Trying to Find Out from Harold Hayes How to be a Great Editor

Harold Hays edited Esquire from 1963 to 1973 and it was the best 10-year run of any magazine I ever read.

After Hayes died, Tom Wolfe told the New York Times, “Under him, Esquire was the red-hot center of magazine journalism. There was such excitement about experimenting in nonfiction. It made people want to extend themselves for Harold.”

Carol Polsgrove wrote a good book about Esquire and Hayes: It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun? And Vanity Fair once had a good piece, by Frank Digiacomo, about “The Esquire Decade.” The Vanity Fair 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.”

Some insights from Polsgrove’s book:

Hayes did not care what reader surveys said people wanted to see in his magazine; he would give them what they didn’t expect to see.

He never forgot that he was a journalist whose job was to help readers make sense of their times, not by editorializing or hewing to some narrow line, but by making his magazine a forum for provocative views and detailed reports, for scenes freshly viewed and ideas newly expressed, in words, images—whatever it took.

Not everyone liked him; he could be charming, but he could be cold. Everyone feared him, one staff member told me; everyone was in love with him, said another.

His greatest gift as an editor may have been his ability to bring out the best in other people. Writers and editors were not instruments of his will; they were co-creators.

In 1977, four years after Hayes left Esquire, I wrote him. I sent him an issue of the Washingtonian and asked his advice on how to improve the magazine. “Esquire under your direction is my favorite magazine of all time,” my letter began.

He wrote back, “Thanks for sending me a copy of the April issue, which I liked lots.” After the obligatory kind words, he said, “It is still awfully tight in presentation given the great number of pages you have.” Reading his letter now, I expect what he really was thinking was that this guy has no clue but maybe I can talk some sense into him.

He then agreed, for $1,000, to look at several issues and come down from New York and spend a day with us in Washington. I have two pages of notes summarizing his advice. Here’s some of it:

“Put Xeroxes of the center section up on a wall so you can see how pages relate to one another.

“Get some sample copy set in what you’re now using and also in nine on ten Times Roman.

“Pick a basic head face–use a consistent face for decks and quotes.

“Use the magazine logo on the opening spread of the center section.

“Keep the front of the book as tight as possible.

“Make more use of quotes—use bigger type, shorter quotes.

“Type on cover almost unreadable—too small, not enough contrast.

“Consistent style for department illustrations.

“Use more quotes as captions—try to make captions better teasers.

“Not enough change in scale in photos–everything looks middle distance.

“Too many mug shots in magazine—pictures of people are good but make them good pictures.

“Stop repeating illustrations, elements of illustrations.

“Spreads should pull together as spreads—now look like separate pages.

“Jump more stories out of the center section—open it up more.

“Don’t bop around so much. Stop trying to use so many tricks. The key is clean, tasteful, bold, simple.”

All helpful design advice but what I think I really wanted was for Hayes to tell me how to be a great editor. That, it became clear in our one-day discussion, wasn’t something that could be communicated.

So for the $1,000 I didn’t find out what made Hayes great. I thought he was the most interesting editorial mind of the 20th century but he couldn’t tell anyone how to have an interesting mind.

He’d probably say to learn to be a good editor read interesting books and magazines and newspapers and try to absorb what makes them good. The same for writers: Read interesting writers and hope it makes you better.


  1. barney collier says

    In 1971, Editor Hayes asked me to write a piece about Chuck Hughes, a Detroit Lions football player who died on the field. Hughes did not say what to do nor how to do it.

    He didn’t edit that way, and the most successful editors I know don’t either.

    The hyperbolic “new journalism” of Hayes’ heyday was fueled by his fairly fundamental notion that writers and musicians fill almost identical niches in different media. His layout biases, some of which David Ogilvy, the ad man, promoted, were state-of-the-art at the time. He trusted his gut intuition, and if he liked the syle and tatste of something, he believed all his readers would, too.

    It was up to the writer how to do a great riff, Hayes bought it, and Esquire paid promptly. Over-editing was not a problem with Esquire and witty ideas “from out of nowhere” were constructed by good writers free of chains.

    I counted recently the seven-decades of editors I have known and written for since nine years old. (My first editor, Grant Howell, was nicknamed “Growl.”)

    If there is any really pithy and insightful collection of portraits of editors past, present, and future, I’m unaware of it.

    A really worthwhile story for editors now,
    many thanks.

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