The ‘Esquire Man’ is dead. Long Live the ‘Esquire Man’
To that pocket-square-wearing, sidecar-sipping human known as the “Esquire man,” this was life as it was intended to be: a roomful of wags in natty suits throwing back cocktails and trading banter in one of Manhattan’s hottest restaurants, as willowy models and square-jawed movie stars circled the room.
At Esquire magazine’s “Mavericks of Style” dinner, held at Le Coucou on a rainy night this past November, spirits were so high, and consumed so freely, that it might as well have been 1966 — doubly so, since Gay Talese, Esquire’s living monument to the New Journalism of the 1960s, was holding court, dry gin martini in hand, a few yards from Jay Fielden, Esquire’s new editor-inchief.
“There was a period of time when Esquire had a real literary charisma, and there was a culture that responded to it,” said Fielden, 48, sounding nostalgic as he reclined in a banquette, wearing a steel-blue Ferragamo suit and sporting what may be the best head of male hair in the magazine industry.
“How do you make that urgent to a younger generation?”
It’s a question that may determine the fate of a magazine that for 84 years has sought not just to serve the American man, but also to define him. Since the days of Hemingway, Esquire has provided a running seminar in the arts of manhood.
It is where young men turned to learn to mix a French 75, tie a full Windsor knot, ogle (in purely esthetic terms, of course) the latest lingerie-clad Hollywood ingénue and absorb life lessons from stoical, stubble-face cover subjects like Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper.
But times have changed. As we move into the era of transgender bathrooms and LGBTQIA studies, when millennials are more likely to take their cultural cues from Justin Bieber’s Instagram feed than 6,000-word profiles of Sean Penn, Fielden is charged not just with bringing back Esquire’s glory days but also with figuring
out exactly what the Esquire man is in 2017.
It is up to the 13th editor in Esquire’s history to decide if this is a crisis or an opportunity.
The New Esquire Man
As a straight white man, Fielden does not exactly represent a departure for the top of the Esquire masthead. Indeed, his profile is almost too perfect for the job.
Craggily handsome in a vaguely Willem Dafoe way, he grew up in San Antonio with a father who enjoyed hunting and fly fishing, so he has the “arts of manhood” element deep in his DNA.
But Fielden is also fashion fluent (he edited Men’s Vogue, working with Anna Wintour, until that magazine closed in the great magazine die-off of 2008 and 2009), as well as literary (he edited articles by the likes of George Plimpton at his first magazine stop, The New Yorker).
His ability to cross boundaries was on display at Town & Country, a magazine associated with ladies who lunch, where Fielden managed to increase revenues 46 per cent over his five-year reign there, in part by attracting more male readers.
“I gave Town & Country some teeth, reporting on behaviour that wasn’t always that which, well, Emily Post would approve, like having an evening toke instead of a scotch on the rocks,” said Fielden, who still serves as that magazine’s editorial director.
While he aims to do the inverse at Esquire, and bring in more female readers, Fielden nevertheless has a legacy to protect at Esquire.
Esquire, after all, has been the industry’s most exclusive boys’ club for eight decades running.
A magazine built on myths
When Esquire debuted from its Chicago headquarters in 1933, it was a magazine with a mandate.
“Esquire aims to be the common denominator of masculine interests,” a mission statement in that first issue read.
Esquire, the statement said, would be a pointed rebuke to the “mad scramble” for female readers (and their advertising dollars) by the general-interest magazines of the day, which provided features for men only “after the manner in which scraps are tossed to the patient dog beneath the table.”
Through the Depression and the war years, the pages of Esquire were the place to be for the brightest and brawniest of American writers.
Hemingway published his classic story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the magazine in 1936. F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed to spend more time in Esquire than in the Commodore Hotel bar, publishing 43 stories in the magazine in just seven years before his death in 1940 at age 44.
Observers might have expected this monument to bourbon-and-shotguns manhood to crumble when faced with the rise of feminism, flower power and civil rights in the 1960s.
Instead, Esquire entered a second golden age.
Like that heady spirit of revolution, however, Esquire’s zenith could not last.
But as a result, for nearly 50 years, every new Esquire editor — there were six in the 1970s alone — assumed the job with an implicit mandate, to bring it back to its glory years.
There were game attempts. Clay Felker, the founding editor of New York Magazine, took over the publication in 1977 and attempted to revive it as Esquire Fortnightly.
While Felker had his hits, the magazine bled money and was soon bought by an upstart publisher of giveaway magazines.
Industry skeptics reacted as if Tiger Beat had snapped up The New Yorker, but the new regime rode the “hip to be square” 1980s, when classic Eisenhower-era suits, cocktails and social climbing roared back into fashion, to a striking turnaround, selling the magazine to Hearst in 1987.
By 1996, The New York Times was observing Esquire’s “thinning spine and declining circulation.”
A year later, Hearst handed the reins to David Granger, GQ’s celebrated executive editor.
Granger’s attempts to provoke did not always hit the mark.
Even so, Granger settled into a 19year-tenure — the longest in Esquire’s history — in which the magazine enjoyed a financial recovery and became the Meryl Streep of the National Magazine Awards (it won 17 during Granger’s reign).
By 2015, however, the numbers had started to slip, and critics were murmuring about Esquire’s seemingly aimless web strategy.
On Jan. 29, 2016, David Carey, the Hearst president, strode into the Esquire offices with Fielden to introduce him as the new boss.
To borrow Hayes’ phrase, it was time to build some new myths.
Manhood in the Trump Age
Fielden takes the helm at a time when men’s magazines as a category seem to be having an identity crisis. Details has shuttered, Maxim has cycled through editors, and Playboy has done away with its raison d’être: naked women.
It is easy to blame the Internet, but to Fielden, that is a tired excuse.
“There are a lot of false narratives out there,” he said.
“You tell me about the last time you had an amazing experience on a website that you wanted to print and hang on your wall. If that’s the Holy Grail, that’s something we’ve done with newspapers and magazines for our entire existence, and that’s where this thing has to hit, because the human race is not getting stupider.”
In the year since Fielden took over Esquire, the United States has entered what seems like a fullfledged culture war.
With so-called alt-right provocateurs like Stephen K. Bannon marching into power, and armies of women in bright pink hats marching in protest, it’s a little hard to say where the literate centrist coastal male with a taste for Raymond Carver — that is, the traditional Esquire man — fits in.
“I understand what the hurdles are, what the difficulties are,” Fielden said. “They’re certainly things that keep me up, and sometimes ruin my weekend.”
But, he added: “I look back on what the New Journalism invented, what Gay did, what Tom Wolfe did, what Norman Mailer did.
“They had to up the literary horsepower with new tools and techniques in order to compete with the speed and seismic shock of one insane event after another in the ’60s and ’70s. We’re just having to do the same thing.”
Jay Fielden, the new editor in chief of Esquire magazine, in New York.