George Lois: Esquire Covers

Courtesy of Assouline,

Courtesy of Assouline

The First Black Santa (December 1963)

Art director George Lois spent a formative 10 years helping Esquire develop some of the most iconic, controversial covers in glossy history. Now, some of those images previously on display at the Museum of Modern Art, like this iconic image of Charles "Sonny" Liston, are available in bound form, George Lois: The Esquire Covers @ MoMA. A year after Liston became world heavyweight champion in 1962, Carl Fischer shot the professional boxer for a controversial Esquire cover as the symbol of Christmas, St. Nicholas. The magazine dubbed him "the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney." Time called the cover "one of the greatest social statements in the plastic arts since Picasso's Guernica."

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A Nation's Tears (June 1964)

The "Kennedy Without Tears" cover by Tom Wicker premiered six months after the beloved American president was assassinated. Years later, Esquire revealed, "Smeared ink and traces of what could only have been human tears were discovered on the pages of a circulating manuscript."

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"Oh My God- We Hit a Little Girl" (October 1966)

Named one of the top 40 magazine covers over the top 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Vietnam-era issue of plain white text on a black background left a significant cultural imprint. For his first article for Esquire, writer John Sack followed the M Company from its days training at Fort Dix to its first battle overseas. At over 33,000 words, the piece remains the longest article the magazine has ever published.

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Ali as Saint Sebastian (April 1968)

After Muhammad Ali was stripped of his 1967 boxing title for refusing to serve in Vietnam because it went against his Muslim faith, Leonard Shecter interviewed the fallen fighter for this 1968 cover. Ali had been living in Chicago, struggling to live off of his declining savings, and told the reporter, "Just give me a pair of blue jeans and a leather jacket, give me a stick with a rag on the back with some food in it and say, 'Get on the railroad tracks,' and I will do it. I believe that Allah would lead me to a gold mine on the train. I might find a million-dollar bill."

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Nixon's Last Chance (May 1968)

Long before Sarah Palin made her statement about putting lipstick on a pig, the 1968 Esquire cover featured Richard Nixon getting a makeover. "I showed him being made up like a movie star," Lois said in a Magazine Publishers of America speech in 2005. The magazine soon heard from White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, "complaining that Esquire was trying to depict his boss as a homosexual."

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Apotheosis: JFK, RFK, Dr. King (October 1968)

For the magazine's 35th anniversary issue, Lois touted its celebration with the theme, "Salvaging the Twentieth Century." With the two martyred Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King standing amid endless rows of nameless white headstones, Lois commented on the climbing body count of the Vietnam War. The triumvirate of fallen heroes was an image not to be forgotten.

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Andy Warhol in Soup (May 1969)

The May 1969 issue featured Andy Warhol drowning in the iconic soup can he was known for re-creating. The consuming cover grabbed America's appetite with the caption, "the final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde," and became one of ASME's coveted top 40 covers.

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Lt. Calley and Vietnamese Kids (November 1970)

Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was accused of murdering 102 civilians in the My Lai Massacre, but the November 1970 issue of Esquire gave the chastised military man a chance to reflect on his Army experiences in a first-person account with the help of writer John Sack. Still, the eerily cheerful cover was not enough—Calley was convicted as an American war criminal the following year.

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Battered Beauty (July 1967)

Five years after she donned that infamous bikini in Dr. No, Bond girl Ursula Andress appeared on the cover of Esquire in July 1967 with a more controversial getup. She wore a bandage on her head and sported a black eye—a symbol of the violence against women, a subject which was considered taboo at the time. The National Organization for Women was not pleased with Lois' artistic vision. "They said, 'You should have shown a real battered woman. You glamorized it.' Lois recounted: "I said, 'Well, nobody saw it that way. If you showed the real battered woman, that's a cover for Life magazine…. What I did was show a beautiful woman and have her say, I'm here for my sisters who are being battered."

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Bizarre Harper's Cover (October 1963)

Lois went both out of and inside the box with this 1963 cover, mocking the fashion world with this daring hobo-chic image decades ahead of its time. "The models, they spend hours being made up, but they always showed up dressed like this," Lois explained via Jezebel.com. "I used to joke around with my models when they came in casually dressed and say, 'Oh, if I'd seen you like this, I never would have hired you.'" Though two models turned down the cover shoot, Dolores Wettach disobeyed her Ford modeling agent to do it. "I called her up and she said, 'Screw them, I'll do it,'" Lois said.

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Capote Party (December 1967)

Truman Capote's legendary black and white ball at the Plaza Hotel was a source of contention for those left out of the party. Lois and other uninvited Hollywood elite fired back at the author with this 1967 cover: Jimmy Brown, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Pat Brown, Ed Sullivan, Pierre Salinger, Lynn Redgrave and Casey Stengel all appeared in black-and-white ensembles under the text, "We couldn't have come even if you had invited us, Truman Capote!"

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Stewardesses (February 1964)

In the year the civil-rights legislation passed, many stewardesses sought to challenge no-marriage rules, pregnancy disability, forced retirement, and gender restrictions in conjunction with their respective airlines. Lois gathered a group of 40 of the women from the air in mostly blue uniforms, after sending out a request for the airlines' best-looking flight attendants. "I did it as kind of a f*** you to the girlie covers," he later said. "And then it was pure fun."

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The Unknockables (June 1966)

Printed "in a time when everybody hates somebody," as the cover caption reads, Lois gathered a group of 50 celebrities America couldn't help but love in June 1966. Joe Louis, Marianne Moore, Norman Thomas, Helen Hayes, John Cameron Swayze, Kate Smith, Eddie Bracken, and Jimmy Durante were among the stars nobody could bring down during one of the country's darkest times.

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Vroom (December 1966)

Lois said he felt the pressure from Hayes to put out more "girlie" covers. And so this December 1966 issue featuring Italian actress Claudia Cardinale was born. "I did it kind of shamefully," Lois said about the star's cover. "I said, 'Can we get a hot looking woman and get her on a bike sticking her ass out, almost like a parody of a girlie cover.' And I got Claudia Cardinale. It was a big seller, Harold Hayes said. I said, 'Bullshit.'"

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Virna Lisi Shaving (March 1965)

When editor Harold Hayes told Lois about a piece entitled "The Masculinization of the American Woman," Lois conjured up this now-famous image of a beautiful female shaving the hairs on her chin. "I wanted to capture a woman being manly and still beautiful," Lois said. "It was a spoof of the whole idea of a glamorous Hollywood." Though American starlet Kim Novak's publicist reportedly hung up on him, the Italian actress Virna Lisi thought the idea was a great one. So great, in fact, that she shot it the same afternoon she heard about it. Decades later, Jessica Simpson went on to recreate the classic cover for Esquire in August 2008.