Researching a history book can be a tedious task. But for the British PR supremo Mark Borkowski, author of The Fame Formula: How Hollywood's Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, it had its compensations. During his seven-year labour of love in LA's splendidly appointed but nearly empty Academy library, criss-crossing the Atlantic to interview dying octogenarians, a mysterious woman sought him out and handed him a package full of cuttings and scribbled notes. These were the memoirs of Maynard Nottage, the forgotten forerunner of the great Hollywood publicists, and a mother lode of scandal, misdirection and ballyhoo.
The stories that emerge from the dawn of cinema beggar belief. Nottage, who worked for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show aged 16, got his big break when asked to publicise the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. As the picture played in town after town, Nottage engaged a stunt-riding cowboy to travel along with him to whip up interest. He turned out to be an alcoholic womaniser, giving Nottage a crash course in what were probably the first - but certainly wouldn't be the last - cover-ups of movie-related sex scandals.
As time went on, Nottage became more creative still. Strangest of his many strange stunts was probably the one dreamt up to promote the 1912 movie A Monkey Bite. He exhibited a man who, "doctors" claimed, was turning into a monkey. In reality, Nottage had stuck a tail and fur on him. Sadly the man developed an allergic reaction to the glue, was hospitalised, and later, by now rather unbalanced, went to live in a small zoo in Belgium and was crushed to death by a rhino.
It's a great story for Borkowski, the acknowledged master of the dying art of the stunt, whose own favourites tend to include animals: he once took the Andrews Sisters and an elephant into a chip shop to publicise Trivial Pursuit, and was expelled from a BBC green room when his scorpions became unruly. "My first job was for a circus, Gerry Cottle's Circus," Borkowski elaborates. Sitting on a roof terrace in Soho, Britain's own twin epicentre of sleaze and filmdom, with the sun reflecting off his blue shades, it's easy to conjure up the ghosts of Hollywood Babylon. "And I love circus people. They all live in a village together; they all know what they have to do; everybody looks after everyone else."
He counts the great 19th-century showman and circus impresario PT Barnum as his spiritual ancestor. "I got into Barnum when people started calling my stunts 'Barnumesque', and I thought what exactly is that? It was when researching the circus that Jeremy Beadle [the late practical joker and TV star] told me about the early Hollywood publicists, he had this knowledge of characters and hucksters, and a huge library of books. One person led me to another, and I just wanted to find that point when things changed from vaudeville and live entertainment to cinematic entertainment. In fact, the book was originally going to be called The Sons of Barnum."
Barnum's maxim was that "every crowd has a silver lining". He was a black belt in bluff and double-bluff who created a blaze of publicity when he bought Jumbo, the largest elephant seen in captivity, from London Zoo: outraged letters to the Times insisted the elephant remain on British soil. And who wrote these letters? PT Barnum himself. This lesson, that even bad publicity can actually be good, was not wasted on his successors. As well as coming up with the monkey stunt, Maynard Nottage whipped up publicity for a circus by allowing a lioness to escape and roam the streets, while a young girl looked after its cubs; and in order to generate interest in a saucy dance of the seven veils, he tipped off church leaders and wrote letters to local papers calling for a ban.
It all became much less fun with the rise of the studio system, when the many smaller film companies had merged and consolidated into a handful of big players, and actors were tied for years to a single one. Foremost was MGM, whose publicity department was ruled with an iron hand by Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling for nearly 40 years. Borkowski calls them not press agents, but "suppress agents": it's largely thanks to their tireless efforts, including paying off the local constabulary, that this period is called Hollywood's Golden Age. Its apparently wholesome stars were worshipped as living gods and goddesses by their adoring public - whereas their careers would have ended far sooner had fans discovered the truth.
Clark Gable, for instance, was a jug-eared serial romancer of elderly, wealthy women (the ears had to be pinned back for all his films). Joan Crawford was a promiscuous bisexual who aborted Gable's illegitimate child. Spencer Tracy was a lifelong violent alcoholic and rampant sex fiend who supposedly bedded Judy Garland aged 14, and needed so many cover-ups that MGM created a "Tracy Squad" to deal with them.
Even in death, the MGM gurus usually prevailed. Lupe Vélez, the "Mexican Spitfire", cost them a fortune in suppressed photographs owing to her habit of dancing knickerless at parties with her skirt raised. In 1944, she took an overdose of pills, and Strickling's press release the next day eulogised her peaceful passing, surrounded by candles and flowers. In fact, she had rushed to throw up in the toilet, skidded on her own vomit and fallen headfirst into the bowl, breaking her neck.
More famous now, due to the Ben Affleck film Hollywoodland, was their cover-up of the real facts behind the death in 1959 of "Superman", George Reeves. The full truth will likely never be known. A similar pattern is observable in recent Hollywood. After some high-profile debauchery in the 1970s and 1980s, the PR industry tightened its grip on clients. Pat Kingsley, founder of PMK, typifies the trend better than any. Nicknamed "Dr No" for her control over interviews, it was she who enforced the pernicious habit, all too common in the US, of picture and copy approval. Her most famous client, Tom Cruise, once rejected 14 Rolling Stone interviewers until the magazine put forward one who suited him.
"It's a creeping rust on popular culture," says Borkowski. "Everywhere is being run by the accountants. Some of the great stunts I've done in the past, like for Warners? they're more interested now in where their talent [ie, the actors] are staying. You know what interview junkets are? They're a soulless exercise - you're not sure if you're in a dentist's surgery or a press conference. It's all about control."
And yet accidents will still happen: most famously this year, the overdose by the promising young actor Heath Ledger. That the last film Ledger acted in, The Dark Knight, has broken box-office records does not surprise Borkowski. "Someone, somewhere who's put money into that film said a little prayer to thank God [when Ledger died]." And here the conversation tips further to the Dark Side. Borkowski maintains, controversially, that "the greatest, darkest publicity stunt of all time was the Twin Towers. Our perception [in the West] of al Qa'eda is of these fellows in a cave waging war - they're much more sophisticated than that. It's not about winning, it's about long-term destabilisation. If you take those planes, why were they targeted 20 minutes apart? Because if they went in together, you wouldn't have that killer image - and for me it's still the most powerful, most shocking image of my lifetime - of actually seeing a plane crash into a building. Because of the first plane, we're ready for it, we're watching. The dark and bitter genius of that! And they were using the internet for beheadings long before."
In doing so - wittingly or not - they were participating in the greatest PR trend of all. The internet, Borkowski says, is where the real PR innovation now takes place. Out there, it's like the early days of Hollywood again, with uncontrollable stories of celebrity excess spreading like wildfire, and new stars rising and falling in instants. "YouTube is great, people coming up with viral scams, that's where it's interesting now. Have you seen Fred? Fred is wonderful. I call people like him digital buskers. You see this guy playing and singing, he has no recording contract, no global rights, he's just entertaining people."
Borkowski himself is getting in on the act: when charged with bringing back the Whispa bar, he did so through Facebook. And he's running a talent competition, tied to the publication of his book, at www.thefameformula.com. The winner will be made into a star by his company, Mark Borkowski PR. And given that Borkowski's previous stunts include organising the world's largest custard pie fight inside the Millennium Dome, making an edible billboard from chocolate, staging a ballet for remote-controlled vacuum cleaners, and gift-wrapping both a house and a helicopter, you can be sure they'll have a lot more fun these days than they would auditioning for Hollywood.
The Fame Formula, published by Sidgwick & Jackson, will be available tomorrow.