‘Smiling Through the Apocalypse:’ Esquire’s Journalism in the 1960s

Smiling Through the Apocalypse

For the December 1963 issue of Esquire, famed editor Harold Hayes gave art director George Lois a simple seasonal request, make it "Christmasy." Magazine industry standard to be sure, but Hayes knew Lois would come up with something to turn the "merry merry" on its head. As Lois says in the documentary "Smiling Through the Apocalypse," at a time when the civil rights movement was exploding, "I wanted to rub white America’s nose in shit, so I showed Sonny Liston, heavyweight champion of the world, wearing a Santa Claus hat. A terrible guy, a criminal, a real hood…" Liston had done time for armed robbery, so going close-up on a dark-skinned black man decked out in Kris Kringle attire was more than pushing the envelope, it was throwing piles of Christmas presents onto an incinerator. It cost Esquire a number of advertisers, was called out by columnists and politicians alike, and Sports Illustrated said that Satan Santa was “the last man on Earth America wanted to see coming down the chimney.” According to Lois, Hayes’s response was simply "Yeaahhhhhh…"

All readers, and writers, of magazine feature stories over the last half century -- long before #longform was a thing -- have been influenced by Hayes. The work that took place on his watch was profound and the sheer writing talent, banging away on Smith-Coronas in between drags on their Pall Malls, astounds. You know the names: Norman Mailer (who had an epic beef with the magazine over Supermart v. Supermarket), Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Michael Herr, and Nora Ephron (who is her typical charming-as-hell self in one of her final on-screen interviews) to name but a few. Scott Raab, an Esquire writer since 1997, remembers picking up his first issues at the tail end of the Hayes run. "It was the early 1970s, I was twenty-one, had dropped out of college, and was selling shoes with platform heels in Cleveland. But I knew I wanted to be a writer," he says. "I hadn’t considered magazine journalism, my role model back then was Charles Bukowski, but reading Esquire made me feel like I was taking a seminar taught by smarter people and smarter writers. In retrospect, it meant a lot."

The Lois-designed covers and the interior magazine artwork jump out in "Smiling Through the Apocalypse:" audacious, bold, experimental, fearless and in-your-face in a way magazines rarely are anymore. I’d seen (and read) the "Confessions of Lt. Calley," but it’s still staggering they featured a man, about to be convicted of mass murder at My Lai, huddled up with a group of Asian children, flashing his devil-may-care pearly whites. It’s the danse macabre of Sears family portraits. The behind-the-scenes on how the Calley story came to be is one of the highlights of "Smiling Through the Apocalypse," a treasure trove of inside-baseball stuff for anyone who loves magazines.

SMILING THROUGH THE APOCALYPSE TRAILER from Tom Hayes on Vimeo.

The section on Gay Talese's groundbreaking contributions to the magazine is particularly fascinating. Talese talk about his initial reluctance to do a story on Frank Sinatra, his willingness to pack it in when the subject wouldn’t cooperate, and finally his decision to stick with it, talking to nearly everyone but Ol’ Blue Eyes. Amusingly, "Frank Sinatra Had A Cold," chosen in-house as the best Esquire piece of all-time in 2003, might never have been written if Hayes hadn’t encouraged Talese to run up his  expense account at the posh Beverly Wilshire. Gathering yarn poolside for a few weeks on the company dime, without talking to the Hollywood star the story is ostensibly about? The sixties really were different, man.

"I was at GQ for five years and we were kicking ass. Esquire wasn’t much of a rival on the page, but they still had the lineage," says Raab. "In '97, I came over with [editor-in-chief] David Granger -- who has done a fabulous job at Esquire -- but already, print was dying. Not like where it’s at now, but not having been part of that golden era makes me a little sad and wistful."

Directed by Hayes’s son Tom, "Shining Through the Apocalypse" is an engaging time capsule that shows how culturally relevant Esquire was, but also one that takes the superiority of the Harold Hayes years ("He who edits best, edits least") as decided law. Design-wise, it’s case closed, because as former editor Lee Eisenberg ruefully points out, magazines are now dominated by whatever celebrity is guaranteed the cover. There are occasional noteworthy/newsworthy exceptions -- kudos, Caitlyn -- but the stack of Esquires on my desk is all cover lines and glamour shots. The only "arty" one sports the naked likes of Nick Offerman and Chelsea Handler, which is amusing, but isn’t exactly an exiled Muhammad Ali depicted as the martyr St. Sebastian.

