“Man at his best” is both the slogan and promise of Esquire magazine. “Best,” in this context, turns out to mean all that money can buy in the way of automobiles, wristwatches, adoring women, and clothes. Fernando Lamas’ paradoxical aphorism (taken seriously by a dull-witted comic who parlayed it into a career) sums it up: it doesn’t matter how you feel, so long as you look good. For Esquire, what’s important about Jack Kemp is that he has “grown more attractive with age.” In the same issue, readers could retreat from the complexities of modern life by looking into a short story by Bob Shacochis, a writer whose tales are filled with “the melancholy of self-exile, the sea air, and the smell of rum,” or by turning the remarkable number of pages devoted to showing and telling us why smart men in Washington and New York (including the U.S. senators, top government officials, and national broadcasters who posed as models for the pictures) are now wearing sweaters as “the new weekend alternative.”

Esquire was born with a fascination with men’s fashion in its genes: all of its ancestors—including The Man of Today, Gentlemen’s Quarterly (old version), Apparel Arts, Club & Campus, and The Observer—were essentially haberdashery journals. Esquire‘s founding editor, Arnold Gingrich (who began his career as an advertising manager), looks back at the periodical’s genealogy in Nothing But People: The Early Days at Esquire (Crown, 1971). Gingrich credits Gentlemen’s Quarterly with breaking through journalists’ indifference to male fashion; “Almost the only editorial treatment ever accorded to fashions for men in the pages of American magazines and newspapers had been derisory” (one more reason to long for the good old days).

With remarkable candor, Gingrich admits that planning for Esquire focused chiefly on ways “to add more and more sugarcoating to the bitter pill that . . . the fashion content represented.” The magazine had to be made “hair-chested” and “substantial enough to deodorize the lavender whiff coming from the fashion pages.” The editors planned from the beginning to seek out gifted writers and talented athletes not so much because they were interested in fiction or football, but because they knew of no other way to make a men’s fashion show in print acceptable to “the cream of the great middle class between the nobility and the peasantry.” Ernest Hemingway and Gene Tunney were just part of the “sugarcoating.”

In only a few years after its first issue (1933), Esquire was in the limelight. The editors explained their strategy and its success with a jaunty nonchalance in a promotional book, The Third New Year: An Etude in the Key of Frankness, sent to advertisers in 1935:

Esquire treats as legitimate subject matter all the normal activities of civilized adult life. Its only aim . . . is amusement. . . . It’s flippant, cynical, frequently superficial, and sometimes somewhat brash in its sophistication. Perhaps that’s why some of you have told us that you “don’t want it in your home.” . . . The best days of a magazine last only as long as the period for which it happens to hold the spotlight. It’s a lot like a musical comedy routine. All the pretty girls are lined up across the stage. One steps out and does her specialty and, for a moment, attention is focused on her, along with the spotlight. Then she steps back into line.

The dancing girl metaphor did not fit the Esquire of the 30’s nearly so well as it did the Esquire of the 40’s, when the magazine became decidedly less literary and far more titillating. Gingrich explains the decision to include more and larger “pinups” as an effort to “curry favor with the War Production Board,” which gave more paper to those magazines that could show they were trying “to enhance the morale of the troops.” The same winds of war that blew in the partially unclad young women also blew out most of the nattily dressed male models, as wartime austerity enforced a Spartan simplicity on the world of male fashion.

Gingrich left in 1946 to become Esquire‘s European correspondent, and, with the other key founders—including Bill Weintraub and Meyer Levin—otherwise engaged, there remained no “strong voice to insist on a restoring and reinvigorating of the magazine’s original fashion policy.” They also gave up any “pretense at maintenance of the original literary standards.” Cheap Western and detective fiction replaced the work of Hemingway, Dreiser, and Fitzgerald.

But in 1952, the Esquire management brought Gingrich back to the helm and gave him a mandate to revitalize the magazine, whose circulation was beginning to show the effects of a decade of drift and confusion. Gingrich made it a top priority to get the girly pictures out of the magazine, and he credits Hugh Hefner with helping him accomplish that goal. Hefner worked for Esquire in the postwar years, but left in 1950 to begin his spectacularly successful Playboy— “the magazine that is what Esquire used to be.” Playboy’s success only made Gingrich even more “determined to work the opposite side of the street . . . [by] ridding Esquire of any last vestigial traces of the girly flavor.”

With the girls gone, the Esquire of the 50’s could turn to important things—like the Hawaiian shirts and Roman striped pants that were suddenly all the rage with fashion-conscious men. Cowboys and shamuses also gave way to brand-name pieces by Aldous Huxley, Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, and Truman Capote. But besides returning the magazine to the pinnacles of fashion and fiction, the editorial policy during the 50’s developed some provocative new twists. Gingrich explains that in trying to restore life to the magazine, he gave encouragement “to the ideas . . . no matter how harebrained or wild-eyed, of the young editors.” Harold Hayes (recruited by Gingrich in 1956 as “a Southern liberal”) explained in a preface to an Esquire anthology that the editors took it as their task to challenge “the banality of the Fifties.” “From the raspberry to the hoax . . . and occasionally with some loss of dignity, the idea was to suggest alternate possibilities to a monolithic view. And how monolithic it was! The passivity of the Fifties was shared by garage mechanics and college presidents.”

