Public Relations In Canada

Pioneer of Canadian Public Relations

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James A. Cowan 1901-1978

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 University of Toronto 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 James A Cowan as he married Grace Williams. The wedding took place in Toronto on January 12, 1924 at the Hemingway’s apartment 19 at the Cedarville Mansions located at 1599 Bathurst Street in Toronto.


Home of Ernest Hemingway, Hadley Hemingway & son Jack in 1923-1924


Memories behind door #19, recently identified as the apartment of the Ernest Hemingway family in Toronto.

This is the room of the Cowan-Williams wedding where Ernest Hemingway was the best man.

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). He incorporated his public relations company Editorial Services Limited in 1930. He went on to represent and advise 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 Iron 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 1950, James A. Cowan was elected president of the National Film Society of Canada.  He was the first president of the organization as it was renamed to The Canadian Film Institute.  He was the President from 1950-1962 and as an honourary director until 1966.

Over the years, he acquired the rights to the Madame Tussaud Waxworks for Canada and he was the one who brought it to Niagara Falls. To generate publicity, he arranged for the wax figure of Queen Victoria in full regalia to be flown in the first class seat of a commercial flight from London England to Toronto.  Many passengers were startled by the presence of her majesty looking so lifelike as they boarded the plane.

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 Mary Jolliffe who went on to a storied career in serving the arts community in Canada. The day to day work was done 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.

James A. Cowan was one of the founders and early promoters of the Toronto Variety Club in Canada which began in 1945 combining the entertainment world with the support of children's charities.

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.

Cowan had a great interest in promoting adult education and literacy. He worked with the Canadian Association for Adult Education led by J. R. Kidd of The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on many different projects.

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.

James A Cowan was, as one writer described him, the “acknowledged master mind of the public-relations business” at age 44. At age 60, another article headlined that he was the “Dean of Canada’s PR Men.” The article noted that, “When Cowan picks up that telephone, it seems he can reach almost any level of business, government, or the communications industry. His clients include some of Canada’s most intriguing enterprises and his relationship with many of them stays unknown.” The writer referred to him being known as a “grey eminence” in the international business world.

He died on September 9, 1978 at Bracebridge, Ontario and is buried in Gravenhurst – not surprisingly in his beloved Muskoka.


James A Cowan was a grandfather of Grant Fairley


Excerpted from

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.

Bill Schiller, Foreign Affairs Writer at the Toronto Star has updated us with new discoveries on the Toronto Star and Hemingway Toronto years.

Greg Heal and Corinne Kewin have been very kind in showing us the Hemingway Apartments including inside #19, newly identified as the apartment of the Hemingways. This is the room of the Cowan-Williams wedding where Ernest Hemingway was the best man.


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

Callaghan, Morley (1963) That Summer in Paris : Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Others. New York, NY: Coward-McCann

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