The New Esquire

Men are From Venus Too 
By Catherine Lee  

A mud mask applied at half time leaves a face young and supple by the 4th Quarter. Photo by Jennifer Pinkowski.


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Okay. Name the magazine that contains the following articles: "How Good is Your Marriage?" "The Man Who’s Had 46 Affairs" and "Oh, My God, We’re Not Blond Anymore." Cosmopolitan? Harper’s Bazaar? Elle? Glamour? Is that your final answer? Sorry. It’s none of the above. In fact, it’s not a women’s magazine at all. It’s the granddaddy of men’s magazines — Esquire. What, you may ask, is going on here?

Esquire, created in 1933, is one of the oldest and most prestigious men’s magazines in the country. Once filled with fiction by Hemingway, non-fiction by Norman Mailer, and cartoons by Peter Arno, Esquire earned its reputation with smart and witty journalism that marked years of a macho, literary tradition. These days, however, Esquire, which routinely runs pieces on health, beauty, love, and relationships, seems to have undergone a sex change operation.

In fact, what appears to have happened is that times have changed. "Esquire became gradually less stereotypically chauvinistic as years went by," says Byron Dobell, the former managing editor in the 1960s and 1970s. "It was certainly not the most feminist-prone magazine, but gradually it changed in the ‘70s and ‘80s because it reflected the culture of its time."

Esquire was the quintessential men’s magazine. The founding editor, Arnold Gingrich, and the publisher, David Smart, conceived the magazine as one of "new leisure" for the sophisticated gentleman. Renowned writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos filled its pages with fiction, essays, and even poetry.

But the magazine was funny, too. It featured satire, sketches by Geoffrey Kerr and George Chappell and cartoons by E. Simms Campbell, a black artist from the Art Institute of Chicago who had trouble publishing his work at other magazines. Esquire’s prototype was a culmination of fashion, humor and fine writing.

The cover of the first issue, back in autumn of 1933, was an illustration of Adirondack-like woodsmen, with a masculine look that mirrored the magazine’s content. Advertisements for cigars, Dunlap hats, alcohol and automobiles filled the front and back ends of the magazine, but Gingrich and Smart were careful not to allow men’s fashion to overpower the literary aspect of the magazine.

Dobell says the magazine’s vision had not changed even when he became managing editor in the 1960s. "Esquire had established what constitutes a gentleman, but at the same time had literary value," he said.

Of the 105,000 copies of the first issue, only 5,000 were to be distributed on newsstands, the rest going to men’s clothing stores. But after the newsstand copies sold out in just a few hours, Gingrich and Smart decided to ship the remaining 100,000 copies to newsstands. The 50-cent quarterly became a monthly in January 1934, four months after the first issue.

Since then, Esquire has preserved much of its tradition of quality journalism, and this year alone, under the current editor-in-chief, David Granger, earned eight nominations for the 2001 National Magazine Awards. It is a finalist in categories such as personal service, special interests, fiction, reporting and feature writing.

But something peculiar has happened. Gone are the traditional articles like "Common-Sense Manners" and "A Bachelor Apartment." Instead, the nominations are for service pieces such as "How to Be a Better Man" and Ted Allen’s "This Man Survived Breast Cancer." Granger says he imagines what might be compelling to intelligent men today, and what the magazine can do to improve the quality of their lives.

But it started pre-Granger. In the 1980s, Esquire began to feature articles such as "The Diet: A Photographic Testament to the Transformation of a Fat Man" and "Men on Abortion: The Anger, Fear, Guilt, Indifference." Granger, who took it one step further when he became editor-in-chief in 1997, has run a number of women’s magazine-type articles.

Thus, "How to Be a Better Man" in the November 2000 issue is accompanied by a 14-page manual on how to do everything: gut a fish, carve a turkey, remove a stain, grow flowers, dance, please a woman. A feature article in the same issue, "The Better Man (A Work In Progress)," discusses plastic surgery for men: skin peels, botulin injections, eye tucks, chin tucks, and of course, penile enlargements.

Then there was the February 2001 "Desire" issue, which included articles such as "The Joy of Sex with the Wife," where John Richardson recounts his tale of desire and emotion after 15 years of marriage; "Women Who Were Not My Wife," an anonymous account of a man’s 32 affairs; and "What You Want — The Esquire Desire Survey," which took polls on who’s more likely to cheat — a man or a woman, number of affairs and sexual fantasies. Even two years ago, in July 1999, there was "Italian Lessons," where Italian greats such as Giorgio Armani, Giancarlo Giannini and Gianfranco Vissani share their secrets on style, romance and cooking. Simplicity is key to a man’s wardrobe, says Armani, while Vissani stresses quality ingredients for a great dinner. Giannini, on the other hand, offers the secret to Italian lovers, "We know how to look a woman straight in the eye."