Things moved fast in the 60’s, and it was hard to stay out in front. Within four years after publishing Lee Oswald’s letters to his mother and Tom Wicker’s reverential tribute to the fallen President, Esquire brought out Timothy Leary’s paean to LSD and Jean Genet’s graphic account of the 1968 Democratic Convention; stories on topless bars, on the “New Sentimentality” of sharpness and self-gratification, and on “The Life and Death of a Hippie” (one James “Groovy” Hutchinson, murdered with a wealthy girlfriend); and inevitably an issue devoted to “The Beautiful People: Campus Heroes for ’68/69,” with features on the hi jinks of Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn.

Gingrich soon sensed a tremendous “generation gap” between him and his new readers. He didn’t speak the same language as his new editors. He didn’t care for the “bop talk” that filled the trendy new articles. The contrast between the gifted writers of the old days and the incomprehensible new “experimental fiction” unsettled him, and he was annoyed at the way “instant celebrity [was] turning young authors and artists into self-indulgent and tempera mental stars before they’ve mastered their craft.” Editors, Gingrich com plained, were “kowtowing to punks” because they were “afraid to give them the spanking they deserve, because they can sense the presence of other editors just waiting . . . to grab the spoiled brats and woo them away with more and larger lollipops.”

But fashion promoters can’t afford to buck trends: Gingrich eventually handed the reins over to Harold Hayes, Don Erickson, Robert Benton, and the rest of “the kids.” Gingrich spent his last years (he died in 1976) reminiscing on the old days and philosophizing about compromises he’d made with the new era: “He who would keep a shop must have a smiling face . . . and when you’re getting out a magazine you are in effect just an other kind of shopkeeper, and if you want to go on being right because you think your customers are wrong you will sooner or later do so at your peril.” No haberdasher—not even Harry Truman—could have said it better.

Since the 60’s, Esquire has defined, not defied, cultural orthodoxy in America. Mention in Esquire‘s “Washington Briefing” carries real weight. (What other magazine can get senators to pose as fashion models?) And inclusion in Esquire‘s annual Register edition is just one step short of canonization for political organizers, artists, writers, or clothing designers. Esquire has largely regained its position as “America’s most talked-about magazine.”

Little mystery surrounds Esquire‘s renewed prominence. For once the 60’s had done their worst, the devotees of the New Sentimentality shared nothing except an obsession with stylish leisure, private consumption, and fashion-Esquire‘s specialties since the beginning. By the early 70’s, articles on men’s fashion, on French cuffs, double-breasted wool suits, or trench coats no longer needed camouflage or apology. Harold Hayes ob served that Esquire had crossed its “traditional boundaries” during the 60’s and entered onto “the more for bidding ground of politics, sociology, science, and even, occasionally, religion.” But a more credible analysis would see the movement going the other direction: that is, politics, social mores, and even religion lost their deeper roots and simply became new modes of fashion, with no firmer philosophical or epistemological roots than designer shirts and jeans.

Readers of Esquire can still find what passes for our best fiction as well as articles on serious subjects by celebrity journalists. Yet it is hard not to suspect that Esquire editors and most readers regard all this “literature” as nothing more than the necessary accessories to go with a good suit something like an ascot or a good cologne. Etheridge set the tone in The Man of Mode: “A gentleman should never go beyond a song or a billet.” To get a real whiff of how Esquire views books, take a look at last summer’s issue on new fiction. The cover shows a girl in a bikini on top of a stack of books. (Do girls still fall for guys who say they’re writers? We hope so.)

The honeymoon between sex and writing does not last long. In an issue last fall, Jerry Adler, a senior writer with Newsweek, explains that he valued his first child as a “philosophic statement,” but now that his wife wants a second, the whole thing was a bother. “I am worried,” he confesses, “about what another child will cost both in terms of income and outgo.” (Newsweek and Esquire are apparently content to pay him to write sentences like this.) No wonder that Esquire’s book on physical fitness-one of many Esquire leisure titles, covering wine-tasting, gambling, golfing, and fushion-bears the revealing subtitle How the Successful Male Can Avoid Going to Seed. Athletic sterility is now de rigueur.

We are, after all, a nation of men who would rather be dandies than daddies. Some of us are less than delighted with the prospect of an entire generation of touts, pimps, and male models putting on the airs of Sir Fop ling Flutter, but the editors of Esquire must be delighted. Their “pretty girl” has once again stepped out in front of the chorus line of national journalism into center stage. She commands the spotlight, and she knows her routine perfectly. But then, as William James could have told us, no one has danced burlesque longer or more artfully than “the bitch goddess success.”