It was Thursday, March 14. 2013. On the subway ride downtown to view the documentary Smiling Through the Apocalypse and hear thoughts about the movie from Tom Hayes, Gay Talese and George Lois, I had a Gail Collins column for company. Ms. Collins seems to be showing a nostalgic desire for some new Armageddon theories. With end of the world crackpots in short supply she feels that anything to forget the reality of the present day situation would be useful.
Of course, the apocalypse discussed in this documentary was the one from fifty years ago, that decade that just dosen't sound right unless preceded by the word turbulent. It was a time in American history when school teachers were instructing us to get under our desk when the temperature suddenly rises by 2000° and our future choices were either Vietnam or Ivy League. The man doing the smiling through the assassinations of our leaders, student riots, far away wars and that nuclear balance of terror was Harold Hayes.
The movie was a 99 minute act of love, the story of a publishing icon through the eyes of his son. No criticism to be found there but searching around around it seems Harold Hayes really was all that. A Semper Fi southern liberal who just showed up on Madison Avenue one day in the 1950's and wound up becoming the editor of Esquire magazine from 1961 to 1973. It wasn't much of a magazine when he got there and apparently the sexism has never left but something special happened. Some say that he was "the man who broke the barrier that once separated journalism and art." Most say that he gave the best writers of the era the space and support they needed to shine and this whole experiment was called "The New Journalism."
There were many explanations about how Harold Hayes went on to become one of our cultural curators through the turbulent sixties but a story in the beginning of the movie was so refreshing that it bears repeating. As a young man returning from the war he went back to education and resurrected the school magazine of a small Southern baptist school named Wake Forest. During the movie there was a preview of Esquire illustrations to come in the line drawings he got illustrators to make from his own photos but it was an encounter with Dizzy Gillespie that really set the stage.
Harold Hayes was a big jazz fan and apparently many of the students at Wake Forest shared those feelings. One day he convinced several of the students and faculty to put together a chicken dinner for Dizzy Gillespie but there was this one hitch, the jazz great knew nothing about the dinner. What Harold Hayes did know was when Dizzy Gillespie's tour bus would be passing by on a nearby highway. So he waited by the side of the road, flagged down the bus, turned on the charm and then offered the invite. For his efforts and perhaps because the meal was so tasty, Wake Forest got themselves a Dizzy Gillespie jam session.
Personally I didn’t appreciate Harold Hayes in his prime. How could I? With the movie claiming that securing a William Faulkner story and making sure that Dorothy Parker stayed on staff were two of Harold Hayes' first moves once he had his name added to the Esquire masthead, it all seems so long ago. I was very entertained when a photo of his mentor came on the screen. Seeing the face of one of the founder of magazine, Arnold Gingrich won the name that mustache contest and a question I asked myself about a magazine mascot that was more my speed in the 60's cracked me up. "Did one of the editors at Mad Magazine actually look like Alfred E. Newman?"
I was not totally unfamiliar with editorial policy of Esquire. With the magazine delivered monthly to my childhood apartment it wasn’t from a lack of exposure. Even though there were no racy photos to be found anymore and the Vargas Girls had already done the bunny hop from Esquire over to the Playboy mansion, my father demanded that I “never open that magazine” because it was “a men’s magazine.” So naturally I read it every month from cover to cover. My problem with appreciating Harold Hayes was that I was not even born on the day he flagged down Dizzy Gillespie, was eight years old when Harold Hayes began editing the magazine, didn’t trust anyone over thirty a few years later and when his time at Esquire had ended we all had bigger problems to address, a new Pax Americana was clearly on the horizon and the Beatles were still four individual artist.
I do have a few vivid childhood memories of those Esquire days. Each January I would clip “The Dubious Achievement Awards” for show and tell at school. This Harold Hayes invention expanded upon the Harvard Lampoon's awards for worst movie, worst actor and so on that has been ripped off more ways than anyone can count now. Hayes got Robert Benton and David Newman to recognizing stupidity, mendacity and general corruption on a broader scale. Benton and Newman (who later moved on to write the script for Bonnie and Clyde) gave their first "White Man of the Year Award" to Norman Mailer. The awards were comical boxes about the darker side of culture and current events that proved to be very popular with my classmates, sort of like Cheers and Jeers today but without the Cheers. The snippets were educational too, at least compared to white washed text books of the time where the last thing to happen in American History was Dewey Defeats Truman.
Another of those fond memories was in 1967, the year of Cool Hand Luke when I organized a Bronx tenement roof landing experiment, substituting clothesline and knots for shackles and chains as neighborhood kids took turns at following the 16 or 20 photographic explanation in Esquire on how to take your pants off while wearing leg irons. Turned out this experiment was harder than the Rubik’s Cube that had not been invented yet and was perhaps an early version of “Scared Straight” for the ridiculously inquisitive.