The words, however, are the ultimate thing, and they keep flowing. The stories are no longer topic-A at Manhattan cocktail parties, but it doesn’t mean 21st-century magazine scribes aren’t writing the hell out of them. A few days after screening "Shining Through the Apocalypse," I toured the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, two separate entities that don’t always work in concert with one another. The layout finds the museum squeezed into a tight crowded area that isn’t particularly conducive to comprehending all our recent history. It’s fine for snapshots, but certain historical aspects are woefully underserved. The story of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, told in a brief section at the museum’s end, is one of American exceptionalism and New York City triumphalism. Except, it’s not. The actual story of One WTC is way more fascinating, and way more authentically American, because it’s steeped in power, money, greed, cops, concrete, and a cacophony of New Yorkers, of all strata, of all agendas, whose lives were forever altered on that terrible morning. One WTC’s construction had all the glad-handing, back-biting, cash-grabbing, personality-clashing, politician-chasing, everyman-working, Phoenix-rising genius that makes this country a glorious mess.

Just how did I know more about the decade-plus building process than the museum itself? I read all about it. In Esquire. For “The Rebuilding,” Raab wrote ten features over ten years in total about the new World Trade Center. From an empty hole in Lower Manhattan to the top of its moronically symbolic 1,776-foot spire, it’s the kind of immersive, expansive, updated, in-depth, you-are-there series that magazines, and only magazines, do best.

"The final World Trade Center installment ran in the January-February 2015 issue, a project I embarked on in 2005 with editor Mark Warren, who is as brilliant as anyone who ever worked for Harold Hayes," says Raab. "The WTC series didn’t get a lot of traction, didn’t land with the impact I’d hoped for, but that doesn’t change the more salient point. If the commitment is there all the way up to the corner office, not only can the same kind of work be done in theory, we’ve done it in practice."

Raab wasn’t the only Esquire writer I’ve considered at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. There’s a heartbreaking, near-unbearable nook dedicated to those who jumped from the Twin Towers. I recognized one of the photographs as the centerpiece of "The Falling Man," Tom Junod’s unforgettable rumination on a lone man dropping out of the sky. By coincidence, I’d also recently re-read "The Things That Carried Him" by Chris Jones, a masterful step-by-step look at how a fallen soldier’s body was transported from Iraq to Indiana. The Iraq War isn’t germane to the 9/11 Museum, but it haunts it, and a lot of the old rage at the American response bubbled up. Yes, it was very cool that Harold Hayes sent the unorthodox trio of Jean Genet, Terry Southern, and William Burroughs to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention, but their pieces didn’t run until months after Chicago cops laid waste to Yippee brain matter. Be it Presidents Bush, Obama, or Next-Up, I’ll take the immediate multiple day-in day-out posts -- to say nothing of the features -- from the brain of best-in-the-game Charlie Pierce any day.

The Harold Hayes era was as good as magazines get and nope, it’s never coming back. Even if a publisher could assemble a roster of talent like Hayes had, a magazine could never have the universal cache and relevance of Esquire in the 1960s. Too many options, too many rabbit holes, and modern marketplace realities are what they are. Gay Talese probably ran up a bigger bar bill at Musso & Frank’s, in 1966, than most writerly fees today.  Alas, those were the days. And they’re totally worth revisiting, for a couple of hours in a documentary, or maybe a weekend if you want to go back and read the print versions of the classic Esquire pieces. But don’t sleep on all the great magazine work being done today. Start with the Judy Clarke profile -- defender of murderers, bombers, and even the 20th 9/11 hijacker -- in the June/July 2015 Esquire, and don’t stop there.

"Smiling Through the Apocalypse" is great, but grimacing through its aftermath ain’t half bad either.

"Smiling Through the Apocalypse" is now available on DVD and at iTunes.