George Lois on His Esquire Covers

George Lois, the legendary Mad Man (he created campaigns for Xerox, Jiffy Lube, and MTV, among others), art director, and magazine consultant, is probably best known for his 1962–72 tenure at Esquire, during which he created some of the most celebrated covers ever to appear in print. He tells how the job came about: “I was a well-known advertising agency guy, and the former editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, he called me up. We met at The Four Seasons, and he said, ‘Could you help me try to do better covers?’ I got this Bronx accent, and he had this southern drawl, and it must have been a funny discussion. ‘You have to go outside and find a designer, a guy who’s talented at graphic design, but understands politics, culture, and movies,’ I told him, and he said, ‘Do me a favor, could you do me just one cover?’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do you one.’” Their prolific collaboration at Esquire is featured in a new book, George Lois: The Esquire Covers (the covers were on a yearlong display at MoMA, and are now in permanent collection there), and we spoke to Lois to get his thoughts and memories about his twelve favorites.

“This was the first cover I did for Esquire. Hayes mentioned that we were going to have a spread of Floyd Patterson, the boxing champion of the world, and Sonny Liston, the challenger, and Patterson was an 8–1 favorite. I knew right away what I was going to do, because I knew that Liston was going to kill him. So I called the photographer, and I said, ‘We’re going to get a guy with the same body as Patterson, we’re going to lay him flat on the ring, and we’re going to show him killed, knocked out by Liston. Leave him for dead.’ I wanted to show a metaphor for boxing — if you’re a loser, you’re left for dead, which is also a metaphor for life. So we get the shot and I sent it to Hayes. ‘George, I never saw a cover like this in my life! You’re calling the fight — suppose you’re wrong? Everybody says you’re wrong.’ I told him we had a 50/50 chance of it working, but if it does, it shows we have balls. It hit the newsstand a week before the fight, and it was roundly laughed at in the sports crowd. But a week later, of course Liston kills Patterson, just like I thought. And Esquire got tons of publicity and the best sales since the start of the magazine. And Harold said to me, ‘You gotta keep doing my covers.’”
“All the covers I did, I chose the topic. Hayes would tell me what he thought was the most important story, but I would look at the lineup and find the cover idea. A few months after I started, Hayes said, ‘George, you know I’ll never tell you what to do, but for December, can you do a goddamn Christmas-y cover?’ I thought it was so funny. And I said, ‘You got it!’ In 1963, it was a changing America, the age of black revolution and the Panthers. And I remember even liberals saying to me, ‘They’re getting kind of wild, these black guys.’ So I did a parody, shoving it down everyone’s throat, showing Sonny Liston, the meanest man in the world, as Santa Claus. Liston was known as a thug. When I sent it to Hayes, he went wild. He really understood how important it was. I told him to understand that shit’s going to hit the fan, and he said, ‘Yeahhhh.’ They lost something like twelve important advertisers from that cover, but they got like twenty important advertisers after that.”
“This is a favorite of mine. There were two stories about Indians in that issue, a topic I love, and I wanted to do something about it. Something made me say, ‘I wonder if the Indian who posed for the Indian Head Nickel is still alive.’ And I called the Bureau of Indian Affairs out of left field, thinking I’d have to go through some bureaucracy, and I got a young guy on the phone who said, ‘Gee, that’s so interesting; I’m going to research that.’ And he calls me back about three days later — ‘You won’t believe this, he’s alive, his name is Chief John Big Tree, he lives in a reservation up near Syracuse.’ My father-in-law lived up there and I called him and he ran out that afternoon to the reservation, and he said, ‘Yep, he’s 87 years old, he’s six foot two, in good health, and he’s beautiful.’ So I told him to relay the message that I wanted to come up there, and he said that Chief would rather come down to New York. And I got him tickets on Mohawk Airlines, which I thought was funny, and he came to New York and we took his portrait. He went on the Johnny Carson show and made a bunch of TV appearances, and I felt really wonderful about that, I fell in love with the guy.”
“You could smell the women’s movement building at that point, I could feel it in my wife, even, though it was pre-Friedan, Pre-Steinem, Pre-Abzug. There was an article in Esquire called ‘The Masculinization of the American Woman’ — it sounded more negative than it was, but the point was well taken. It was saying the American women were growing balls. To me it was a no-brainer; I’d just get a beautiful woman and have her shaving. I wanted a blonde, and I tried to get Monroe, I tried to get Kim Novack, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I’d explain that I wanted her shaving, and their business managers said to me, ‘Are you crazy?’ Finally we got Virna Lisi, the Italian actress. And we did this beautiful shot. When the cover came out, it was a big hit. A lot of women were arguing about it.”
“This was a killer. John Sack, who was a terrific writer, got permission to train with a company at Fort Dix and he went with them to Vietnam. So he came back with a book excerpt for us, and one of the sentences was, ‘Oh my god, we hit a little girl.’ So I did this cover, I set the type, I sent it over to Hayes and he said, ‘Oh my god, boy is this important.’ ‘But we’re going to be in big trouble,’ I said. And he said, ‘Yeahhhh.’ The cover came out and six or seven senators got up and said, ‘How dare Esquire do this, they’re traitors!’ So that was a bombshell, that was the first real anti-war cover, the first time a magazine dared. It was the young people who were the biggest fans of Esquire; they understood the humor and the anti-establishment feeling of it.”