I don’t think I really began to appreciate Harold Hayes until 1983 and even then it was only a vague appreciation. The world wide web was not yet at my disposal, the new still seemed so fascinating and well intentioned trips to the library seldom developed. But now perusing the web for the stories mentioned in the documentary, coming across Superman Comes to the Supermarket by Norman Mailer and The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes! by Tom Wolfe, I find myself wondering if anything from today is as bold and creative as these stories that are almost a half century old. Yes to bold and yes to creative but how many people are being influenced or can even find the bold and creative anymore?
1983 was the 50th anniversary of Esquire when it was even more obvious that the written word had already been defeated by television. To avoid breathing their last breath, a year of issues where great writers were commissioned to produce great works was kicked off by a gala event that I happened to attend. By then I was a serious fan of modern literature and I was at that event to hear from and in the hope of rubbing shoulders with those great writers. It was not that Esquire was featuring the man who, when management decided that they no longer saw eye to eye, three of their seven million readers no longer saw eye to eye with Esquire. All I can remember now from the event was that almost every one of those respected writers payed their respects to Harold Hayes, that Tom Wolf could be hysterically funny at the lectern, how Norman Mailer was just as annoying in person and that great literary minds were forced to play second fiddle because in 1984 the spotlight was shining very brightly on Tom Robbins. 1983 was three years prior to Tom Wolf's first novel. I can also remember hearing people say things like “They are trying to get back to the glory days of Harold Hayes” and “The magazine doesn’t stand a chance without Harold Hayes.” He was often quoted as saying that "old wine could be put in new bottles, old material made fresh if given fresh form" but it was a bit late for me and too late for Esquire too.
All trivia and personal memories aside, anyone who is old enough probably has some vivid memories of several Esquire covers from the Harold Hayes years. I can clearly remember Christmas of 1963 when the older generation was going ballistic over Sonny Liston as The First Black Santa. In October of 1966, to accompany a war story by John Sacks that was simply titled “M” the cover of Esquire declared in bold white letter on a black background "Oh My God - we hit a little girl." Two years later, as a Catholic boy feeling like I was waiting for my turn as Vietnam fodder, I was very much in Ali’s corner for Cassius Clay as Saint Sebastian.
One of the many great writers interviewed during the documentary tried to explain Harold Hayes with “You had to either make him laugh, or shock him, or surprise him.” He formed an early alliance with an ad man named George Lois who became the art director and controlled the cover art throughout the Harold Hayes era. George Lois was there (seated on the right in the photos) to recall those days after the film. A Bronx born shit stirrer who has not softened one bit with age. One of the original "Mad Men" he was speaking fresh off his CLIO Lifetime Achievement Award and feeling a bit feisty. He very much enjoyed telling a story about still waiting for Norman Mailer to show up in Central Park to "duke it out" over a King Kong cover where I would think that Germaine Greer would be the one who should have given George a sock in the kisser.
Viewing some of these covers that popped up on the screen throughout the movie, I couldn't help but be reminded of the present day equivalent. I was reminded of the shock du jour graphics created by political organizations that wind up in email boxes, passed around amongst like minded bloggers and posted on Facebook to annoy virtual friends. The Esquire covers still seem far more powerful. Forty-five years hasn't softened the impact of the 35th Anniversary cover, with the caption "Salvaging the 20th Century." It still feels like a national gut punch.
Then there is the fact that these covers were not isolated like the present day shock graphics. Even if someone didn't read Esquire and many did not approve of this men's magazine, newsstands were a much bigger part of American life. Each cover spent a month prominently displayed everywhere from newsstands to barber shops and everyone from Hugh Hefner to Gloria Steinem were talking about it. There's probably never been a magazine cover that caused the sort of national emotional response as the image from the cover of the September 1970 issue, a photo that effected everyone from student protesters to the real cultural curators. It was after Seymour Hersh broke the story of Mỹ Lai massacre on the Associated Press but before Lt. William Calley went to trial that George Lois somehow talked Calley into posing for the cover smiling and surrounded by distraught Vietnamese children.
After the movie George Lois did seem a bit full of himself and he has been accused of taking credit for other people's work. Later at the wine and cheese party, more than once I heard him described as "vulgar" but I found a side I could love. At the after party I really enjoyed a chat with him and when he told me about the Roy Cohen session I smiled remembering that Tony Kirchner saw to it that it would not be the last time Roy Cohen would be associated with angels. After the photo shoot for The Angel Cohen Roy Cohen said to him "I suppose you are going to use the ugliest one." George said "You bet, I hate your guts."
