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From the Vault of Art Shay: The Charmed Life of Dan Edelman

By Art Shay in News on Dec 28, 2011 7:30PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his photography archives, Art looks back at the career of a public relations giant.)

My hard-digging archivist Erica de Glopper, came up from the basement to my office waving the above letter from 1986 excitedly. "It's from Dan Edelman; I know he's famous but I don't recall why. I sent you — her Apple laptop and my Mac upstairs are lovers — something by Rance Crain honoring Dan Edelman on his 90th birthday . It's a video interview from Advertising Age or Crain's Chicago. Do you care?"

Do I care about Danny? He's one of my all-time greatest citizens of Chicago. Advertising Age has just declared his worldwide PR outfit the number seven "Agency of the Decade." Edelman now has 3,600 employees in 53 offices around the globe. They service such clients as Walmart, Starbucks, Burger King, Microsoft and Pfizer. The not only handle PR for big companies, but for Kings, heads of state, whole countries. By "service," I mean they solve myriad problems involving product impact on the public, decision impact on the citizenry, and such matters as factory location and packaging.

I only got in trouble with Danny once: I was reluctant to pitch Life an Edelman story: The Tee-Pak packaging company kicked off their new hot dog line with a hot-dog eating contest. I warned him that Life would probably choose a painful picture of somebody od'ing on his 10th hot dog; it was the closest thing to a funny vomit picture Life ever ran.

They can't help but book half a billion bucks a year, helping them pay all that rent, all those 3,600 salaries. (Full disclosure: One of my distinguished relatives by marriage who just clambered aboard the Edelman ship is a former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Frank Lavin, brother to my son-in-law Carl Lavin, a former New York Times and Forbes editor.) Between high level assignments for Edelman, he is currently involved in channeling American goods to the receptive Chinese. We are friends although Karl Rove, who was Frank's best man at his wedding. To Frank's conservative surprise I won a hundred ambassadorial bucks on President Obama over McCain. It's all connected, ain't it.

Dan Edelman's little PR outfit, started in Chicago, is now headquartered in New York City and run by Dan and Ruth's son Richard. He was this smart little kid who played with my discarded film cans just 30 years ago — and wielded a mean putter at company picnics! Danny would hire me to cover these shindigs Life and Fortune-style for $300 a day.

Occasionally, one of my pictures would hit the big league magazines. Once Danny paid me a finder's fee for recommending him to a Milwaukee financial client. I also helped the organization lure Senator Paul Douglas's brilliant daughter Helen (who worked with me when I was a Life reporter) and Dorothy Terry, who wrote Marlin Perkins's Zoo Parade show. We suffered a Perkins safari in Africa together.

(In 2010 at the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago , Dorothy and I — 54 years later — posed in front of my nude Sports Illustrated shot of her bathing in a canvas safari bathtub. )

My favorite Edelman memory? Danny's wife Ruth (who used to invite Florence ,me and the entire Time, Inc. Chicago staff) to Danny's birthday parties, once called me up with an offer. "Danny needs a right-hand man and he says you're one of the few people in town capable." I was flattered but horrified. They found two other guys who served successively, and ended up with big eponymous PR organizations of their own.

One summer, my gifted journalism major of a niece Sara Shay asked if I knew anyone who would give her a summer job in Paris. She was, and still is, a witty writer/editor: Perfect for PR. After two weeks she called me to apologize for quitting.

"Do you know what that company's mission is, Uncle Arthur?" she asked. "Of course," I said. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't want to spend my life thinking of ingenious ways to sell soap, cereal, or..."

Danny and I shared a laugh at having discovered a young idealist. Sara, now the mother of two athletic, idealistic young sons, became a book editor.

But Dan Edelman has come a long way from that Toni twins cosmetics story he successfully placed in Life through me. $200,000 of free space — no mean feat even today. I recognized Danny as a winner early on.

As he turns an active and quietly philanthropic 90, and his son Richard often calls him for advice, I see that my visual pun — that halo over his head, done in a chance meeting at O'Hare Airport by two busy journalists — is still a true illustration of the quiet genius who spends his bountiful life pleasantly executing the art of communication.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago’s Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.