Public Relations In Canada
James A. Cowan
James Alexander Cowan was born in Shakespeare Ontario on October 27, 1901. The almost seventy-seven years that were his life was quite an adventure. It came at a time when Toronto and Canada were coming of age. The whole world was changing and he was there for many of the interesting chapters of the period.
He was the eldest child of Presbyterian minister Hugh Cowan and his wife Jean Wood.
Jimmy Cowan or JAC, as he as he was often known, spent some time at the University of Toronto and was the editor of The Goblin - a campus publication. He also was a promoter for The Dumbells a travelling troupe of vaudevillian musicians.
His career took him after his time at the U of T on to writing at the Toronto Star and later as an editor at Star Weekly. His colleagues included Greg Clarke, Morley Callaghan and Gordon Sinclair. It was during those years that he met and worked with another writer at the Star who was to become a life-long friend, Ernest Hemingway. Just prior to the Hemingway’s departure for France, Ernest served as best man to my grandfather as he married my grandmother Grace Williams in Toronto on January 12, 1924 at the Hemingway’s apartment at the Cedarville Mansions located at 1599 Bathurst Street in Toronto.
This young and vibrant Toronto was an exciting place to be in those days and the newspaper business was a great center of community life. Toronto and Ontario were just beginning to awaken as a place of industry and commerce. Jimmy Cowan went on to write features for the Star and later for Canada’s Maclean’s magazine while still in his 20s. He also wrote for Esquire Magazine.
His talents led him to the new world of PR as Canada’s first Public Relations specialist (or consultant as they called it at the time) representing and advising a wide range of firms over the years. It was said that he was known for an intuitive sense of what direction and message would be most effective for a client to take. He was what Malcolm Gladwell would call "A Connector" with the ability to maintain a wide circle of business relationships during a time when "who you knew" was even more important than it is today.
He had an early and continuing interest in the energy business. His special focus was on uranium and radium or what would later be generally known as the nuclear power industry. His many travels included visits to Fort McMurray, Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake.
James A. Cowan was a personal and corporate advisor to the great business magnate Cyrus Eaton of C&O Railway. He was very involved in the public relations world of Steeprock Mines and Canada Steamship Lines in Canada too.
An advisor to politicians and political parties in Canada, his work also took James A. Cowan to serve as an occasional personal public relations advisor from 1935 – 1939 to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His politics in Canada were usually associated with the Liberal Party of Canada.
He represented Rank Films of Great Britain (familiar for their film introductions that featured a man sounding a large gong) as their Director of Public Relations. At the time produced many of the U.K.’s most important films and was home to many of the great British stars of the era. In addition to the Pinewood Studios (think James Bond Movies), Rank also owned the Odeon Cinemas. This led to many hours with the many British actors who would come to North America to promote their films. Among the many actors that he assisted were Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Lawrence Olivier, John Mills, Deborah Kerr, Trevor Howard, Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, Basil Rathbone, Michael Redgrave and Leslie Howard.
In 1952, James A. Cowan was elected the first president of the Canadian Film Institute (previously known as the National Film Society) by the board of directors. He served as President of the organization for 12 years and as an honourary director until 1966.
Over the years, he acquired the rights to the Madame Tussaud's Waxworks for Canada and he was the one who brought it to Niagara Falls.
JAC was someone who maintained a range of interests and causes. He wrote a script for a documentary on the discoveries of radium at Great Slave Lake and the development of the nuclear industry in Canada. The film was called The Secret Years of El Dorado that won the award for the Non-Dramatic Script for the 1968 Canadian Film Awards (now known as the Genie Awards).
In the early 1950s he was one of the founders of the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario assisting with the promotion of the festival as well as the connection to British actors from the Rank Organization who would headline at the Festival like Sir Alec Guinness and Irene Worth as well as the first director Dr. Tyrone Guthrie. He then oversaw and financed the initial PR and fund raising efforts of the project that was ably executed by the talented Mary Jolliffe who was the festival’s first publicist. Through his connections in Great Britain and the United States media, he was able to have the Stratford launch featured in the international press. He arranged the documentary of the National Film Board on the creation of the festival called, "The Stratford Adventure."
