Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand



Torches of Freedom…






Marilyn Slater



Mabel Normand smoked but only in private, never on screen and never in public.  Women who smoked were labeled as sluts and whores and the American taboo against women smoking was of course gender based. This presented a real problem to the American Tobacco Company; they hired Eddie Bernays in the 1920s to market cigarettes to women. It was a hard sell.  There is a moment on film in ‘Head Over Heels’ (Goldwyn 1920) where Mabel in a comedy sequence pretends to be a vamp (as good girls even in films didn’t smoke) asks a suitor to roll a cigarette for her and she is holding a long cigarette-holder. That was back in 1920 but the life of women was changing and Eddie Bernays understood how to take advantage of a social movement. Mabel never benefited from his Torches of Freedom campaign to make smoking respectable.



Eddie Bernays was born in Vienna Austria on November 22, 1891 and lived to be 103 years old, dieing in Cambridge, MA of old age March 9, 1995.  He liked to call himself the father of public relation, of course, he was one of the sperm donors as there were many fathers; it is hard to blame just one man. 


Eddie’s father was Ely Bernays, brother of Martha Bernay, the wife of Sigmund Freud and his mother was Freud’s sister, Anna.  The Bernays family immigrated to New York in 1892 when Eddie was a baby.  He received a degree from Cornell University in 1912. His first career choice was journalism; he married Doris E. Fleischman in 1922.  Although Eddie’s parents were Jewish, he never considered himself a religious man and did not identify with the Jewish community. 


It was said that, “When a person would first meet Eddie, it would not be long until Uncle Sigmund would be brought into the conversation.”  Irwin Ross wrote that “Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalysis to troubled corporation”. He used his relationship with his Uncle to establish his own reputation; although he was a man of real influence in his own right.  His books “Crystallizing Public Opinion“(1923) and “Propaganda” (1928) became milestone texts.  Eddie argued in “Propaganda“, that ‘scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society and the manipulation was for “our own good and the only way that democracy can work efficiently.” Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister utilized Eddie’s theories to subvert democracy and used Eddie’s ideas in the deliberate campaign in the attack of the Jews of Germany. Proving that manipulation of society isn’t always for the best interest of its members.


George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s hired Eddie Bernays for an annual retainer of $25,000 to market Lucky Strike cigarettes to women, wanting to increase his customer base. Women were smoking but usually only in private as was the case, with Mabel Normand and many others.  He understood that women had a desire to smoke but were only allowed to behind closed doors.  It is hard to believe but it was illegal in many places for women to smoke outside.  In 1922, a woman was arrested for ‘daring’ to light a cigarette on the street in New York City! During this period, it was only “bad girls” that smoked; it was a “risqué” act, this social norm had to be overcome, if American Tobacco hoped to increase sales.  To develop a marketing plan, Eddie hired A.A. Brill, the psychologist to find out what would make “respectable” women smoke in public. Brill found that cigarettes were seen by women as something for men and a phallic symbol.  


It was during this period women had achieved the power to vote, were taking job’s that had traditionally been filled by men. Women had moved into professions formerly considered only the male’s domain. Yes, this was the Jazz Age, Roaring 20s a time of enormous social change but still women faced discrimination.


The parameters of the campaign were established, which would link cigarettes and the new liberated woman. Brill explained; “Cigarettes were like contraceptives; they were associated with sex without issue. They appealed to women who were willing to neuter themselves sexually in their admiration of masculine qualities. “It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes,” Brill went on to state that; “The emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become ’Torches of Freedom’.”


Eddie created the “Torches of Freedom” campaign. Getting women to smoke cigarettes would be “like opening a new gold mine right in American Tobacco’s front yard”. Advertising was a way to make new customers by transforming the raw material of emotions into habits of consumption.  Eddie’s secret was to associate the cigarette with the subliminal woman’s sexual desire with the application of conditioned reflex. To Eddie, feminism could be used as a marketing tool, which would entail the systematic re-engineering of the morals of women as a way of moving them out of the home and into the smoking in public.


Recently, in an interview originally done in 1998 was aired on C-Span, Larry Tye, author of ‘The Father of Spin: Edward L. Barnays and the Birth of Public Relations’, told the story of Eddie sending a group of debutants to march in the New York Easter Parade on 5th Avenue.


“On March 31, 1929, a woman by the name of Bertha Hunt stepped into the throng of pedestrians in their Sunday-best clothing marching down Fifth Avenue in what was known in New York as the Easter Parade, and created a sensation by lighting up a Lucky Strike cigarette. Her action would not have created the reaction it did had not the press already been alerted to what was going to happen in advance. Hunt then told the reporter from the New York Evening World that she “first got the idea for this campaign when a man with her in the street asked her to extinguish her cigarette as it embarrassed him. ‘I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation.’”


The press, of course, had been warned in advance that Bertha and her friends were going to light up. They had received a press release informing them that she and her friends would be lighting “Torches of Freedom” “in the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo.” Bertha also mentioned that she and her friends would be marching past “the Baptist church where John D. Rockefeller attends” on the off chance that he might want to applaud their efforts. At the end of the day, Bertha and her friends told the press that she hoped they had “started something and that these Torches of Freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.’”

What Miss Hunt did not tell the reporter is that she was the secretary of a man by the name of Eddie Bernays. 
 The New York Times (1 April 1929) printed: "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom'". She also didn’t tell the reporters that Mr. Bernays had received a handsome retainer from the American Tobacco Company to promote cigarette consumption among women. What billed itself as a feminist promotion of the emancipation of women was in reality a public relations ploy to open a new market for tobacco by getting women addicted to cigarettes.


Years later Eddie Bernays would wax philosophical about the Torches of Freedom campaign. “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal.



The Torches of Freedom campaign was a classic instance of using sexual liberation as a form of control. It proposed addiction as a form of freedom. In this, it was an early version of the Virginia Slims, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign, which made repeated reference to the Suffragette movement as a way of associating cigarettes with freedom.


I never smoked, but I am sure there are a number of ways that Bernays has influenced my life without me realizing it.




Bender, Stephen, Karl Rove & the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew



Visiting Edward Bernays - Chapter 1 of a book by Stuart Ewen (1996)


Torches of Freedom Video Clip


Edward L. Bernays tells the story of "Torches of Freedom"

in his own words -video clip -1999


Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and

the Birth of Public Relations (1998, ISBN 0-517-70435-8)  

Stevens Point Daily Journal, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, April 1, 1929

“Cigarettes in the 5th Avenue Easter parade is that

their torches of freedom were lighting the way to equal

rights for smokers of both sexes.”


Charleston, West VA, April 1, 1929

“Bertha Hunt and 6 colleagues struck another blow in behalf of

the liberty of women. Down 5th Avenue, they strolled puffing

at cigarettes walked into obscurity.  After the empty victory,

Miss Hunt (said,) “I hope that we have started something that

these torches of freedom will smash the taboo on women smoking

and our sex will go on breaking down walls.”


Bee, The, Danville, VA, April 2, 1929

“cigarettes in the avenue Easter parade is that their ‘Torches of Freedom”


Olean Times, Olean, NY, April 8, 1929

“...cigarettes...We hope that that we accomplished what we set out to

kill a ridiculous taboo symbolic of more important sexual inequality”


No one has ever successfully analyzed the quality of charm in a woman . . . and no one can adequately describe the deep satisfaction to be found in a really good cigarette.  And it may well be that the two have something in common, since so often they occur together . . . for in surprising proportion you will find Camel the acknowledged favorite of women of poise and charm. (Photoplay May 1930)