Warren Cowan, a legendary Hollywood publicist who co-founded the famed Rogers & Cowan public relations firm and was known as an innovative pioneer of independent entertainment publicity for many of the biggest names in show business, has died. He was 87.
Cowan died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of cancer, which was diagnosed three weeks earlier, said Daniel Bernstein of Warren Cowan & Associates.
A New York native who began moonlighting as a Hollywood publicist while attending UCLA in the early ‘40s, Cowan joined Henry Rogers’ publicity firm in 1945 after serving in the Army Air Forces.
In 1950, the two publicists became partners in Rogers & Cowan, which became the largest entertainment public relations firm in the world. Cowan launched his own firm in 1994.
In a more than 60-year career that continued until his death, Cowan represented an array of stars, including Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and the Doors.
“He was a giant,” Dale Olson, a veteran entertainment publicist who spent 17 years at Rogers & Cowan as a key executive, told The Times on Thursday.
“Warren Cowan was the ultimate Hollywood press agent,” Olson said. “There was nobody in this business -- and never will be again -- who was more innovative.”
Charles Champlin, former Times film critic and arts editor, said in a statement that Cowan “stood at the peak of his profession, and he gave it dignity and weight. His word was his bond, and in a world of make-believe he stood for honesty, credibility and trust.”
Douglas, who first met Cowan in the late ‘40s and later tapped him to be best man at his second wedding, said in a statement: “Warren was loved by everybody because he cared for people. I will miss him.”
In contrast to some high-profile entertainment publicists who make journalistic demands and seek control over interviews with their celebrity clients, Cowan was considered an “old-school” Hollywood publicist.
“He doesn’t yell, preferring instead to seduce and cajole,” Amy Wallace wrote in a 2001 profile of Cowan in Los Angeles magazine. “His approach is less adversarial and more complimentary -- a product of the era in which he started out, when movie stars needed the general-interest media more than the media needed them.”
As a publicist, Cowan once said, “I like to create news.”
He was handling publicity for director Frank Borzage in 1950 when he came up with the idea of a celebrity sports tournament for charity to get the two-time Oscar winner’s name in the news.
In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Business Journal, Cowan recalled “saying to my partner that Frank doesn’t have anything going now. I don’t know what to write about him. What does he do? And Henry said that [Borzage] played golf every day.”
Thus was born the Frank Borzage Invitational Golf Tournament.
“To this one-day tournament came Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and many others,” Cowan recalled. “The second year we got Marilyn Monroe to be the scorekeeper. I also arranged for Frank Sinatra to land on the first tee in a helicopter, get out carrying Bing Crosby’s bag, and caddy for him. It was all fun and made for good coverage.”
During his early days working for Rogers, Cowan provided an unexpected boost to client Joan Crawford that resulted in Rogers & Cowan creating the first independent Oscar campaign.
“She had just been named ‘Box Office Poison’ by the theater exhibitors,” Cowan recalled in a 2003 interview with Television Week. “After years at MGM, she went to Warner Bros. to do a movie called ‘Mildred Pierce.’ Three or four weeks into production, I sat at my typewriter and wrote an item, which I sent to [columnist] Hedda Hopper.
“To my amazement, she printed it word for word. It said everyone in the front office at Warners is jumping with glee over the rushes of Joan Crawford in ‘Mildred Pierce.’ They are all saying she’s a cinch to be nominated for the Academy Award.”
Hopper, Cowan said, “didn’t call anyone, didn’t check with anyone. I remember studying that article and saying to Henry, ‘We should repeat this for the next year.’ All we should do is try to reach the 3- or 4,000 members that constituted the Academy at that time. As a result, we took the first Academy [Award] ad in a trade paper for Joan Crawford, quoting Hedda Hopper and a few others.”
Crawford won the Oscar, the two publicists had similarly successful campaigns over the next two years and in time, Cowan recalled, “everybody started to copy what we were doing.”
Of Rogers & Cowan, Cowan told Television Week: “It was the first company that had a sense of class.”
“Henry and I took a business approach,” he said. “We weren’t gofers, and we weren’t errand boys. We weren’t in the ego business. We tried to help careers.”
Recalled Olson: “They were such an incredible team, and they fed off each other. Henry was the suave sophisticate who did a lot of the kind of high-level social things. Warren never wanted to be anything other than what he was, and that was be the best press agent in Hollywood.”
Rogers & Cowan was sold to a British public relations firm in 1987, and Cowan remained as chairman until resigning in 1992. Rogers, who left the firm in 1991, died in 1995.
After waiting out a two-year non-competition clause with his former company, Cowan opened Warren Cowan & Associates in 1994.
Until two weeks ago, his colleague Bernstein said, Cowan “was putting in 40-hour-plus weeks. And even in the past two weeks he was in every day for at least a few hours. And, when not in the office, he was on the phone and doing e-mails nonstop.”
Cowan, who was born in New York City on March 13, 1921, was married five times, twice to actress Barbara Rush.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara Gilbert Cowan; his daughters, Fox News reporter Claudia Cowan and Bonnie Fleming; his stepchildren, actresses Melissa and Sara Gilbert and actor Jonathan Gilbert; and eight grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.
The family suggests donations be made in Cowan’s name to the Hole in the Wall Gang Fund, 555 Long Wharf Drive, New Haven, CT 06511.