In 1954, Gene Schwam was making $35 per week working for songwriter-turned-publicist Stanley Cowan (brother to legendary publicist Warren Cowan) and he figured if he was going to be broke, he might as well be working for himself. So, in 1955, he teamed up with another young publicist, part-time disc jockey Adeline Hanson, to open a firm, calling it Hanson & Schwam Public Relations with his name at the end because “Addy said, ‘Ladies first.’”
Their first client, paying a monthly retainer of $200, was the Los Angeles restaurant Smith Bros. Fish Shanty. Though they primarily focused on repping restaurants and musicians to start, their roster expanded, and the decades that followed would see the pair work with thousands of clients including Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Blake Edwards, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Martin Landau, Merv Adelson, Motown Records, Lorimar, the Directors Guild of America, Chip Rosenbloom, La Costa Resort, and countless others.
Last month, Schwam celebrated 66 years in business, and he’s still going strong more than two decades after the passing of Hanson, who died from leukemia at age 81. With an office on Wilshire Boulevard and a handful of employees, the 90-year-old maintains a client list that includes Julie Andrews and Barbara Eden. Of the latter star, Schwam says, “Oh my God, I’ve known her since 1967, and we’ve been together ever since. I have been lucky enough to be around really talented people all of whom were and are just as special as people.”
At one point, Hanson & Schwam had office space on Sunset Boulevard next door to The Hollywood Reporter. At the end of the workday, Schwam recalled that many THR staffers would come next door for a drink, including iconic “Rambling Reporter” columnist Mike Connolly. “Those were the days,” Schwam recalls, adding that he stayed in touch with many reporters and editors over the years including longtime publisher Robert Dowling. “There’s a mistake people make when they think it’s about who you know in Hollywood, but it isn’t about that — it’s about who knows you.”
Schwam was quick to dole out other tips for success. “Begin with the end of the game and work your way backward,” he explained. “Figure out what it is that we want to do, such as win an Oscar, then we figure out how to get there.” Another: “I’ve always felt that success of the personal service business is referrals. It’s not getting on the phone or going online. It’s always been someone saying, ‘Hey, Gene, I have a friend who is writing a book, would you be interested in working with them?’”
Asked how many hours he currently puts in, Schwam was quick with an answer. “There’s no clock in our business,” he said. He was just as fast when asked how much longer he’s going to keep the lights on. “I’ve already made the arrangements for that day. I have two openings that I’m thinking of — one is very, very low down and the other is very, very high. I’m going to do PR in one of those two places, and one is called heaven and the other is called hell.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.