There was a softer side to be found too. I thoroughly enjoyed his description of Andy Warhol when he posed drowning in a can of soup. His July 1966 cover along with a great story by Gay Talese may have been just the thing that inspired the lyrics "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? The nation turns its lonely eye to you, woo, woo, woo." Later in life George Lois created the "I Want My MTV" campaign and there is no dispute about the fact that campaign inspired the lyrics "That ain't working. That's the way you do it."
Well you know what they say. "You can't judge a book by its cover" and this movie wasn't about George Lois. The movie was about the relationship between Harold Hayes and some of the best writers of that time. It was about a boldness he possessed and seemed to pass on creating a "merger of the real and imagined that made readers sprint for the mailbox, breathless for the month’s revelations." But it does bring up one more cover. I remember think at the time that it was the establishment who lost at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. What can I say? I was young. After Harold Hayes assembled a team of anti-establishment writers or "underground intellectual mavericks" to cover the convention, those four writers, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Terry Southern and John Sack posed looking up from a bloody cobblestone street with a beaten and dead student at their feet.
Smiling Through the Apocalypse was really about the search by a loving son to find out what made his workaholic father so special. The effort created a well told story and watching it I drummed up many comparisons between that era and the present day. I'm just two years older than Tom Hayes and I enjoyed the film so much that when he told me after the movie that he was having trouble finding a producer for distribution I was shocked. But later I started thinking about it and maybe in this era of the witty tweet, perhaps there is no place for a movie that was edited to create a cohesive and thought provoking history of a time when long thought provoking stories helped steer the nation's conscious. Perhaps I'm being too old and cynical. Maybe young people today are anxiously awaiting that next copy of The Atlantic and exclaiming to the mailman "This James Bennet is the shit! Yo?"
No but seriously, the main draw of this documentary are the great writers speaking and it wasn't just one writer after another singing praises for Harold Hayes. It all comes together to make an interesting story, authors speaking instead of writing to articulate what happened. Nora Ephron comes back to life on the screen several times to recall her days at Esquire. Gore Vidal sounds like his old self explaining how Harold Hayes managed to get sued by William F. Buckley Jr. for the crypto-Nazi incident. John Sack shed some light on the the Esquire anti-war movement. Peter Bogdanovich discusses his days as the film writer and Hugh Hefner was there to explain how Playboy was born from Esquire. Other members of the cast include Tom Wolfe, Garry Wills, Robert Benton and Brock Brower. Each had something to say about their respect for Harold Hayes and freedom and support the got working for him.
But I was most entertained by a favorite writer of mine talking on the screen who provided the color for a much celebrated Esquire story. Harlan Ellison came on the screen to discuss an incident in a private club in Beverly Hills. The Cleveland born writer, but I almost thought I heard a little Bronx in there, said “I didn’t know what was going on. The guy walks up to me and shouts ‘Hey, those Italian boots?" I said ‘No.’ Then he says ‘Spanish?” I said ‘No!’ he come back with ‘Are they English boots?’ and now I know the guy is just busting my balls, so I said "Look, I donno, man.'" That was a story called Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.
Gay Talese was also one of the speakers in the movie and he was also there (seated center in the photo) for the discussion afterward. He tried to explain why Frank Sinatra Has a Cold has become one of the most celebrated magazine stories of all time. I don't think he remembers anymore. Something about "deadlines" and "testing the limits of non-fiction." I'm not sure what all that meant but I do know that if you take Mr. Talese's The Silent Season of a Hero and put it together with his Frank Sinatra Has a Cold you found a damn good place to look back at America.
Of course I had a lot of political thoughts going on in my head. I was comparing then to now. One time when a President told lies to get us into a war with another when the only thing that has changed was the party affiliation of the lying sack of shit President. Both then and now are times when the public was painfully aware that the politicians running things had very little interest in the will of the voting public. I wondered if we were better off with a Harold Hayes taking an in depth look at the situation or is what we have now better somehow? I guess the question I was asking myself mostly through this movie was which direction was the nation going in then and which way is it going now?
Yea, since Y2K fizzled out "The End is Near" isn't what it used to be. Well there is global warming but who listens to scientist? In this two party controlled elected oligarchy or K Street fascism where the only people who matter are the ones with cash filled briefcases that surround the elected with their gifts, perhaps the people just don’t care anymore. Maybe creativity no longer has a place when the media is nothing but stenographers and the dominant voices are a total waste of time. If Ms. Collins wants some end of the world rumors all she needs to do is listen to the politicians on the Sunday morning talk show circuit.
But none of that really matters anymore. I guess all I'm really sure about is that there is no reason to open Esquire today and Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is a great read.