Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Sonny Liston Christmas

Esquire Magazine's best decade by far was from the early sixities to the early seventies, when the ad man George Lois was designing the covers. Gay Talese was writing what's been acknowledged as the best article they ever published, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (readable in html here). Esquire was the flagship of New Journalism, publishing masterful articles and essays by Nora Ephron, James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Rex Reed, Susan Sontag, Terry Southern, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, and others.

When Esquire needed a Christmasy cover for the December 1963 issue, managing editor Harold Hayes let his cover designer George Lois have free reign. What Lois came up with was a shocking portrait that cost the magazine three quarters of a million dollars in ad sales and provoked piles of angry letters. The cover was a close-up of boxer Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat.the latest Vanity Fair tells the story:
Hayes lit the fuse, and Sonny Liston exploded a ragged hole in the country's Norman Rockwell preconceptions of Christmas. Save for the magazine's logo and dateline, the cover ran without any type, or even a caption identifying the fighter. None was necessary. Years later, Sports Illustrated recalled that Liston looked like "the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney." An art-history professor at Hunter College proclaimed the cover "one of the greatest social statements of the plastic arts since Picasso's Guernica." The angry letters began to roll in, and stunned advertisers proceeded to pull out. Esquire's advertising director would eventually estimate that the magazine lost $750,000 due to the cover.

For Hayes, the gains outweighed the losses. Liston-as-Santa was "the perfect magazine cover," he wrote, looking back in a 1981 article in Adweek magazine, "a single, textless image that measured our lives and the time we lived them in quite precisely to the moment." Published in a national climate "thick with racial fear," he explained, "Lois' angry icon insisted on several things: the split in our culture was showing; the notion of racial equality was a bad joke; the felicitations of this season—goodwill to all men, etc.—carried irony more than sentiment."
That cover and some of Lois's other groundbreaking cover designs are up on Esquire's cover gallery, including Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian in 1968 and Andy Warhol drowning in a can of tomato soup.

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