The romantic tradition of Esquire; 1,000 issues
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 October 2015)

Esquire magazine has published 1,000 issues since 1933, when it was founded. That number so impressed the editors and their parent company, the Hearst corporation, that they made the entire magazine now on the stands into a celebration of their illustrious history. It turns out to be impressive but also enjoyable, as Esquire often is. It's full of bits and pieces that recall their great accomplishments but also their blunders, like the time when they boldly predicted a certain movie would be the best film of the year but the movie sank like a stone.

They tell us about the time Esquire sent Terry Southern to write a profile of Stanley Kubrick and Southern ended up writing the wonderful script for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. They carry Lisa Taddeo's clever report of Nora Ephron's conversation with Norman Mailer in heaven, in which Ephron disdains Esquire and Mailer accuses her of talking like a woman. They offer several fulllength articles, including one by a Canadian author, Stephen Marche, which offers many insights into Ernest Hemingway's character: "If you were his friend, he was more than likely to betray you. If you were his kid, he was going to ignore you." (Having made that point I must issue a confession of selfinterest: I am delighted to say that Marche is my son-in-law.)

They also describe Esquire's honoured place in legal history. In 1946 the U.S. postmastergeneral ruled it did not "contribute to the public good" and therefore could no longer take advantage of cheap secondclass mailing privileges. Esquire sued and won. At the Supreme Court, Justice William A. Douglas ruled that the post office had no business prescribing literary standards or determining whether a given magazine served the public good. The postmaster general had called the magazine risqué. That probably referred to the drawings of E. Sims Campbell, which look innocent by 2015 standards but appeared provocative in the pre-Playboy era. In the 1,000th issue, the editors say it's widely believed that Douglas's ruling "led to the rise of even racier publications than this one." The first of these, of course, was Playboy, started in 1953 by Hugh Hefner, an Esquire copywriter who left the magazine (according to legend) when he was denied a $5-a-week raise.

Rightly, the staff of 2015 honour Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor, who directed Esquire until 1945, went away for a while, returned as publisher in 1952 and served as resident wise man until his death in 1976. From the beginning he steered Esquire into the romantic tradition. His favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were romantic writers whose work heightened and intensified reality until it turned into legend. Both of them became the central figures in extremely sad and symbolic stories, like the Byron and Shelley of their time.

Gingrich quickened to their different but entwined troubles. He thought Hemingway was cruel to Fitzgerald but noticed Fitzgerald never lost his affection for Hemingway and always celebrated his triumphs despite his own failures. "Although Hemingway had done and said, and even written, many things to hurt him, Scott had always expressed, both to Ernest and about him to others, the same unstinted enthusiasm for his work that had impelled him to bring Hemingway to Scribner's attention at a time when he himself was a hot literary property and Hemingway was still relatively unknown." Gingrich added that the worst Scott ever let himself say against Ernest was one wonderful crack that "Ernest was always ready to lend a helping hand to the one on the rung above him."

Hemingway was kind to Gingrich, sending Esquire some of his best stories, such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1936. Gingrich was kind to Fitzgerald and loyal ("he was the idol of my high-school days"). Esquire published all 17 of the not-so-great Pat Hobby stories, written in the 1930s, about a failed alcoholic screenwriter in Hollywood scrambling for trivial assignments and screen credits. The last five stories appeared after Fitzgerald's death in 1940; he had built up a small pile of them. They were a wry, brave self-portrait, stories he must have liked doing more than anything else in prospect.

In the 1960s Gingrich's romantic inclinations helped give Esquire its special cachet. What came to be called New Journalism was born at Esquire. It was a renewed romantic style that challenged standard magazine practice. Classical journalism called for detached observation and an attempt to be objective, but New Journalism stood for personal involvement and deep commitment, like romantic literature.

Magazine writers emulated the style of recent fiction and sometimes the experiments of poetry. Tom Wolfe's eccentric punctuation seemed to demonstrate that anything was now permissible. Norman Mailer's articles on politics were written with flamboyant individualism, as if current politicians (John Kennedy above all) were a new phenomenon and demanded a new way of writing. Just about everyone agreed that Mailer's first article about Kennedy, titled Superman Comes to the Supermarket, was a great essay.

James Baldwin, Gay Talese and Truman Capote, all Esquire writers, were among the most talked about writers of the moment. Their own personalities flowed through their work. At one point Baldwin wrote a piercing and thoughtful piece about Mailer. They all passed on to readers the atmosphere of serious fiction. They all expressed individuality and passion rather than classical order.

New Journalism, sometimes called "personal journalism" left an emphatic mark on its time and on the future of the press. Journalists everywhere (including me, as writer and editor) learned from Esquire. Magazine and newspaper work became more personal and more searching. Writers turned stories about politics and show business into parables and fables. Esquire taught writers to understand that journalism was not to be taken lightly. Maybe it was an art. Writers and their editors learned that more was at stake, and more was possible, than they might have realized.

Esquire runs men's fashions and loves to photograph candidates for the "women we love" feature. No one would call it perfect. But on its best days it was and is a temple of art, a place where many talented writers and many grateful readers happily come together.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image