Edwin Gifford Sr., a public relations pioneer who for many years had a house on Abraham’s Path, East Hampton, died on Sunday of complications of cholangeocarcinoma, a liver cancer, his family said. He was 88.
His professional life was in New York City but in East Hampton he cherished a quieter cadence in life. Saturdays were spent at the jetty at Maidstone Park fishing for snappers with bamboo poles. If the fishing was good a fire would be made and a breakfast of snapper and fried egg would be served up.
Sundays would be spent with his family and friends at Two Mile Hollow Beach, swimming, picnicking, playing backgammon, and reading The Times. Late summer would find him foraging for beach plums with batches of beach plum jelly cooked up the same day. The clam knife used on many of his foraging expeditions is in the permanent collection of the East Hampton Town Marine Museum on Bluff Road, Amagansett.
Mr. Gifford enjoyed driving his robin’s-egg blue World War II surplus Willys Jeep with family to the A and B Snowflake, the Besart gourmet shop, and out to Gosman’s Dock in Montauk.
In his work life, Mr. Gifford was a mainstay of the New York theater and food scene who pioneered the practice of cultural branding. He began his Broadway career as an actor in the comedy “Southern Exposure,” and later turned to directing for NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater.” Later, as a director for ABC Sports under Roone Arledge, he was given the freedom to innovate and introduced the music of David Amram to TV audiences.
He was an investor in the hit musical “Hair,” and his firm, Gifford-Wallace, handled the show’s public relations worldwide. Classically trained in theater at Carnegie-Mellon, then called Carnegie Tech, he interrupted his theater studies to serve as an Army combat engineer in World War II.
In the “Mad Men” era of big ad agencies or sole practitioner press agents, Gifford-Wallace was established in 1968 as one of the first boutique branding and strategy firms. It was constantly on the lookout for avant-garde causes and countercultural artists to introduce to a broader audience. Some of those included the playwright David Mamet, rock impresario Bill Graham, social critic and comedian Dick Gregory, Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, and John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame.
His business was housed at 1211 Park Avenue, in a five-story Georgian-style brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that served both as professional offices and a cultural salon. Mr. Gifford and his late wife and business partner, Michael Gifford, rarely left it for clients or meetings with media. Instead, their home became a destination for artists, performers, and reporters, where Mr. Gifford held court, not at a desk, but while cooking elaborate meals on a professional Garland restaurant range he had installed in his living room. (In 1995, The Times described Mr. Gifford as “an accomplished amateur cook” and shared his recipe for scallops.)
His clients, an eclectic crowd of artists and New York go-getters and business owners, enjoyed his hospitality and his joie de vivre, his family said. Those clients included Tennessee Williams, Josephine Baker, Tom Stoppard, Geoffrey Holder, Adam D. Tihany, Eudora Welty, and Eileen Ford.
Before the days of social media, Mr. Gifford incubated connections between influencers and clients to generate buzz and influence public opinion in a way he believed advertising could not. Despite the staid white shoe Park Avenue address, Mr. Gifford relished the edgy and transgressive. The more far out the client the better.
He championed Bill Graham when the West Coast music promoter first arrived in New York to rent a scruffy former movie theater in the East Village called the Fillmore East and then secured support from the administration of then-New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to bring the Grateful Dead — and Mr. Graham — to the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park for one of the cult band’s first New York performances. The activist Dick Gregory, in his 1976 autobiography, credited Mr. Gifford with helping to give him a national platform.
A pioneer in recognizing the moral power of cause marketing, in 1970 during the Nixon administration, Mr. Gifford arranged for the producer of “Hair” to step in to provide direct financial support to the United Nations when U.N. Secretary U Thant reported the organization was short monies needed for a global U.N. Youth gathering. This made front page news around the world and encouraged theater-goers to take the show’s message to heart. Mr. Gifford began sending the cast to perform at anti-war rallies.
