Tom Hayes has chronicled his father’s time as the editor of Esquire magazine in a new documentary
Tom Hayes had one of those Manhattan childhoods that all of us have fantasized about.
He grew up in Babe Ruth’s former apartment, all 15 rooms of it, on the Upper West Side.
He was once babysat by Gloria Steinem.
And when his parents threw a dinner party, in their apartment on Riverside Drive, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese and Nora Ephron were as likely as not to be part of the crowd.
For a 10-year-old boy, it was a heady time, and Hayes soaked it in from his perch on the living-room sofa. Now, nearly a half century later, Hayes has produced a documentary about those years, and about the legacy of his father, Harold Hayes, who ran Esquire magazine during its heyday.
“I wanted to make sure the old man was remembered,” said Hayes, whose day job is producing newsmagazine segments for German television. “I’ve kind of realized the dream of being a filmmaker by making a film about my father.”
Hayes sits behind a desk in an East Side apartment that served as his father’s pied a terre after the family moved to upstate New York. (Then, as now, Manhattan pied a terres carried with them the faint hint of middle-aged naughtiness, which, in Harold Hayes’ case, was apparently justified.) The walls are covered with the iconic covers that Hayes’ father published in rapid fire during his tenure at the magazine: Muhammad Ali shirtless and shot up with arrows; Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s Soup; Robert Kennedy, JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. photoshopped together at Arlington National Cemetery.
The movie, called “Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s,” is largely an exploration of Hayes’ stewardship of Esquire, though parts of it also feel like a home-movie tribute to father from son. But unlike other memoirs from the children of famous people, here there is no dark tinge; Hayes unabashedly loved his dad.
“I was a little bit in awe of the man,” said Hayes. “I felt I was special, until my sister came along.”
Hayes said the notion of exploring his father’s contributions to magazines, and to journalism, came after his father’s death, in 1989, and the flood of Harold Hayes tributes that followed. By learning more about Esquire, he says, he came to understand more about his family.
In the movie, Hayes says this: “The magazine’s voice was dad’s. This voice also pervaded my childhood, making Esquire simply the older brother I never had.”
For a time, in the mid- and late-1960s, Esquire was the hottest thing in media, and Harold Hayes was its impresario. Hayes’ innovation was to give every aspect of the magazine a distinctive and memorable voice and point of view, and to marry writers and subjects in ways that never before had been tried. Its impact on the culture was particularly astonishing given the five-month lead time between when stories were finished and when they would appear in print.
Ultimately, Harold Hayes wound up on the wrong side of a political battle at Esquire and left the magazine. He later would anchor a cultural-affairs program on television and then turn to book writing.
Tom, his son, doesn’t have much to say about the current state of Esquire, or about the magazine business in general. What makes the movie poignant is the recognition that magazines like the old Esquire are unlikely ever to return; they’ve been killed as the five-month lead time has been replaced by the five-second social media turnaround.
The day we spoke, Hayes had just returned from the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway and 62nd Street, where the movie will have its premier on Sept. 12. After a 20-year effort to bring the story to the screen – including a Kickstarter campaign, which he had hoped would raise $50,000, but failed – Tom Hayes finally believes he’s captured his father and his contributions to his field.
“I found myself really wrapped up in it,” he said. “Having done this, I feel like I know him completely.”