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There Goes (Varoom!) Esquire Magazine
New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 13, 1995

 

IT WASN'T PRETTY, FOLKS, BUT DIDN'T WE HAVE FUN? Esquire in the Sixties.
by Carol Polsgrove. Illustrated. 335 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $27.50.

IF YOU CAN, try to remember the gimmicks and the fun. All those "power charts," like the one in 1963 on "The Structure of the American Literary Establishment," with the agent Candida Donadio canonized at its "Hot Center" and editors and book reviewers for The New York Times consigned to "Squaresville." The run-on, whiz-bang headlines: "Is It Too Late for You to Be Pals With a Black Panther?" The annual Dubious Achievement Awards. Eccentric close-ups like "A Day in the Life of Chairman Mao," illustrated with Mao Zedong in a tub with a rubber duckie. Gadfly covers like the one showing a mean Sonny Liston as Santa Claus. Not to mention the cover with the college kid in a combat helmet and the line: "If you think the war in Vietnam is hell, you ought to see what's happening on campus, baby."

If you don't remember, not to worry. For anyone still interested in Esquire in the 1960s, Carol Polsgrove has put together an overindulgent but lively account of how the magazine, a "hot book" of that triumphant and disastrous decade, cheekily tried -- and eventually failed -- to be funny about it.

The man who had most to do with this was Esquire's editor at the time, Harold T. P. Hayes. One of those brilliant provincials who periodically take big cities by storm, Hayes, who died in 1989 at 62, was an editor whose reach exceeded everyone's grasp, including his own. He came to Esquire by way of North Carolina, Wake Forest and the United States Marine Corps. In 1959, just before he was given command of Esquire by its founding editor, Arnold Gingrich, Hayes read James Thurber's memoir of Harold Ross and found the fabled editor of The New Yorker wanting. Ross, he thought, spent too much time bleeding over his writers, "reminding them to wear their overshoes . . . and playing practical jokes on Alexander Woollcott." A magazine editor, Hayes insisted, ought to address his times. "He is not placed on earth to serve selflessly the artistic pretensions of his writers."

Hayes hoped to "shake people up" and help Americans get a better grip on what was really going on around them. In a rare lapse into sheer fluff, Ms. Polsgrove, who teaches journalism at Indiana University, describes one aspect of Esquire's attitude as "irreverent, sassy and smart." Hayes preferred "smart-assedness founded on a rational base." At times, spitball sociology was more like it.

Ironically, it was not the gimmicks or provocative Hayes projects like "California Evil" (after the Charles Manson case) or "The Final Decline and Total Collapse of the American Avant-Garde" that made Esquire memorable. It was the writing. Ms. Polsgrove does not make enough of the serious fiction that this mass-audience commercial magazine managed to keep publishing, or of the powerful essays like Rebecca West's remarkable reflections on "The New Meaning of Treason." She does note that Esquire broke away from the gentlemanly beige prose recommended by Strunk and White to pursue often merciless fly-on-the-wall reporting served up with a twist and employing social satire, gross hyperbole, intimately observed personal details and dramatic dialogue to make its pieces work. Two have been justly celebrated. The first: Norman Mailer turned loose on the 1960 Democratic National Convention; his piece, "Superman Comes to the Supermart," opened up new rhetorical vistas in political reporting, not all of them healthy. The second was a stylistic bombshell: Tom Wolfe's famous notes from a California car show, sent as a letter to an Esquire editor, Byron Dobell, which became "There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH!) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM)."

Whether this was the New Journalism, or literary journalism with more panache, it required a lot of writing talent. Hayes and Esquire had a genius for turning novelists into journalists, for matching (or provocatively mismatching) writer and subject -- William F. Buckley Jr. on sports; Simone de Beauvoir on Brigitte Bardot. The magazine encouraged contrary points of view, sometimes even within the same issue. But once the writer had agreed to a subject, Hayes fought for the space and the freedom to let him have his say. His notes to writers make some of the best reading in Ms. Polsgrove's book.

It is hard for an outsider to communicate what it is like to put out a magazine. Ms. Polsgrove includes familiar names (among a legion of others): Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Garry Wills, Michael Herr, Malcolm Muggeridge, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, as well as Hayes' gifted colleagues, like Byron Dobell and Clay Felker. Ms. Polsgrove relates some memorable items on how Esquire got the story, some far flung, some not. Tiny details stick in the mind: an Esquire team working on a literary issue finally caught up with Allen Ginsberg in India, up to his neck in drugs and Ganges water. Rising above principle, Hayes agreed to pay Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) $150 in cash if he would let Tom Wolfe tag along during a New York visit. A greater bargain was Michael Herr, who approached the magazine in 1967 merely hoping for accreditation to Vietnam. "I got him a visa and advanced him $500, then forgot about him," Hayes recalled. Eventually, sections from his book of Vietnam reportage, "Dispatches," ran in Esquire.

"It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, but Didn't We Have Fun?" suffers from a lack of discrimination. Ms. Polsgrove seems to view Hayes and the 60s with unmixed adulation. And as with any magazine, the paper trail of interoffice memos that survives tends to deal with editorial messes. We learn a lot about William F. Buckley Jr.'s settlement with Esquire after the magazine published Gore Vidal's unfounded charge that Mr. Buckley was anti-Semitic, an assertion that Hayes should have deleted. We learn too much about "An American Dream," Norman Mailer's trashy little novel written as a stunt, month by month, which smuggled into Esquire an account of the narrator exhilarated by killing his wife and sodomizing her maid. Hayes had contractual grounds for refusing to print this; instead he had Esquire's fiction editor, Rust Hills, obfuscate the prose so that readers might overlook what was going on.

HAYES' judgment grew shakier as the 60s rolled on. By then people did not need Esquire to tell them what was really happening to the United States -- the only stories were about war and race and student revolution, none of them much suited to cool-hearted satire. Esquire's nonpartisan stance got lost in the shuffle. People were being shook up all the time; doing it in a surprising way got harder, required sillier, sometimes shameful editorial ploys. In 1968 Hayes sent William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet to Chicago as part of Esquire's team to report on the Democratic Convention; Genet speculated about the private parts of Mayor Richard J. Daley's policemen. In 1969 Esquire had celebrities interviewing themselves, as in Rod Steiger's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Me." By 1970 Hayes was running a three-part story, "The Confessions of Lt. Calley," by John Sack, an Esquire regular who had not only become a pal of Lieut. William Calley but shared his agent and negotiated an expensive package for them both with Esquire and Viking Press. Part 1, with a cover of Lieutenant Calley posed with four Asian children, ran in November 1970, shortly before his court-martial began.

Hayes left Esquire nearly two and a half years later. Ms. Polsgrove plays it as a classic case: lowbrow publishers concerned only with advertising pages succeed in clipping the wings of brilliant high-flying editor. She is entitled to that view. In any case, her book provides a better ending, at least for this reviewer, who has fooled around with headlines for 30 years and more. In a fond afterword, a former Esquire editor, Tom Hedley, by then a successful screenwriter, reports on a lunch with Hayes years later. As they are parting, Hayes suddenly says: "You know, I rejected your title for the Mao piece. . . . 'Easy on the Mao, Please. . . .' "

"You sure I wrote that?" said Mr. Hedley.

Said Hayes: "Funny how you remember the really awful lines."