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Who's in the Video
George Lois is a pioneering advertising executive and designer best known for a series of covers he created for Esquire magazine between 1962 and 1972 (some of which were featured[…]

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

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

George Lois:  Everything.  It was the rneditor, you know, when Harold Hayes came to me, he had just basically rntaken over the ownership of the magazine, even though he had been rnresponsible for the last five or six, seven issues.  And he had been rnreading in 1960, in 1962, about my ad agency and the reason that it rnstruck him is because it was an art director, it was the first ad rnagency, Papert, Koenig & Lois, where there was an art director in rnthe masthead. And the stories were all about my advertising, there were,rn you know, every month there was a big story in the New York Times, at rnleast, about campaigns I had done.  So he was looking at an avid art rndirector's exciting work and something made him call me on how to get rnadvice on how to do covers.  I had never done a cover in my life.  And rnwhen he called me, and when I saw him, I thought he was trying to get rnadvertising for my ad agency and I was being nice to talk to him, rnbecause I had been reading the magazine, I knew it was a terrific rnmagazine.  And he basically said, "I need advice, how do you," and I rnsaid, "Well, how do you do them now?  How do you do your covers now?"  rnHe said, "Well, you know, four or five of us editors sit down with threern or four people in the design department we have a long discussion rnabout, and we try to come up with the, what topic in the issue coming uprn should be the subject of a cover."  I said, "Yeah?"  And then he said, rn"And then we all go away, we come back two or three days later, we each rnof us have one or ideas on what the cover should be, and maybe there's rnfive or six of them, that we don't quite know, so we pick them up and wern cop them up," and I said, "Oh, my God, group fucking grope."  And he rnsaid, "Huh?"  And I said, "Group grope."  I said, "Is that the way you rnwork with Mailer and Talese and, you know, he said, "No, of course rnnot."  I said, "Well, obviously you don't have anybody there who knows rnhow to, somebody young comes to you and says, 'Hey, Harold why don't we rndo this?'  So, go out," now, basically I was saying, "Get a rnfreelancer."  So he said, "Who?  How do you," I said, "Well, you know, rnget somebody who understands the culture, who's kind of ahead of the rnculture, who's literate, who understands, who loves politics, who likes,rn loves the opera and theater music, and then, you know, and he can tell arn dirty joke and he's... somebody who understands the culture."  And I rngave him a couple of names that might, with people who might be able to rndo it.  And he said, he was southern, he was a southern liberal, kind ofrn an oxymoron, and he said, "Hey, pal, can you do me just one favor?  I rndon't know what the hell you're talking about, can you do me one rncover."  And I said, "Oh, I'll do you one cover."  And I said, "When's rnthe next issue due, when's the next cover due?"  And he said, "Next rnTuesday, but let me give you time."  I said, "I'll do it for next rnTuesday.  What's in the issue?"  And he said, "I don't have it here."  Irn said, "Describe it, tell me, you know, a sentence for each story."  So rnhe told me this, this, this, this, this.  And one of the things he rnmentioned was a spread with a photo and a short piece on Floyd rnPatterson, who was the champion of the world, and Sonny Liston, who was rnthe challenger and Floyd was in the upcoming fight, was a big favorite, rnbig 5-to-1 favorite, too fast for Liston, et cetera, et cetera, and I rnsaid, "Well, so the issue is going to come out, you know, the issue willrn come out a week before, the fight."  I said, "Okay," and I went away rnand I did a cover, I got a guy who looked like Patterson, you know, 6 rnfoot, not too muscley and I showed him, and I called the fight.  I rnbasically said everybody is wrong about it, he's not going to win the rnfight, he's going to get destroyed by Liston and I show Patterson layingrn flat, you know, in the middle of the ring, left for dead.  You know, rnnobody, nobody in the arena, his handlers are gone, the press is gone, rn20,000 people are gone.  It was a metaphor for, metaphor not only for rnsports, for boxing, you know, you lose you're, you're dead, but a rnmetaphor for any walk of life, you know, when you're a loser, they leavern you for dead. 

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

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

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

Recorded on April 5, 2010