Mr. Kosner's Esquire came in a brilliant scarlet shopping bag containing a matching scarlet box within which wrapped in ribbon were a copy of his magazine plus a new paperback of Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." Art Cooper's June issue of GQ came in a paper envelope and contained only the magazine plus a two-page PR sheet.
GQ ran 256 pages; Esquire only 132. With all the ribbons and trappings of the Esquire delivery system, you think of the old Texas line about the boastful cowboy: "He's all hat and no cattle."
And to sort of rub it in, an article in the new GQ on insomnia began: "You could, of course, count sheep, drink warm milk, take a hot bath or read Esquire. . ."
Well, they don't have Ed Kosner to kick around anymore.
But can anyone resuscitate Esquire? Clay Felker (who also tried and failed at it some years back) used to say that every magazine has its time and its season, and then you move on. Ed is only the latest in a series of talented editors and executives (the monthly has had five publishers in five years!) who've tackled the Esquire problem (is there any other way to phrase it?) without success. Circulation continues to fall, ad pages to slump. Mr. Kosner had previously edited Newsweek with middling results and New York, for 13 years, with considerable success. Because of a right-of-first refusal clause, he was paid handsomely (several million, it was said) when Rupert Murdoch sold New York, and one assumes the Hearst people will pay off the remainder of his contract.
But was Ed the right choice in 1993? I didn't think so then and said so. How can a man in his late 50s effectively decide what 30- year-olds want to read and to know and to buy? I've been an editor, but I wouldn't have had the foggiest. Maybe the business of age is all wet and I'm being simplistic. After all, how does Art Cooper at GQ perform his high wire act while others can't?
Esquire in recent years has been a confused, muddled publication, unsteady on its feet, unsure of its role. While guys you never heard of came up with new ideas for men's magazines and launched them, Men's Health for one, Men's Journal for another, Esquire didn't seem to have a clue. Health and fitness had become something of a national craze, on which entrepreneurial publishers got rich and Esquire didn't get it. Mr. Kosner had nearly four years in the job and couldn't get it right. Nor, necessarily, do plen-ty of others. At Conde Nast, Details is still struggling to find out just what it is and what it might become.
But Esquire was special. It had a noble lineage. Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Arnold Gingrich and all that. Although the pretentious packaging is costly and silly, the idea of assigning a Ron Rosenbaum to track down the reclusive J.D. Salinger is terrific. "Catcher" is a great American novel.
So, Randy Rothenberg takes over. He is a wonderful writer, smart as hell and is the right age. It's absurd to carp that he used to write the ad column in The New York Times. So what? Who cares if he wrote speeches for Hearst Magazines President Cathie Black? What bothers me is the shilly-shallying of the announcement. Awkwardly, even ineptly, Mr. Rothenberg is installed only as "acting editor."
Of all the dumb things to do with a struggling book, this ranks right up there. If you are a client or an agency thinking about spending big bucks in Esquire for the rest of this year, aren't you going to hold off? Wait until they decide who the permanent editor will be and where he or she will be taking the magazine? Imagine yourself Valerie Salembier calling on Ogilvy this morning or having lunch with Ralph Lauren or flying to Detroit to see the Chrysler folks. She's the publisher; presumably she speaks for the magazine with its advertisers and agencies. But what can she tell them? That Mr. Rothenberg is in a tryout period? That maybe someone else out there, some new genius, will be hired eventually?
If that's Valerie's message to Madison Avenue I can guess at the response: Fine, Ms. Salembier, why don't you come back when it's all been sorted out.
And where does that leave Randy Rothenberg in attracting and dealing with writers. An "acting" editor doesn't have quite the leverage, does he?
There are wonderful writers on the staff over there and yet another fresh redesign and a grand tradition of distinguished writing and editing and a powerful publishing empire behind it. Can they save Esquire? Sure. Will they?