Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lew Brown and the Sunshine Offer

Lew B. Brown
It was the summer of 1927. Lew Brown, the legendary publisher of St. Petersburg’s afternoon newspaper, the Evening Independent, was at the eye doctor. He needed more than glasses. He had glaucoma in one eye and a growing cataract in the other. He might lose his eyesight.

At 65, the hard-driving editor, had a decision to make – would he give up his career? Retire? It would be tough for the energetic booster of St. Petersburg, originator of the celebrated Sunshine Offer that declared the Evening Independent would be free any day the sun didn’t shine in St. Petersburg, the man who coined the phrase “Sunshine City.”

After all, he was the man who had pushed for making the Pinellas Peninsula a separate county from Hillsborough and then pushed to get a paved road built to connect Upper Pinellas to St. Petersburg. He was the man who had organized the Pinellas Home Guard when World War I began (earning him the rank of major), the man who campaigned for building a electric new pier when the old one was severely damaged in a hurricane.

He was a man of decision. He decided to officially turn over the leadership of his newspaper to his son, Chauncey, who essentially had been running the newspaper for years anyway. He and his wife Mollie left on vacation. They went to Canada, then to Moosehead Lake, Maine. He hiked the mountains, went on a canoe outing with his chauffeur-houseboy, fell into cold water, rescued the chauffeur-houseboy, went missing in the wilderness, unsuccessfully tried to walk logs like a lumberjack, got rescued – and, finally, wished he’d never left St. Petersburg and his beloved Evening Independent.

By Thanksgiving that year he was back at his old job, representing the paper in the community. He was a speaker at the dedication of the new pier. But the Florida Boom was over and real estate advertising started slipping. Still, there were bright spots. In December 1927, there was a celebration of 365 days of sunshine in St. Petersburg. There was a big parade. The next day it rained and the Evening Independent published a free edition.

Brown’s granddaughter, Marion Zaiser, tells this story in her biography of her grandfather, The Beneficent Blaze: With Brown’s eyesight not as strong as it had been, his wife Mollie started reading to him. One night after she had been reading him some poetry, she said, “Mr. Brown, I do wish you’d have a collection of your poems published.” Brown had written poetry for many years. As he worked as  printer's apprentice, he had poems published in various newspaper. Mollie had collected scraps of paper on which he had scribbled verses over the years.

First edition published in 1928.
In 1928, A Bit of Lace and Other Poems was published. A copy of the first edition is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

One of the poems in the book is "Sunshine City Sunshine (A Song)." According to Zaiser, St. Petersburg’s appellation as the Sunshine City came about this way: Shortly after Brown bought the paper in 1909, he was working one day when his printer brought him page proofs showing that there was some space to fill.

Brown had put aside a poem he had written three months earlier, after a fishing trip to Pass-A-Grille. It was titled “When All The Time Is Summer.”

Brown didn’t think that would do. He wanted something catchier. He stared out the window at the midmorning glare, thinking the sand in the railroad bed must be scorching. The sun was everywhere. He scrawled an idea across the top of a sheet: The Sunshine City.

The reaction was immediate: most people loved it. Other Florida newpapers chided him a bit. He figured he was onto something. He tried unsuccessfully to copyright the phrase. He started using it in news stories and editorials.

Sunshine City Sunshine (Click to enlarge).
Once there were rumors the Barnum and Bailey Circus would make its winter headquarters in Tampa. (It eventually settled in Sarasota.) Brown ordered a feature story about P.T. Barnum. When he read the story, a quotation of “the world’s greatest showman” resonated with him. “Any man who should connect his advertising with the weather would make a ten-strike.”

Brown hit upon an idea. To show people everywhere that the city had more days of sunshine than anywhere else, Brown was willing to bet his paper on it. He vowed to give away the Evening Independent any day the sun didn’t shine in St. Petersburg.

People tried to persuade him of the lunacy of the idea, predicting he’d go bankrupt. Exclaimed his wife, Mollie, “Mr. Brown, I do believe you’ve had a sun stroke!”

But Brown went ahead with the offer despite the dire warnings. Six weeks after he announced the offer, Brown had to make good on it. A tropical storm from the Caribbean cast dark skies over St. Petersburg – for two days in a row. Brown wondered at times if he’d made a terrible mistake and prayed for guidance.

In the end, people got extra papers and sent them to their friends in the north. The New York Herald-Tribune ran a Sunday feature about the Sunshine Offer. “That’ll be reprinted in nearly all the nation’s big city newspapers Some fourteen million subscribers will see it, ” Brown said. Mail arrived addressed only to “Evening Independent, Sunshine City.”

Brown’s gamble had paid off.

The local Board of Trade produced a brochure that included Brown’s “Sunshine City Sunshine” printed on the back cover. Brown’s boosterism had caught on . St. Petersburg was officially The Sunshine City.

Major Lew B. Brown thanked God.

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