But little is known about Hannagan, other than the fact that John H. Levi, Fisher’s “ramrod” and right-hand man, brought Hannagan down from New York to, essentially, save Miami Beach for Fisher and Allison. Things had gotten so bad on the island city that even after Pete Chase (founder of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and for whom Chase Avenue is named) suggested they give the lots free to anybody willing to build a home, they still couldn’t give them away! Fortunately, Levi, who had introduced Fisher and Allison to John S. Collins and Thomas Pancoast and who had been the yacht broker from whom Fisher purchased his boat, knew of and about Hannagan and his publicity and public relations work in New York, where he was considered not only the “whiz kid” of New York p.r., but also the boy genius in his field.
With Fisher and Allison’s approval, Levi contacted Hannagan, told him about Miami Beach and the problems they were facing, and asked if Hannagan could help. Hannagan, coming to Miami Beach for the first time in (it is believed) 1923, took one look around and knew that, indeed, he could “help.” And help is what Hannagan did, so much so that within just a few short years Miami Beach had eclipsed St. Augustine, Ormond and Palm Beach as the most glamorous and desirous winter destination in the country.
Life Magazine, in its Nov. 30, 1936 issue, devoted six full pages to Hannagan and what he did for Miami Beach, and it appears that that article is, today, the primary source for, on and about Steve Hannagan, as so little remains of his great work other than the material that this writer preserved when he cleaned out the old Miami Beach City Hall following the move to the new building.
Hannagan had, as his associates, Joe Copps (who became a famous writer in his own right), Robert Barron and Larry Smits, who was no relation to Jimmy. Beginning with the 1924 season, Hannagan began to work his magic. From sometime around Thanksgiving of that year, and starting on or about every Thanksgiving thereafter until St. Patrick’s Day or Easter in the late 1940s, when Hannagan’s contract was not renewed by the city, U.S. newspapers were filled with pictures of pretty girls in bathing suits. Sometimes the girls were shown solo, sometimes in groups of two or three or more, but, almost always, in glamorous poses and brief (for the time) bathing suits. It was, of course, the tag lines on the photos that made equally great impressions!
Hannagan, aided by a staff of 11 people, managed what he named Miami Beach News Service. For a number of years he was paid the princely sum of $25,000 a season, an amount the city fathers of the time considered money well spent for the unending front pages that Steve’s pictures would receive.
The captions were enough to entice anybody, whether a big, tough male enchanted by the beautiful girls he would surely meet on his visit to Miami Beach or the lovely lady of the house, who couldn’t wait to spend her vacation on the sands of Miami Beach in the dead of winter, with the beach temperature at 78 degrees while back home they were battling four feet of snow and 6 degrees above zero!
Next week: Part two of the Steve Hannagan story and more about his publicity, which, for all intents and purposes, created Miami Beach.