Producing “Esquire”, A Cultural Icon
Tom Hayes’ “Smiling Through the Apocalypse” is the chronicle of Harold Hayes whose editorial instincts produced one of the greatest magazines ever. Harold Hayes was “the swinging editor and cultural provocateur of the iconic Esquire Magazine of the Sixties”. Tom Hayes is the son of Harold Hayes and it is his narration that takes on a journey of unprecedented access to some of the most exciting and compelling talents that graces the pages of “Esquire”— Nora Ephron, George Lois, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Gore Vidal to name just six. The film is a story of risk, triumph, and challenge told by the people that helped make the magazine great, and a son who only come to understand his father’s editorial greatness 23 years after his passing.
The film actually explores the revolution in journalism that came about due to societal turbulence of the 1960s. We see a portrait of editorial genius in the person of Harold Hayes who brought together iconic writers, photographers and artists to make the magazine the vanguard of the cultural revolution.
Hayes dared to encourage unprecedented journalistic freedom and he managed to land some of the most talented people of his time and we hear from many of them here giving their recollections of the time and the magazine. Hayes also managed to give
bylines to established literary giants like Dorothy Parker and W.H. Auden. Of course, this took place at a time when “monthly magazines were gleaming, state-of-the-art, ad-stuffed engines of both fact and sensibility, and guides to a confident, contemptuous, and romantic new postwar cosmopolitanism.” –
There is this wonderful story—-In 1962, Harold Hayes, then managing editor at Esquire, went to the cubical of junior editor John Berendt and asked him, “Who is the most important literary figure in New York?”, Hayes asked. “W.H. Auden”, Berendt answered meekly. “Take him to lunch and get him to do a piece for us.” He did, and in December Esquire published ‘Do You Know Too Much?’, an article by Auden on the limits of education. This is typical of the magazine’s approach at that time.
Hayes had a vision and the power to make it come true. His son has come to the conclusion that as a magazine editor, his father was one of the greats.
The film’s big draws are those interviewed in the film and the film is also tantalizing as a personal inquiry by Hayes’ son who both wrote and directed the film. Tom Hayes also provides the narration in which he talks about his own relationship with his father who died in 1989 at the age of 62. While they had a close relationship, Tom, who was born in 1957, didn’t have much understanding of his father’s cultural impact during the decade from 1963-1973 when the senior Hayes ran Esquire. So the film is really a kind of research project for the Hayes, the younger, who set out to learn more about a man he didn’t entirely know.
Hugh Hefner tells us that when Esquire stopped including photos of semi-undressed women in the 1950s, he saw an opening for a magazine of his own. Publisher Arnold Gingrich and Hayes decided to bring a medley of classy writers to the magazine and provide an exciting new design. The magazine achieved many cultural firsts including Diane Arbus had her first photographs published in Esquire and the magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards, which Benton and writing partner David Newman helped to introduce. The magazine also published major political and cultural reports by Norman Mailer, Talese, and John Sack, who wrote probing coverage of the Vietnam War.
The film does miss an opportunity to broaden its appeal by paying too little attention to Hayes’ personal life, which was apparently more complicated than the film suggests. In a discussion after the Palm Springs screening, Tom Hayes referred to his parents’ messy divorce, but this is not mentioned in the film. Harold’s personal history is not entirely irrelevant to the subjects covered in the film. One intriguing segment deals with a hatchet job that Hayes commissioned on rising feminist writer Gloria Steinem, but the film never delves into the sexist prejudices that so many editors harbored during that Mad Men era.
Despite these, the film captures the 60s with grace and skill.