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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2003 / 25 Tishrei, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Esquire recalls its glory days


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Maybe Esquire shouldn't check itself into Entropy Acres Old Age Home just yet.

The first magazine created only for men is 70 this month, which isn't that old in people years. But Esquire, which is at least two generations of gents/dudes past its prime, has struggled since the late 1980s to stay in touch with the wacked culture of youth without becoming a Maxim for Horny Middle-Aged Men Who Won't Grow Up.

Its 70th-anniversary issue — the one sporting 1966 and 2003 photos of Mohammad Ali — still shows flashes of the literary brilliance that brought readers fiction and nonfiction by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, the 1960s inventors of the highly personalized, highly detailed style of nonfiction called "New Journalism."

The first 150 pages of Esquire issue No. 858 are devoted to things like a timeline of its good/bad advice to men over the decades (1950: Give her camellias on the first date.) and a gallery of 51 great/embarrassing covers that caused stirs. (A 1970 studio shot of My Lai Massacre order-giver Lt. William Calley with cute Vietnamese kids on his lap was a real classy move.)

It's all pretty interesting, and sometimes fun — especially the accumulation of Esquire's 70 greatest sentences. Coming from the likes of John Cheever, Ray Bradbury and local freelance writer and Tribune-Review columnist Jeanne Marie Laskas, some are pretty lame (Cheever's) and serve mainly as superb 150-word examples of windy self-indulgence and over-permissive editors.

Esquire's choice of "Man of the Last 70 Years," and "the most significant figure in what was supposed to be the American century," is John F. Kennedy. In "JFK at 86," Charles P. Pierce looks at how, even though we've learned much more about Kennedy's many character flaws, he still haunts us and "sets the agenda for America" 40 years after his death.

In the back pages are a new batch of solid signature Esquire articles and profiles — well-written, densely detailed observations by good writers of Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Hillary Clinton.

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Elsewhere, editor David Granger defines an Esquire story as more than mere reporting and tale-telling: "When it's done particularly well," he says, "it's an experience." It's also often "contrarian" and "stylistically adventurous" with a heavy dose of the writer's point of view.

The best story ever told in Esquire's 70 years, as selected by Esquire's staff, is Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," from April 1966. It's reprinted in the anniversary issue, so you can see for yourself why all the fuss about Talese and New Journalism was justified.

As its October contents show — and as the magazine itself acknowledges in humble, self-deprecating ways — Esquire's greatest strength today is its past. The 70th-anniversary issue is worth buying and reading for lots of reasons. But it's pretty clear Esquire's gloriest days — when it was the place to find the best American writers practicing the best magazine journalism — are ancient history.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald