How did you get hooked up with Esquire editor Harold Hayes?
He’d been reading about our campaigns in the advertising column of the New York Times; Peter Bart, who now edits Variety, was writing it then. Hayes called up cold and said he’d like to have lunch. I was an avid reader of Esquire in those days. We had lunch at The Four Seasons. That was before the power lunch. I was trying to get Joe Baum of Restaurant Associates, who I was working with back then, to change the Grill Room, to do what I used to call a businessman’s lunch. I told him, “We can make that room a hot room.” Anyway, Hayes says, “Can I talk to you about covers? We’re trying to do better covers.” I asked, “Well, how do you do ’em now?” “The editors come in, art directors, we all talk together. A couple of days later, we all come in and talk about ideas.” I said, “Oh, my God, is that the way you do it with Norman Mailer? Give it to one guy who understands the culture, a graphic designer.” He says, “Who can do that?” I thought about it. “Well,” he says, “could you do me one?” That coverit was of a Floyd Patterson look-alike on the canvas in an empty boxing stadiumessentially predicted the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson fight. It caused a sensation and sold like 120,000 more on the newsstand. So Hayes said, “George, can you keep doing them?” I said, “I will as long as I can just do ’em. When you turn down the first one, I’m gone.” There was constant complaint from the ad directors. Hayes kept me out of it. And the only reason he was allowed to keep me was circulation was going up. Most clients I treat like they don’t know shit. But I figured Hayes was smart enough to figure it out.
The book is about celebrities. You seemed to have a gift for getting along with them. What is the secret?
It’s I know what the fuck I know, and you know what the hell you know, and I’ll tell you what I think, and you tell me to fuck off. Not even “fuck off.” I’ll leaveI’m gone. I had a great relationship with Bobby Kennedy, with a lot of these guys. We did Kennedy’s Senate campaign in ’64. The only unlikable thing about him was his womanizing. I used to go up to his suite at the Carlyle every couple of days. A few times, in the middle of a meeting, a woman would come in, go into one of the bedrooms. Bobby would excuse himself for fifteen minutes. Finally, when he came back one day, I said, “Bobby, what the fuck you doin’?” He said [Lois whispers], “Blow job.” I mean, give me a break, in the middle of the day? At least do it on the q.t.
How did you get Lieutenant William Calley to pose with those Vietnamese kids?
We got him in the studio, and I told him, “Listen, I’m a Korean vet, I know exactly what you went through.” I really suckered the son of a bitch.
Nixon and his people didn’t like you much, either.
When I did Nixon being made up, they felt they’d been ambushed. Ron Ziegler, his press secretary, calls up yelling and screaming at Harold. Harold said, “What’s your problem?” Ziegler said, “We know you’re trying to say he’s gay, he’s homosexual.” And he added, “You know, if Nixon becomes president, Esquire better watch out.” Hayes and I laughed our asses off.
Ziegler just died, actually.
Yeah, I knew I’d get that cocksucker eventually.
Why isn’t anyone doing covers like the ones you did for Esquire?
It’s easy to do the covers. It’s hard to get someone to run them. Covers like that would really stand out today. And I don’t see anyone doing great advertising that nails something mnemonically with both images and words. There were still remnants of great advertising in the seventies and eighties. What Chiat/Day did with Jordan was great. I mean, Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan, but they used him the right way. And that great Apple commercial, which was horseshit, but it was Citizen Kane horseshit. It was the kind of thing that knocked you on your ass.
Do you have a diagnosis of what the problem is with advertising now?
As Yogi Berra said, you see a lot by looking. You can name hundreds of products that spend millions a year on advertising, but what’s the thought? You can’t look at the ads and sayit’s this. You gotta come up with an idea, one that won’t change the world necessarily but will certainly change that product. To me, great advertising can make food taste better, can make your car run smoother. It can change your perception of something. Is it wrong to change your perception about something? Of course not. I’m not lying; I’m just saying, “This one’s more fun, this one’s more exciting.”
If you were starting out now, would you still choose to go into advertising?
The way the advertising game is today, it’s so difficult. The clients take such terrible advantage of the agencies, beat them up and don’t pay them when they’re supposed to. In the old days, we didn’t have such problems. The entrepreneurs, at least the ones I was lucky enough to work for, they were there to help you, they were there to make sure you did well. At the same time, I am what I am. I like changing people’s minds about things, selling things. I don’t know how I could stay away.
And you’ve been married to your wife, Rosemary, since before you even got into the business.
We met on the first day of school (Pratt Institute) in September 1949. We were just incredibly luckywe were perfect for each other. We had two sons. Luke, who’s a photographer, works with me now as a computer designer. The older boy, Harry, died two weeks after his 20th birthday, of a heart disorder. Nowadays, you can just take a pill to handle it. My kid was six three, 220, with a 33-inch waist. He was such a strong kid. He got offered scholarships, football and baseball scholarships, at every school in the country, but he didn’t want to; he wanted to be a producer with me. I mean, he was a born producer from the day he walked in. It’ll be 25 years that he’s gone in September. I still cry every day.