Esquire Sells Sizzle Sans Steak

Hearst’s Esquire means many things to many people, but sloppy is generally not one of them. That all changed with the September issue.

Depending on when one started picking up the magazine, readers tend to regard Esquire as either a literary magazine or a tony version of Maxim, but at its 1933 launch it was actually much closer to the latter.

The autumn 1933 cover – a graphic illustration of men frolicking lakeside between a canoe and pontoon plane – promises: “fiction, sports, humor, clothes, art, cartoons,” all for the rather steep newsstand price of 50 cents. This was the Great Depression, after all.

In subsequent years, the title vacillated between scantily clad babes and Dot Parker for prez. In the 1940s, Vargas gave the title a boost, essentially keeping the “men in nature” theme, but draping a chesty babe over the prop plane. Parker herself came aboard in the ‘50s to review books. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were original contributors.

By the 1960s, the times they were a’changing, and Esquire rolled with them, practically inventing New Journalism along the way with Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese in its pages. On the literary front, Esquire closed out the decade by hiring Gordon Lish as fiction editor, who in turn built the careers of writers as diverse as Raymond Carver and Truman Capote.

Esquire was no slouch in the art department either. Art direction legend George Lois made his name at the title and Esquire even employed Grace Jones’ main squeeze, Jean-Paul Goode, as an art director for a time.

But by the 1970s, while everything was getting bigger, Esquire began to retreat. The magazine reverted to the standard 8½ by 11 cover leaving less breathing room, a problem which persists even now. While the title itself would probably protest, “I am big!  It’s the pictures that got small,” an era drew to a close.

Which brings us to September’s Tom Brady cover. The black and white, pin-striped Brady passes sartorial muster, but he’s boxed in by sloppy coverlines that look as if Art Director Darhil Crooks took a fat Sharpie to the page. It’s as ugly as Brady is handsome.

It also an almost willful hedging of bets – an Esquire tradition since Arnold Gingrich founded the title – as this month’s 75th anniversary cover is the much ballyhooed electronic edition, actually a limited run of 100,000 that includes what Esquire calls “e-ink,” a 10-inch L.E.D. square announcing “The 21st Century Begins Now.” also extended the 21st century treatment to one of its advertisers on the inside front cover with a two-page, blinking spread for Ford.

Totally Tagged Tommy

Totally Tagged Tommy


It must look better than the ghetto Lascaux they made of September’s edition. Inside, Esquire honch David Granger blathers on incessantly about steak, mentioning neither the Brady cover or the shape of things to come. But like Hitchcock, while Granger dollys back to catch a glimpse of the future, Esquire readers zoom in on this crowded house of a cover and experience vertigo.

–Tony Phillips


1 Response to “Esquire Sells Sizzle Sans Steak”

  1. 1 Jen September 24, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    I like your writing style, Tony. This critique has a nice narrative arc, with the history and all, and I like the sassy tone.

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