His women were 10's, his guns were .38's and his collection of jewel-encrusted walking canes numbered in the hundreds. For nearly 50 years, Jay Bernstein was a Hollywood fixture, owning one of the most powerful PR firms in Hollywood, making stars of Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers, and producing dozens of television films and series. The dandy dresser was never without custom-tailored clothes, a cane, a loaded gun, and the most important accessory of all - a young, beautiful woman on his arm. He was certainly a legend in his own mind, but he backed his bravado with marketing genius and a proven track record as a tastemaker. Everyone who worked with him had tales of flared tempers and ego trips, but no one could deny how hard he worked for people and projects he believed in. When asked how we wanted to be remembered, Bernstein replied: "By being remembered."
Future Hollywood insider Jay Bernstein was born outside - way outside - Tinseltown, in Oklahoma City, OK on June 7, 1937. His father Jerome owned a local store and the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, but from an early age, young Jay was mesmerized by the flickering images of Hollywood. He went to the movies every day and particularly looked up to manly men and brave soldiers - heroes in white hats like Clark Gable and Alan Ladd. He also idolized World War II soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, who had killed 240 people in active duty. Dreams of being a Hollywood star were far-fetched because he knew he did not have leading man looks, but young Jay enjoyed hamming it up and performing at school functions anyway.
After high school, he earned a degree in history from the L.A.-area Pomona College, finally making it to Hollywood, where he got a mailroom job at the William Morris Talent Agency. He was fired from William Morris after crashing a company car, but found another mailroom position at Rogers & Cowan PR agency, simultaneously holding down jobs as a valet and ball bearing factory worker. Bernstein maintained a daily schedule of double work shifts under the theory that, when he had been in Hollywood for 10 years, he would already have 20 years of experience under his belt. Perhaps his scheme worked, because after only a few short years with Rogers & Cowan - an agency that represented huge names like Jayne Mansfield, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra - he launched Jay Bernstein Public Relations in 1962.
Several of his largest clients came with him, including Sammy Davis Jr., who gave him his first cane. The agency would become one of the top PR firms in Hollywood, with a roster of 600 top stars including Faye Dunaway, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross and James Garner, as well as corporate clients including AT&T, General Mills and Kodak. Bernstein's creative PR stunts made him as famous as his clients, such as paying women to throw hotel keys at Tom Jones and having "Entertainment Tonight" (syndicated, 1981-) host Mary Hart's legs insured by Lloyd's of London for $1 million dollars. In one of his greatest self-promotional acts, he had a million dollar underwater wedding paid for and filmed by "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"(Syndicated, 1984-1995), along with his best man, singer-actor Eddie Fisher.
But prior to that short-lived marriage, Bernstein shifted his focus from PR to artist management in 1975. He hoped to use everything he had learned about the business to create onscreen heroes of the magnitude he had grown up with. A struggling young blonde named Farrah Fawcett, Bernstein felt, had this potential. Before the pilot to "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981) even aired, she became his first client, and he worked tirelessly to promote her into becoming the biggest sex symbol of the 1970s. He was successful. She was considered the de-facto star of the jiggle-TV hit and the infamous poster of her in a red swimsuit surpassed sales of 10 million. Bernstein found himself at the center of a highly-publicized lawsuit when Fawcett quit "Angels" after only one season, prompting ABC to sue her for breach of contract. She fired Bernstein shortly afterwards.
Bernstein did not sit idle long, when it came to promoting beautiful blondes. In the fall of 1976, the starlet void in his life was filled by another budding actress, Suzanne Somers. Somers had been signed on to play Chrissie Snow in "Three's Company" (ABC, 1977-1984) but had no management at that time. She saw what Bernstein had done for Fawcett, so she approached him with an offer of a percentage of her salary if he promised to make her a star. He worked tirelessly for Somers, delivering his end of the bargain by landing her on the covers of 55 national magazines in one year. Several years later, after contractual disputes with ABC and growing tension between Bernstein and Somer's husband, Alan Hamel, she fired Bernstein. He claimed that their split was one of the most depressing times of his life, during which he holed up in a hotel room with a jar of caviar, a bottle of vodka and a pistol.
A permanent fixture in 1970's Hollywood, Bernstein was also integral in managing the careers of fresh-faced "Family" (ABC, 1976-1980) star Kristy McNichol in the latter part of the decade, before handling "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991) star Linda Evans in the 1980s. With Evans, he masterminded the memorable campaign "The Perfect 40," which he claimed helped women in that age group feel better about themselves - much as Fawcett had done for women in their 30s.
Despite his unparalleled success, his early management experiences had taken a toll on Bernstein. He lamented that after he turned people into stars, they turned their backs on him. Television production took more of a central focus for him in the eighties and beyond. He had gotten his foot in the producing door when he had done a pair of movies for his early ingénues - "Sunburn" (1979) with Fawcett and "Nothing Personal" (1980) with Somers.
In 1981, he began a long working relationship with hard-boiled detective author Mickey Spillane, whom he met when the two were seatmates on a cross-country flight. In Spillane's Mike Hammer stories, Bernstein found the manly hero he had always dreamed of launching to a public he felt was starved for proper role models. From 1981-1998, he executive-produced both made-for-TV movies and a number of different series based on the Mike Hammer novels, starring Stacy Keach in the title role. Bernstein also helmed the action series "Bring 'em Back Alive" (CBS, 1980-81) and "Houston Knights" (CBS, 1987-88), as well as appeared as interview subject on tabloid fare like "Mysteries and Scandals" (E!, 1998-2000) "E! True Hollywood Story" (E! 1996-) and "Headliners and Legends: Farrah Fawcett" (2000). His name also appeared on many made-for-TV thrillers of the late '80s and '90s. At the time of his death, he was developing a series entitled "Public Defender," based on stories from the Los Angeles Public Defender's office.
Bernstein's personal life sounded like something out of a Hemingway book or a film from his childhood. He shot guns, scuba dived and hunted large game, putting the taxidermied remains around the living room of his mansion - a Beverly Hills pad that had at one time been owned by his idol, Clark Gable. There were power lunches and power parties and a revolving door of beautiful women who were considerably younger than himself. In 1993 he married model Cabrina Finn, proposing to her after knowing her less than two days. The underwater marriage sank in two years. In 1998, at the age 61, he became engaged to 22-year-old Simona Fusco. She gave birth to his only offspring, Amber, the following year, and the couple broke up shortly thereafter. The very public man admitted in a late interview that he was actually very alone, and his longtime housekeeper was his favorite person in the world. Bernstein died in May of 2006, following a stroke. Fittingly, Farrah Fawcett was by his side and Suzanne Somers spoke at his memorial.