Later, as U.S. casualties grew steeper in Vietnam, Mr. Gifford began making ad buys for the musical, not in the entertainment pages of newspapers, but rather on the obituary pages, as a reminder of the show’s serious message. In 1969, when CBS pulled an anti-war segment on the Smothers Brothers television show, the brothers turned to Mr. Gifford to make their case to the media.
When mainstream theater critics slammed David Mamet’s first Broadway show, “American Buffalo,” for vulgarity, Mr. Gifford went directly to a different generation — high school and college journalists across the city. He invited them to cover the show, meet with Mr. Mamet, and encouraged them to look beyond the profane language for the deeper meaning of Mr. Mamet’s social commentary.
“Godspell” and over two dozen other Broadway shows were represented by his agency. Long before the invention of the “pop up” store, Mr. Gifford gave the Theater Development Fund a boost by staging a temporary kiosk in Father Duffy Square that became so successful that it remains in use, known as TKTS.
Later, at the dawn of the age of disco, Mr. Gifford’s work in the early days of television came in handy when he offered branding expertise to the owners of a new nightclub. It turned out that he had worked as an assistant director on the CBS children’s show “Captain Kangaroo” when the space was called Studio 52. Mr. Gifford changed the name to match the street the studio was on.
He had worked with Jules Fisher on the original cast production of “Hair” and also “Lenny,” the play about the comedian Lenny Bruce, and he tapped Mr. Fisher to create lights and an innovative set design.
The Gifford/Wallace launch of Studio 54 is chronicled in the Anthony Haden-Guest book “The Last Party,” but Mr. Gifford himself saw the nightclub only as a footnote. According to a 1978 piece in New York magazine about Mr. Gifford and his wife, “Actually, Studio 54 was merely the latest ‘phenomenological piece’ in the Giffords’ shop.”
He helped to start Food and Wine magazine as an adviser to Michael and Ariane Batterbery and Gifford-Wallace took on Cue magazine. And he began consulting television for Westinghouse Broadcasting, WBZ-TV in Boston, and New York ‘s Channel Five, then called WNYW.
Never a conformist, Mr. Gifford could not resist tweaking his corporate clients. As a consultant to Channel Five, he initiated a kite-flying extravaganza in Central Park. Mr. Gifford said in the Aug. 22, 1988 edition of The New York Times: “The whole idea is to get people to turn off their TV sets and go outside.” Despite the quote, he kept the account.
Other clients included the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, and South Street Seaport.
He was a member of the Players, the club founded by Mark Twain and Edwin Booth overlooking Gramercy Park. After the unexpected death of his wife, Michael, in 1988, he retired. Their files were acquired by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
He was born on Aug. 9, 1924, in Lawrence to Hyman Ginsburg and the former Flora Lewis.
In the 1960s, after a number of fatal accidents at unmarked Long Island Rail Road crossings in East Hampton, he organized a protest. He “borrowed” a casket and placed it on the tracks at the Amagansett station while young local mothers held picket signs demanding safety. Spot news photos of the smashed casket hit the front pages of the New York metro papers and the next day William Ronin, the chairman of the L.I.R.R., announced a change of policy and the crossing bars were installed directly afterward.
In East Hampton, where he had his summer house, he was an early convert organic gardening, harvesting seaweed from the beach as mulch, and keeping a compost heap. In the late 1970s he grew marijuana there after reading a Time magazine article about an herbicide called Paraquat that was being sprayed on pot plants in Mexico. He did so, he said, because his children were teenagers at the time.
Those teenagers are now adults — Mary-Elizabeth Gifford of Washington D.C., a former reporter for The East Hampton Star, Edwin Gifford Jr. of Washington, D.C., a former photographer for The Star, and Tierney Horne of London. Mr. Gifford is also survived by his wife, Joan Thorne Gifford, and five grandchildren.
Two step-children and four step-grandchildren all of San Antonio, Tex., where he kept a winter house with his wife, survive as well.