In the basement of my parents house, way back in the early 1980s, wedged into a corner underneath a low shelf, sat a big box full of magazines, a hundred of them. And they weren’t just any magazines. Most of them were Playboys that dated back into the 1960s — the days when the magazine contained, among the airbrushed beauties and signature gatefold, a quotient of actual literature and transcendent journalism that made up a solid 15 percent of the book.
When I found the box, right around the time I turned 12, if you must know, the pictures were all I saw.
But soon enough I came to the conclusion that if you’ve seen one naked woman, you’ve basically seen them all — at least, when it comes to Playboy models.
And after a time, I found myself sitting in that corner of the basement reading the articles in Playboy magazine — the Men column by Asa Baber, Dan Jenkins’ Sports column, the long-form interviews, the New Journalism features unlike any other nonfiction I had ever read.
Then I got to the bottom of the box and found a trove of old Esquire magazines that dated back to the early 1970s, towards the end of the tenure of Editor Harold TP Hayes.
I didn’t know it back then, but Harold Hayes sparked a revolution just a few miles away from where I was sitting when he came to the venerable New York men’s magazine after its postwar pin-up period, survived a power grab against Clay Felker and managed to change the face and tone of the American magazine forever.
I didn’t know that Hayes was born just down the road in Elkin, was raised in Winston-Salem and graduated from Wake Forest University until I saw the documentary Smiling Through the Apocalypse, presented last week by filmmaker Tom Hayes, the venerable editor’s son, at this year’s RiverRun Film Festival.
The battle between Hayes and Felker — and Ralph Ginzberg, the last of the trio dubbed the “Young Turks” by Esquire Publisher Arnold Gingrich — for stewardship of the magazine lasted until 1962, when Hayes became managing editor and then top editor while Felker left to helm the Sunday Supplement for the New York Herald-Tribune, bringing in writers like Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem and Adam Smith and turning the freebie insert into New York magazine.
During this period, a low-level Esquire employee named Hugh Hefner quit in a huff over a denied $5 raise and started his own magazine, which would have similar content to Esquire but in different proportions and extremes. From Chicago, Playboy would play its own role in the evolution of the American magazine — and American sexual proclivities — while Felker and Hughes continued their arms race in New York.
The ensuing years saw a double-helix of salvos between the two as each bounced around the glossy-magazine hierarchy. Felker tapped Steinem to launch Ms. during the height of the women’s liberation movement in 1972, started a sister publication to New York that annotated life on the West Coast and, in New York, published some of the most influential journalism of the era, including Tom Wolfe’s description of the Black Panthers schmoozing with the cream of New York society — “Radical Chic,” which should be required reading for anyone interested in writing non-fiction — and Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which set the basis for the film Saturday Night Fever. Eventually, Felker lost his hold on New York when a young mogul on the rise named Rupert Murdoch acquired it in a hostile takeover in 1976.
Hayes continued his own streak of excellence with strong work by Wolfe — who answered a bout of writer’s block with “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” birthing a movement quite by accident — and former New York Times newsman Gay Talese, whose 1963 profile of Frank Sinatra is perhaps the best magazine article ever written. But Hayes eventually got the shaft as well. He was offered the publisher’s chair of Esquire in 1974, but resigned instead because he would not be allowed to retain the editorship. From there he endeavored to become a television personality, which concluded with a short-lived and disastrous turn as the co-host of the initial episode of “20/20.” His last great professional act before his death in 1989 was a series of writings about Africa, culminating in the 1987 Life magazine article “The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey,” which he turned into a book and, later, was adapted into the film Gorillas in the Mist.
We lost Felker just a few years ago, in 2008. Hayes passed in 1989, the very year I officially declared journalism as my major and began studying in earnest the things these men — and the writers they surrounded themselves with — did for the business.
But really, my dedication to journalism began long before that, with the discovery of a bunch of old magazines tucked into a corner of the basement.
The film Smiling Through the Apocalypse, something of a Father’s Day card from the younger Hayes to the elder, teems with writer interviews and images from those heady days when magazine journalism seemed — to me, anyway — like the most vital art form in the world. It won’t be shown in theaters anytime soon — in a Q&A after the screening, Tom Hayes admitted he had not secured distribution of the film, or even tried to until after he finished it and screened it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival — RiverRun was its second showing. For now it lives on the internet.
Fortunately, so does all of the work that came out of this period, a postmodern Golden Age for magazine journalism. All those old copies from my parents’ basement are long gone — after they discovered I had been reading them, my mother made my father bring the entire box to the dump.