SMILING THROUGH THE APOCALYPSE Esquire in the 60s
The era of great and influential and stylish and witty and provocative magazines
is long gone, and our culture is the sadder for it. There have been many historic
publications over the years, but Esquire, the men's magazine, in the 1960s was the
greatest of them all in my humble opinion.
I often tell my AP students that five national, commercial publications regularly
offered quality fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in my lifetime. I'm not talking
about small journals with a readership of a few thousand, but magazines you
could buy on any rack at your local bookstore, airport kiosk, train station, etc.
Those five were the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy, and
Esquire. Only the New Yorker regularly offers all forms of great writing, though
I think it currently falls well short of what it published during its glory years.
Harper's and the Atlantic occasionally offer a short story or a poem or two, but
they largely focus on non-fiction. Playboy is a shadow of its former self. It is
inconceivable today to imagine Playboy introducing literary fiction like Fahrenheit
451, but that's where Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel first appeared.
Esquire had a glorious period in the 1930s, as the publisher of many works by
Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other literary lions. I was first exposed
to Esquire while riding the yellow school bus on the way to St. Patrick's School.
I remember my bus driver leafing through issues of an oversized magazine while
waiting for kids to board. Mostly I remember him admiring photos and illustrations
of glamorous women who seemed to have a low budget for clothing and who enjoyed
posing in sultry and provocative positions!
But in the early 60s, Harold Hayes assumed the editor's position and transformed it
into an MRI machine for modern culture. Its "takes" on politics, movies, music,
fashion, art, sports, science, technology, humor and so much more reinvented what
it meant to be a magazine. There were still some cheesecake photos of beautiful women,
but they no longer defined the publication. Below is the trailer for a documentary film
about this cultural juggernaut:
Esquire during that period is remembered for two things. First, is the introduction of a deeply
personal kind of journalism in which the writer often plays a part of the story itself. Prose stylists
like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe became characters in the transformative events about which
they wrote. I used to walk to my town's library three or four times a week during the period from
about 1963-1969. I rarely came home without two or three issues of Esquire along with the stack
of books I had chosen. I occasionally got the "hairy eyeball" from the librarian, who clearly viewed
me as too young to be reading such material, but my library card was as good as the next guy's.
I well remember, for instance, the six lengthy pieces from an embedded reporter in Vietnam, Michael Herr, whose war reportage would eventually be collected in a book entitled Dispatches. He also
wrote the Martin Sheen voiceovers in the film Apocalypse Now. I remember reading those pieces
many times. It was the greatest war writing I have ever read. Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson or the
Kandy Kolored, Tangerine-Flake, Streamline Baby! Truman Capote on In Cold Blood, his New Journalism
masterpiece. The greatest magazine writer of them all, Gay Talese, whose profile of Frank Sinatra even when Sinatra wouldn't sit for an interview, was entitled "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold". Here is the link
to what is generally considered the greatest story ever written for a magazine:
At the end of each year, Esquire would publish its Dubious Achievements Awards--poking fun at
the absurdities of our time and exposing the venal exponents of amorality and self-absorption.
It always included a photo of a guffawing Richard Nixon with the caption: "Why is this man
The second thing people remember about Esquire are the covers. Advertising guru George Lois
found new ways to photograph celebrities that created an instantaneous buzz. Look at some of
the most famous covers:
Muhammad Ali, prevented from boxing because of his stance on the Vietnam War was depicted as suffering the torment of St. Sebastian. A quote from a serviceman about the unintended atrocities of war.
Andy Warhol drowning in the Campbell's Soup can he made into a pop-art icon. Wiping away
the tears from the face of John F. Kennedy.
What may have been a direct assault on the senses of White America--a picture of
heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who was convicted of armed robbery before
he left prison and won the title---as Santa Claus. His was the most feared image
of Blackness to a society embroiled in race issues.
And what may have been the most provocative and disturbing cover of all. Here we have
Lt. Calley, who initiated the massacre of a small Vietnamese hamlet at My Lai, the most
notorious atrocity of the War in Vietnam, smiling while surrounded by troubled Asian children.
It was like a time bomb going off.
Here is a wonderful Vanity Fair story about Esquire in that period.
When eBay came into existence, one of the first things I did was purchase every issue from
that period to read them all again. Thank you, Harold Hayes!