The ‘Esquire Man’ is dead. Long Live the ‘Esquire Man’

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ALEX WILLIAMS

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.

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