“This cover kind of hurt me, but I did it with a vengeance. I was always a fan of Hubert Humphrey; I thought he was a solid liberal senator. And when LBJ picked him as VP, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s going to help LBJ slow down in Vietnam and get everyone out of there.’ So I thought Humphrey would be a good influence, but he wasn’t. Hayes said there was a big article being written about Humphrey, so I said, ‘I’m going after him.’ So I had a dummy made, and we figured out how to do this two-page spread. Hayes called me a couple of days later, and he goes, ‘Oh my God, it’s a very positive article,’ but he loved the cover so much that he went against what he was printing inside. ‘You’ve got an opinion on the cover, another writer has his opinion inside,’ he said, and was fine with it. It was a killer on newsstand. ‘There’s the LBJ ventriloquist!’”
“It was 1968, and Ali was waiting for an appeal for draft evasion to reach the Supreme Court. I said to Hayes, ‘I want to do a cover with Ali, I want to depict him as the famous martyr Saint Sebastian.’ And I called up Ali, told him I needed him and his pretty white trunks and shoes. I showed him a postcard of a painting by Castagno, with Sebastian’s body relaxed, but his head back in agony. And he says, ‘Hey, George, this cat’s a Christian? I can’t pose as a Christian, I’m a Muslim.’ I tried to explain that it’s symbology, but he said no, and I asked if I could talk to Elijah Muhammad, who was the head of the Muslim community at the time. He calls him up, puts me on the phone, and there I am talking to Elijah Muhammad about religion, imagery, symobolgy, etc., and finally he said, ‘Okay, sounds good to me.’ And Ali did it. It really became a rallying cry, the anti-war poster at that time. It was a combo of race, religion, and war in one image.”
“I thought Nixon was dead in the water. I hated the son of a bitch, and Hayes said they were going to do a piece on him running again. And so I wanted to do a cover of him sleeping. I had a clue that one of these guys who flies with him on Air Force One had a photograph of him napping. And I’d shoot a bunch of hands making it look good, because everyone knew that he lost to JFK because of the way he looked during that debate — like hell. That cover came out, and it was a big hit, and Nixon’s press secretary called up Hayes and said, ‘You commie sons of bitches, you left wing this and that,’ and Hayes said, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘We know what you’re trying to say — you’re trying to say that Nixon’s a homosexual!’ What can I tell you, these guys had no sense of humor.”
“This was a couple of months after Dr. King was killed and Bobby died, too, so I showed three great Americans at Arlington. It was the symbol for such a brutal ten-year decade. I had a graphic fantasy, paying homage to Jack and Bobby and Dr. King. To this day, I look at that cover and I still almost tear up. I had it hanging in my office, but I had to take it down, I couldn’t keep looking at it.”
“This was hot shit. The article was basically a caustic review about what was going on in the arts in America at the time, and without even reading it, I knew I wanted Andy Warhol drowning in his own soup. I just had the image in my head. And I called him, and said, ‘Andy I want you on the cover of Esquire.’ And he said, ‘Wait a minute, George, you always have an idea on the cover, what’s the idea?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘I love it!’ When Andy saw it, he lost his mind. He kept saying he wanted to trade me for the original art, he’d give me some Brillo boxes, a Campbell Soup painting. He was after me a month before he died, he was still trying to trade me. I told him I don’t want to trade, ‘cause someday that’s going to hang in the MoMA.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to see it there! Me hanging in the Museum of Modern Art!’ Which is so funny, because now there’s twenty goddamn Warhols in the Museum of Modern Art.”
“This was the most controversial of them all. John Sack, he was writing a book about [William] Calley, who was instrumental in killing 500 men women and children at My Lai. Hayes told me they were doing an excerpt of the book, and I knew right away what I wanted: A picture of Calley sitting with Vietnamese kids in his lap, and I wanted him with a shit-eating grin. I knew it was going to be controversial. It was the only shoot I ever did when I really bullshitted a guy; I gave him my war stories from Korea, I said I’d gotten into a situation in Korea like the one in My Lai, I lied, and I won him over. And the kids just looked at the camera, and I said, ‘Calley, give me a big shit-eating grin!’ And he did it. It ran and, I’m telling you, people went crazy in America.”
“Germaine Greer, she was very big back then, and she and Mailer despised each other. And there was a story in the magazine that month about the anniversary of King Kong, and another story about Greer and Mailer, how they were battling each other. And I got a photograph of Mailer’s head, because he would never pose for me, and I posed a woman dressed as Germaine Greer, and put King Kong holding the woman with Greer’s head on it. So apparently, after it ran, Mailer calls up Hayes to see if he wants to fight him, but Hayes told him that I was the one who came up with it. So sure enough, I get a call from Mailer, and he said, ‘You son of a bitch,’ and he wanted to fight me in Central Park, and I said, ‘This is the most exciting day of my life, this is thrilling!’ And he makes a date with me the next morning at the statue of General Sherman. Well, he never showed up. I never spoke to him [again].”
George Lois on His Esquire Covers