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter and producer, and not Jessel had been asked to salute a fallen star.

"But Georgie," Brand told him, "that man had been dying of cancer for months. Anyone can take forever to write a eulogy. You're a 'heart attack man.' You can knock them out overnight."

Chuck Panama, Brand's longtime friend and colleague, recalled Wednesday how pleased Jessel was.

Harry Robert Brand and his brothers, Hymie, Jack and Edward (a future Los Angeles Superior Court judge), came to Los Angeles with their parents from their native New York City in 1902. Harry went to Los Angeles High School and USC and then became a sportswriter and eventually sports editor of the old Los Angeles Express.

His first venture into film publicity, which paid considerably more than journalism in those days, came at Warner Brothers and then with Joseph M. Schenck, an independent producer. Brand's early clients included Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. When Darryl F. Zanuck quit Warners in 1932, he teamed with Schenck to form 20th Century Pictures with Brand as head of publicity. Three years later they merged with William Fox.

Galaxy of Stars

Those early years had Brand mapping campaigns for Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Jack Oakie, Ronald Colman, Rita Hayworth and dozens more. He became friends with most of them. More recently he helped Rex Harrison, Betty Grable, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power, Cesar Romero and others achieve stardom.

In 1933 Harry Brand married Sybil Morris, daughter of a well-known Los Angeles family. As Sybil Brand she became one of the most prominent philanthropists and civic workers in Southern California. Among her charities is the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, for which she raised $8 million to build.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a stepson, George.

At Brand's request there will be no service. Donations are asked to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.

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