Film

Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s Tracks the Career of Harold Hayes, an Editor on the Vanguard

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In 1962, Harold Hayes, managing editor at Esquire magazine, marched over to the cubical of junior editor John Berendt, announcing himself with the infamous ca-clat of his metal-tapped shoes. “Who is the most important literary figure in New York?”, Hayes asked. “W.H. Auden”, Berendt blurted meekly.

“Take him to lunch and get him to do a piece for us.” He did, and in December Esquire published ‘Do You Know Too Much?’, an article by Auden on the limits of education. This anecdote, recounted in the documentary Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s, proves representative of the magazine’s approach during its golden age. Indeed, that was the way of Harold Hayes: his editorial ambitions were stratospheric, his sensibility on the vanguard, his manner audacious to the point of cavalier.

He was possessed of a peerless curatorial vision, and, significantly, held the influence to realize it: Under his tenure the magazine attracted a brilliantly distinguished roster of contributors, among them Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese.

The film mounts a compelling case on behalf of what was, perhaps, a sort of genius — a rare gift for identifying talent in others and nurturing it, even amplifying it.

As portraiture the film may be too affectionate, owing to the fact that it has been directed by Tom Hayes, Harold’s son. (Harold, if assigning a writer to his own profile, would have doubtless selected someone less sympathetic.) But based on the evidence presented, Hayes draws a fair conclusion: As a magazine editor, his father was one of the greats.

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