Running Lois's Esquire Covers "Took Balls"

Angry letters from congressmen. Death threats. Lost advertising. In the 60's, these were often the result of a provocative cover image.
  • Transcript


Question: What was so unique about your celebrated Esquire covers?

George Lois:  Everything.  It was the editor, you know, when Harold Hayes came to me, he had just basically taken over the ownership of the magazine, even though he had been responsible for the last five or six, seven issues.  And he had been reading in 1960, in 1962, about my ad agency and the reason that it struck him is because it was an art director, it was the first ad agency, Papert, Koenig & Lois, where there was an art director in the masthead. And the stories were all about my advertising, there were, you know, every month there was a big story in the New York Times, at least, about campaigns I had done.  So he was looking at an avid art director's exciting work and something made him call me on how to get advice on how to do covers.  I had never done a cover in my life.  And when he called me, and when I saw him, I thought he was trying to get advertising for my ad agency and I was being nice to talk to him, because I had been reading the magazine, I knew it was a terrific magazine.  And he basically said, "I need advice, how do you," and I said, "Well, how do you do them now?  How do you do your covers now?"  He said, "Well, you know, four or five of us editors sit down with three or four people in the design department we have a long discussion about, and we try to come up with the, what topic in the issue coming up should be the subject of a cover."  I said, "Yeah?"  And then he said, "And then we all go away, we come back two or three days later, we each of us have one or ideas on what the cover should be, and maybe there's five or six of them, that we don't quite know, so we pick them up and we cop them up," and I said, "Oh, my God, group fucking grope."  And he said, "Huh?"  And I said, "Group grope."  I said, "Is that the way you work with Mailer and Talese and, you know, he said, "No, of course not."  I said, "Well, obviously you don't have anybody there who knows how to, somebody young comes to you and says, 'Hey, Harold why don't we do this?'  So, go out," now, basically I was saying, "Get a freelancer."  So he said, "Who?  How do you," I said, "Well, you know, get somebody who understands the culture, who's kind of ahead of the culture, who's literate, who understands, who loves politics, who likes, loves the opera and theater music, and then, you know, and he can tell a dirty joke and he's... somebody who understands the culture."  And I gave him a couple of names that might, with people who might be able to do it.  And he said, he was southern, he was a southern liberal, kind of an oxymoron, and he said, "Hey, pal, can you do me just one favor?  I don't know what the hell you're talking about, can you do me one cover."  And I said, "Oh, I'll do you one cover."  And I said, "When's the next issue due, when's the next cover due?"  And he said, "Next Tuesday, but let me give you time."  I said, "I'll do it for next Tuesday.  What's in the issue?"  And he said, "I don't have it here."  I said, "Describe it, tell me, you know, a sentence for each story."  So he told me this, this, this, this, this.  And one of the things he mentioned was a spread with a photo and a short piece on Floyd Patterson, who was the champion of the world, and Sonny Liston, who was the challenger and Floyd was in the upcoming fight, was a big favorite, big 5-to-1 favorite, too fast for Liston, et cetera, et cetera, and I said, "Well, so the issue is going to come out, you know, the issue will come out a week before, the fight."  I said, "Okay," and I went away and I did a cover, I got a guy who looked like Patterson, you know, 6 foot, not too muscley and I showed him, and I called the fight.  I basically said everybody is wrong about it, he's not going to win the fight, he's going to get destroyed by Liston and I show Patterson laying flat, you know, in the middle of the ring, left for dead.  You know, nobody, nobody in the arena, his handlers are gone, the press is gone, 20,000 people are gone.  It was a metaphor for, metaphor not only for sports, for boxing, you know, you lose you're, you're dead, but a metaphor for any walk of life, you know, when you're a loser, they leave you for dead. 

Anyway... when he called me up and he said, "Oh, my God, I never saw a cover like this in my life," and I said, "Yeah, that's right."  He said, "But you're calling the fight."  "No shit."  "You're crazy, suppose you're wrong?"  I said, "50/50 chance I'm right, you know?  And if I'm right, you're a genius, and if I'm wrong, you know, hey, you played the game."  But I said, "I'm right," you know, I really told him, "I am absolutely right."  And anyway, I found out many years later, it ran because he said he would quit if the publisher turned it down.  In fact, when the issue came out, the publisher, Arnold Gingrich, wrote an editorial saying, "You see that cover?  See our cover?  We have nothing to do with it."  Absolutely true.

Anyway, when the cover came out, when the issue came out, the, it was the laughingstock of the sports world and they totally, don't be ridiculous, you know.  Five or six days later, Liston destroyed him, and they were geniuses then, the biggest news stand sales in the history.  And found out later there were guys, editors I met only a couple years ago that said when that, when the cover came out, they thought it was the end of Esquire. Because they didn't, almost didn't expect a paycheck anyway, they were so deeply in the red, the magazine was.  I found out later that they were really in trouble, financially, and what happened from the time I started doing the covers for almost ten years is the circulation went from 500,000 to 2 million and, you know, with cover after cover, you know, some incredibly controversial, but you know, anti-war, the only mass magazine in America that dared speak out against the Vietnam war, in fact, we were the leading, we were the leading people in the media in America against the Vietnam war.  And in the support of Muhammad Ali, who was a hated fighter at the time of... after he became a Muslim and refused to fight in that terrible war, you know.

And that only all happened because of Hayes, because people say, "Boy, it took some balls to do those covers, Lois," I said, "It didn't take balls to do the covers, it took him balls to run it, you know?"  In fact, you know, I'd call him up and I'd say, I was sending a cover to him and I always chose my own, a topic, from what he showed me.  Sometimes he talked about what was coming up in the magazine and I knew the topic that he was basically excited about, I had to do, because it was that important.  But in many times, I picked, you know, like that cover I did, I told you about, for the first issue, was just a spread that they put in at the last minute, you know.  But I'd call him up and I'd say, "Cover's about to get to you, Harold," and I said, "This one's going to really get us in trouble."  And he'd say, "Yeah."  And when I meant trouble, I meant he would lose, not only would he get bombed by senators and congressmen and God knows who, and write, and people writing in, you know, death threats sometimes... losing advertising clients. Because Esquire had many clients down south, they did a lot of, you know, men’s wear and a lot of the mills were down south.  And there was the time of the Jim Crow South.  I mean, it was a time of real racism going on in America, there's always racism in America, but that was when it was rabid and rampant.

Recorded on April 5, 2010