In comparing the new Esquire to the old, Bruce Friedman, a man’s man and a contributing writer to Esquire from 1965 to the 1990s, notices the change. For example, he says, the last time he picked up the magazine, there was a 14-page physiological exam of the penis. The "old" Esquire would have run the same article as a parody, but now it functions as a service piece.

"Esquire was much more satirical in its approach," he said. "It didn’t take itself as seriously. At a quick glance, it looks like Esquire is now actively trying to provide service. It is much more heavy-breathing."

In every issue of Granger’s Esquire, there is a whole "style" department that discusses men’s apparel: hand-stitched leather loafers, lightweight trench coats, two-button, single-breasted cotton suits, gabardine and linen blazers, gingham shirts and ties.

"Esquire used to have a four-to-five page fashion spread," says Chris Calhoun, a literary agent who has been reading Esquire since high school in the early 1970s. "But now it is so market-driven and subservient to advertisers, which include apparel and toiletries. There is so much new stuff that men were not using before, so now Esquire has to write about it."

Granger’s Esquire is not alone. The feminization of men’s magazines is a trend. Dan Peres, the editor-in-chief of Details, the men’s magazine that re-launched last fall, says that service sections have increased across all men’s magazines, and that content is lighter, frothier.

"They’re still doing jazz albums and sports, but in the same breath they do recipes for crème brulée and moisturizers," he says. "Even the old-school magazines are becoming more feminine."

Though well-known for its fashion spreads and departments on style, GQ, another quintessential men’s magazine, has a "Personal Best" department in every issue that serves as a guide to health, fitness and grooming. The "Interior" department features articles such as last month’s inside look at the design of TV pioneer Sid Krofft’s home in Los Angeles. The "Dr. Sooth" column offers explicit advice on sex and relationships to tormented souls. This month’s issue has a humorous feature on men’s grooming entitled "Good Head," which discusses the distinctive coifs of the Republican Party: Rudy Giuliani’s comb-over, Trent Lott’s thinning hairline and George Bush’s look that "calls for a propeller beanie."

Even Playboy, with its lubricious centerfolds, goes beyond its macho, exploitative content to include this month’s fashion feature on the best kind of underwear — Tommy Hilfiger or Hugo Boss.

Don’t tell the editors of Maxim, the best of the new breed of raunchy so-called laddie magazines, but part of the reason for this new feminization, Peres says, is because masculinity has matured and evolved and readers expect the magazines to respond to their interests. "There are softer stories like photo essays and architecture that traditionally men did not care about," says Peres. "The bottom line is that men are more into moisturizers than fly-fishing."

Another contributing factor to the new content is the gay sensibility, Peres says. "A lot of men’s magazines are scared of being pigeon-holed and labeled as a magazine for gay men, but right now gay and straight men are so similar that the industry can get away with it."
Over the last ten years, the real feminization, Calhoun says, may be found in the endless number of articles about the male body. Taking their cue from their female counterparts, men’s magazines are now starting to play upon their reader’s insecurities. Hence, the proliferation of articles focused on the body and sexual performance. Beyond the cover of a greased man with perfect abs, Men’s Health magazine offers tips on the "World’s Greatest Sex Trick" and how to "Look Your Best in 10 Minutes or Less." Granger says that other men’s magazines like Stuff and FHM have begun to imitate the types of articles found in Cosmopolitan and Glamour because they guarantee readership.

"One of the keys to success for women’s magazines is that they prey on the insecurity of women," he says. "With Men’s Health, they tried to make men feel insecure so that they would buy the magazine, but it’s a lack of respect for their audience. That has been the basis of a very successful formula." Rather than giving their readers something to aspire to, Granger says, these magazines are self-deprecating and capitalize on that for success.

Particularly in discussions of sex, men’s magazines are falling in step with their female counterparts. Esquire, then, is evolving along with its readers. It has survived less by exploiting women than by imitating them, by internalizing the feminine sensibility. Perhaps the "feminization" of America will eventually lead to a decline in the chauvinistic practice of putting scantily-clad women on magazine covers. "There is always pressure to do the thing that’s working in the industry," says Granger. "But an editor has to decide what he wants his magazine to be."