He was the Canadian Cancer Society’s first National Campaign Chairman and helped pioneer the organization serving as a member of the National Board for 18 years.
His love of nature included a number of conservation projects including his work helping to secure Canadian support of the Quetico-Superior Foundation to preserve the boundary waters area that created the largest international wilderness preserve in the world.
In the 1950s, he was an advocate of blended income housing rather than common income patterns in the redevelopment of the then Regent Park slums in Toronto. This was rejected at the time however, his view proved to be the solution now generally adopted in urban planning in Ontario.
The prolific mystery novelist, Frances Shelley Wees, based one of her recurring sleuths on her friend, James A. Cowan. Prior to becoming a novelist, she was also in the public relations world. Her novel's mystery was often solved by "Dr. Jonathan Merrill with the aid of his pretty young sister. Dr. Merrill is a psychologist who lectures at University of Toronto and acts as consultant to the Toronto police." Bruce Byrnes, in a 1957 Toronto Telegram book review of Wees' book, Murder in Muskoka, "But most readers are likely to make the wrong guess about Dr. Merrill, the hero of the piece. He does have a real-life model — not a detective, psychologist or anyone connected with police work, but a Toronto public relations man (who is in on the secret)." In 1955, Wees inscribed a copy of, "M'Lord I Am Not Guilty" to Cowan and confirmed the secret identity. She wrote, "for JAC - alias Jonathan Merrill with apologies for an insufficiently valuable characterization."
He served on various corporate boards including the founding board of CTV in Canada.
Expo ’67 was one of his last major projects before his retirement although he remained involved in corporate life into his seventies.
He died on September 9, 1978 at Bracebridge, Ontario and is buried at the Mickel Cemetery in Gravenhurst – not surprisingly in his beloved Muskoka.
and... James A Cowan was John Fairley's grandfather.
Up To The Cottage - Memories of Muskoka
by Grant D. Fairley
Mary Jolliffe, C.M. the publicist for many years at the Stratford Festival and the Canada Council was generous with her time and recollections about James A. Cowan.
Public Relations specialist, Kevin Putnam, as a student and then in preparation for a book did a study on the life of my grandfather James A. Cowan and his role in the history of Public Relations in Canada. Conversations with him have been helpful.
Lindsay Thompson of Marketing Magazine was helpful in securing a 1961 profile of James A. Cowan.
Baker, Carlos (1969) Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Burrill, William (1994) Hemingway: The Toronto Years. Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada
Harkness, Ross (1963) J. E. Atkinson Of The Star. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press
Searle, R. Newell (1977) Saving Quetico Superior: A Land Set Apart St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Press
Nolan, Michael (2001) CTV-The Network That Means Business. Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Press
Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (Editor), Dejan Vercic (Editor) (2009) The Global Public Relations Handbook, Revised and Expanded Edition: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge p. 655-656
Warecki, George Michael (2000) Protecting Ontario’s Wilderness: A history of changing ideas and preservation politics, 1927-1973. New York, NY: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers
Knott, Leonard L (1955) The PR in Profit: A Guide to Successful Public Relations in Canada. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart
Patterson, Tom and Allan Gould (1999) First Stage: The Making of the Stratford Festival. Firefly Books
Davies, Robertson and Guthrie, Tyrone (1971) Renown at Stratford Robertson and Tyrone Guthrie Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co.
Guthrie, Tyrone Davies, Robertson and Grant MacDonald (1954) TWICE HAVE THE TRUMPETS SOUNDED - A Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada
Liberty Profile: Jimmy Cowan by Ken MacTaggart, Liberty Magazine Canada April 28, 1945 Pages 16-17
Meet Cowan - Phantom of Canadian PR by Dean Walker, Marketing Magazine April 26, 1963
James A. Cowan Heads Canadian Film Institute, Canadian Film Weekly Magazine February 27, 1952 Pages 1 and 3
Various articles from The Toronto Star, Star Weekly, The Varsity, The Goblin, Esquire Magazine and Maclean’s Magazine
The Golden Gong - The Story of Rank Films (2004) DVD Hosted By Michael Caine. Kock International
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