Gay Talese on Harold Hayes: “A lot of love was there, and a lot of mistrust was there.”

By Jack Limpert


Hayes edited Esquire for 10 years and “cracked the code of a changing culture.”

Harold Hayes was born on April 18, 1926, in North Carolina and died on April 5, 1989, in Los Angeles—13 days before his 63rd birthday. From 1963 to 1973 he edited Esquire and it was the best 10-year run of any magazine I ever read.

Carol Polsgrove wrote a good book about Esquire and Hayes: It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun? And Vanity Fair had a good piece, by Frank Digiacomo, about “The Esquire Decade.” The deck: “Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and other stars of the nascent New Journalism recapture Hayes’s rise and reign, which cracked the code of a changing culture.”

What made Hayes so good? Here’s a clue from Talese, in Polsgrove’s book, talking about how complicated Hayes was:

“I had a very tricky relationship with him. A lot of love was there, and a lot of mistrust was there. I never trusted him. Because he was tricky. He looked like a wolf. He had that tricky eye, he was selling you something. He was coming to town with a wagon full of snake oil, and he was going to do the huckstering, and you were going to be the buyer, he hoped, and I’d buy a little bit, but I didn’t want to buy the whole carton, the whole wagon load of his shit, I didn’t want to buy that.

“I liked him. And I loved him in a way. And I liked working for him, I loved working for him.”

How do you translate that?

I’d do it by saying good editors are 51 percent warm-blooded and 49 percent cold-blooded. You’re enthusiastic about great stories, you love writers who do great work, and you’re not afraid to say no, no, no.

Here’s a shortened version of a post, The Ying and Yang of Being an Editor, I wrote in April 2013:

In Chinese philosophy yin and yang are opposite forces that interact to form a whole greater than either part. Looking back at a life of editing, there was a surprising amount of this kind of duality.

Are good editors warm-blooded? Sure. When someone had a story idea that seemed promising, I tried to sit down and talk about it with the writer, making sure we both were on the same page and enthusiastic about taking it on. I always thought that mutual enthusiasm with writers, editors, and designers was key to getting the best work out of all of us.

Are good editors cold-blooded? You better be. Sit in on a publication’s annual budget meeting and you quickly learn you have to decide where to invest time and money and where to cut.

Ruth Whitney, the legendary editor of Glamour, once told me that she didn’t like to get to know her writers because it then made it hard for her “to play lord high executioner.”

Some editors can’t do it. But to survive, an editor has to be decisive about how you spend your time (this writer is worth five minutes, this one an hour), how much space to give a story (“A nice idea but it’s a two-pager.”), how much cutting you do after the story comes in (“You’re taking out my voice!”) how much to pay (“Sorry, it’s the best we can do.), and when to sever the connection with a writer.

Cold-blooded, but publications survive when readers feel they aren’t wasting their time and money.

Yin and yang cuts across all parts of journalism. As star writer Lisa DePaulo once put it, “I marry them in the interviews and divorce them at the keyboard.” Warmth and kindness is one thing, journalism is something else.
P.S. John Fisher, the longtime editor of Harper’s, summed up what he learned by saying that an editor, when working, has no friends. That may be some of what Talese saw in Hayes.

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