AJR  Books
From AJR,   October 1995

The Golden Era of a Magazine with Attitude   

It Wasn't Pretty, Folks,
But Didn't We Have Fun?
Esquire in the Sixties

By Carol Polsgrove
W.W. Norton

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


It Wasn't Pretty, Folks,
But Didn't We Have Fun?
Esquire in the Sixties
By Carol Polsgrove
W.W. Norton
335 pages; $27.50

What's the most unforgettable magazine article you've seen in the past year? The most flamboyant cover?

Hard questions for most of us. Despite game efforts by Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, these are pretty dry days, at least compared to those recounted in this spirited book on Esquire in the '60s.

For those who were around then, many of Esquire's quarter-century-old signature pieces remain more memorable: Tom Wolfe's new journalistic delirium on race car legend Junior Johnson, William Buckley's irresistibly precious feuding with Gore Vidal, Michael Herr's harrowing Vietnam coverage. We can still picture Diane Arbus' haunting images and George Lois' in-your-face covers. Boxer Sonny Liston was a mean Santa Claus; Richard Nixon, eyes shut, waited grimly as the hands of his makeup artists closed in.

Magazines tend to run in hot and cold cycles, and this is the story of a fiery one. Esquire had attitude before attitude came into vogue.

"For many of us who lived through that time," Carol Polsgrove writes perceptively, "history pressed closely on our lives."

ýne of editor Harold Hayes' sharpest tactics was to goad this civic edginess to its ironic and exotic limits. Esquire set the age's icons on a collision course and gleefully exposed the result. Gloria Steinem wrote on Jacqueline Kennedy, Norman Mailer on Marilyn Monroe, James Baldwin on Malcolm X, Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio. Robert Benton, Peter Bogdanovich, David Halberstam, Terry Southern, Ken Kesey and many others flung their prodigious talents at topics from baton twirling to racism.

Polsgrove, an Indiana University journalism professor, draws heavily on the papers of the late Hayes, along with her own interviews of key living figures, to recreate a rousing period in magazine journalism.

Besides enjoying her pop culture history, journalists may want to chew on a couple of the side points.

First, Polsgrove shows that Esquire, for all its status as a hot book of its time, never settled securely into the role. Internally, the character of the magazine remained under debate. Hayes himself once described it as "an immensely commercial magazine that was constrained by all sorts of silly, stupid, in-house laws."

"If the circulation goes down three months in a row, we're out of here," he told someone.

So, alongside Mailer and Arbus ran page after page of so-called service copy, advertiser-driven prattle over fashion, travel, liquor, hi-fi equipment and the like. To the end, Hayes found himself battling for control over Esquire's personality, and the battle led to his downfall.

In contrast to newspapers, which tend to be collective enterprises, magazines are much more commonly the shadow of one dominant personality. Repeatedly, Polsgrove shows the difference Hayes made at Esquire.

A Marine veteran, a Southern Baptist preacher's son, Hayes took over as Esquire editor in 1963, edging out Clay Felker for the role. He was far more a big-picture kind of editor than a wordsmith. His style, in contrast to Harold Ross and William Shawn of The New Yorker, was not so much to indulge and stroke writers as to challenge them.

An editor, Hayes wrote, "is not placed on earth to serve selflessly the artistic pretensions of his writers: he is here to get in touch with the reader."

Hayes' touchstone genius was his vision — the great conductor's flair for melding many different sensations into a trademark presentation. "Hayes could always imagine..how things would turn out," according to Polsgrove. "He could see an idea — visualize the magazine in advance. He could see how to put together a mix of very different pieces that would hold together and seem distinctively Esquire."

When he resigned over "irreconcilable differences" in 1973, the magazine began a drift that continues to this day. "The owners found that they had lost Esquire. It had been his after all."

If the above judgment rings a bit overdramatic, its tone characterized the book: respectful nearing reverential. Polsgrove goes easy, at least in my opinion, on Esquire's patronizing attitude toward women, and she never really gets a handle on how much of its provocative personality was simply for shock value and how much reflected a deeper attempt to come to grips with an astonishingly perplexing age.

In general, though, this is a useful and readable account, capturing the spirit of a time and a magazine we still miss. That, of course, is no dubious achievement.