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Architect of 'Esquire' Golden Age Blasts Today's 'Butt-Kissing' Covers

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FAJARDO, Puerto Rico ( -- George Lois, the man who created the iconic and much-lauded Esquire magazine covers of the ‘60s “Golden Age of Journalism,” spent his lunchtime speech at the American Magazine Conference “dressing down the illustrious magazine establishment of America” for its “boring, adoring, butt-kissing magazine covers.”

Photo: Doug Goodman
George Lois regaled the AMC audience with tales of his famed 'Esquire' covers before turning fire on the current magazine industry.

audio bug Full text of George Lois' speech

ALSO SEE classic George Lois magazine cover designs.

In an address laced with equal amounts of profanity and insight, he told a room full of the industry’s top editors, publishers and publishing company presidents that “for the last 40 years, the magazine community has never understood the overwhelming message of my covers: that the editorial content and imagery of a great magazine belongs to the passionate writer, the iconoclastic graphic designer and heroic editor -- and not to the outraged advertisers or the quivering sales departments or the celebrity flavor of the month whose butt you’re kissing, or to your readers, and certainly not to cranky letter writers.”

A scathing critique
Mr. Lois’ scathing critique of the state of magazine journalism came just one day after the American Society of Magazine Editors unveiled its top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years. Three of Mr. Lois’ Esquire covers made it into the top 10: At No. 3, the April 1968 cover depicting Muhammad Ali reenacting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes who was pierced by arrows; At No. 5, the May 1969 image of Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup; and at No. 8, the type-only cover of October 1966, “Oh my God -– we hit a little girl.”

Mr. Lois took the audience through a series of some of his most provocative covers, including his debut, which showed heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, an 8 to 1 favorite, lying alone in a boxing ring, left for dead, seemingly killed at the hands of challenger Sonny Liston. The cover was to appear the week before the October 1962 championship fight, and Esquire publisher Arnold Gingrich was “appalled that my cover was calling the fight a week before fight night, and said so in his publisher’s page, denouncing my prediction, my design style and my hubris,” Mr. Lois told attendees.

Editor Harold Hayes, described by Mr. Lois as a “trombone-playing Southern liberal who was also a Marine reserve officer ... a rare bird,” truly believed in the cover and fought to keep it. When the issue hit the newsstands, the prediction became the laughing stock of the sports world, until Liston destroyed Patterson in the first round. Newsstand sales doubled, and were at the time the highest in the magazine’s history.

Mr. Lois would later turn to Sonny Liston again, when Mr. Hayes pleaded for a Christmas cover that the ad sales guys could understand.

Days of racial tensions
“So in the days of rising racial tensions and Black Revolution, I decided to depict America’s first black Santa: Sonny Liston, the meanest [expletive] in the world, the last person anybody would want coming down their chimney on Christmas Eve. Respirators were rushed to Esquire's ad offices,” Mr. Lois related.

When the business side clamored for “a girlie cover,” Mr. Lois gave them “a naked dame, squashed in a garbage can, to illustrate a story headlined 'The New American Woman: Through at 21.' ‘Well pal,’ was Harold’s reaction, ‘You sure didn’t disappoint me.’”

One of George Lois' best-remembered 'Esquire' covers is that of the April 1968 issue, featuring Muhammad Ali posed as Saint Sebastian. The third-century Roman was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows as punishment for his conversion to Christianity.

The martyred Muhammad Ali cover also put Hayes in “deep, deep water.” Ali had just been stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to prison for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. “Harold put his fine Carolinian nose against my Bronx schnoz and put his Dixie neck on the chopping block once again. The Esquire cover of a man that redefined American heroism hung in thousands of college dorm rooms and became an instant iconic symbol against the war that would claim more than 58,000 American dead before our last choppers fled Saigon,” Mr. Lois said.

An innocuous but hated cover
But the cover that caused the most trouble was one that at first glance was seemingly innocuous -- a smiling American soldier surrounded by Vietnamese children. The soldier, however, was Lieutenant Calley, who at the time the cover appeared was awaiting trial for his role in ordering the My Lai massacre. With the children on his lap and hanging onto his shoulders, the grinning officer seems oblivious to any connection between the children killed in My Lai attack and the ones he was posing with.

“I’m always asked why in the world he stood still for it, and I admit I used my credibility as a Korean vet to con the infamous army officer. My subversive message was that Calley’s assumed lack of guilt was a stupid innocence shared by those that insisted that America, then as now, never ‘cuts and runs.’ After receiving the cover, Harold called, as he always did after the smoke cleared. With a deep sigh, he gave me the verdict: ‘Most detested it, George. But the smart ones love it.’ ‘You going to chicken out?’ I asked. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘We’ll lose advertisers and we’ll lose subscribers, but I have no choice. I’ll never sleep again if I don’t muster the courage to run it.’”

A product of the '60s
Mr. Lois then went on to tell the group, who laughed and cheered as each of his sly witty covers were projected behind him, that the “Esquire of the ‘60s was a culture-buster -- inciting outrage with a dozen anti-Vietnam covers that infuriated the establishment and inspired the idealistic younger generation. Hayes et al dealt with the torrid issues of race, war and politics blasting the silly pretentions of pop culture and deflating the synthetic images of celebrity.”

But he then moved on to a critique of what shows up on today’s newsstand, and he was anything but kind. “The ubiquity of the celebrity profile in popular magazines since the Hayes era continues to be fawning psychobabble based on a 15-minute interview over café latte, glorified by yet another adoring, boring kiss-ass magazine cover that sits unsold at the newsstands.” He then quoted Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, who wrote, “Although the audacious covers Lois designed for Esquire in the ‘60s are lauded as one of the marathon achievements in magazine history -- the industrywide testimonials are nothing but talk -- because today, more than ever, magazines have never played it safer.”

“It was provocative, it made people think,” said John Fox Sullivan, president of Atlantic Media about Mr. Lois’ address. Asked if it would make an impact or could inspire real change, however, he said “it would be really hard for any magazine” to emulate the old Esquire. “Magazine publishing is a corporate world now, there are commercial reasons it couldn’t happen, but I also wonder if you have a public that would even respond to it. It’s not the ‘60s.”

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