George Lois, publicist and creator of iconic Esquire covers, dies at 91

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George Lois, a Madison Avenue publicist who in the 1960s injected counterculture ethics into the covers of Esquire magazine, wounding boxer and anti-war activist Muhammad Ali with arrows and drowning Andy Warhol in a Campbell’s Soup Can to portray the collapse of avant-garde art, died November 18 at his New York home. He was 91 years old.

Mr Lois’ son, Luke Lois, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Although Mr. Lois designed groundbreaking advertising campaigns for brands such as Stouffer’s, Xerox, Tommy Hilfiger and MTV – his “I want my MTV” ads and posters were a staple of 1980s culture – his Esquire covers , the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, were considered his magnum opus.

Working with photographer Carl Fischer, Mr Lois portrayed Ali, who had been convicted of escape for refusing to fight in Vietnam, as the martyr Saint Sebastian in a black and white boxing trunk – “a mixture of race, religion and war in one picture,” Mr. Lois later said.

He put a halo on the head of Roy Cohn, chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy during his investigation into communist activity. “What are you trying to do to us?

The most shocking cover of Mr. Lois was that of William L. Calley Jr., the army lieutenant court-martialed and convicted in the brutal My Lai massacre, smiling in uniform with Vietnamese children sitting in his lap . To put him in that pose, Mr. Lois told Calley about his own combat experiences during the Korean War.

“I conquered it,” Mr. Lois told New York magazine in 2010. “And the kids just looked at the camera, and I said, ‘Calley, give me a big smile s — eating ! And he did. He ran and, I tell you, people went crazy in America.

Which was precisely his intention as artistic director.

“My genre of art has nothing to do with putting images on canvas,” Mr. Louis said at a design and publicity event in Miami Beach in 2014. “My concern is creating images that grab people’s attention, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts and make them act.

To do this, he says, “I had to hustle, push, cajole, persuade, coax, exaggerate, manipulate, flatter, be obnoxious, occasionally lie and always sell.” Throughout his career, he told stories about these methods with considerable, if not questionable, zeal.

In one story, it’s 1959 and Mr. Lois is a young publicist with Goodman’s matzos account. He designed a poster in a pop-art style with a colossal piece of matzo beneath huge Hebrew script that translated to “kosher for Passover.” Goodman’s executives hated him.

“The owner was about 92 – all he knew how to do was say no,” Mr Lois told New York magazine in 2003. “So I said, ‘Let me go out and sell it to them.’ It never happened back then – they just didn’t think that way. Back then, they wouldn’t let the art director sell the work.

So he left for the Goodman office building in Long Island City. “I’m not getting anywhere,” recalls Mr. Lois. “So ultimately, I had to do something.” He opened the window and stepped out onto the ledge. “You do the matzos,” he told the Goldman owner, “I’m going to do the commercials.”

“Come back, I’ll already make it work,” the owner shouted.

“It became a famous story on Madison Avenue,” said Mr. Lois, who told it in his 1977 book “The Art of Advertising.” In a review titled “Flaunting It,” New York Times literary critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “George Lois may be almost as great a genius in mass communication as he himself claims. “.

George Harry Lois was born June 26, 1931 in New York and grew up in the Bronx with two sisters. Her father owned a flower shop. Her mother was a housewife. His Greek heritage made him a target in the neighborhood. “I had a fight with all the kids in my neighborhood,” Mr Lois told New York magazine. “I have about fifteen broken noses to prove it.”

But Mr Lois also recalled being harassed because he was ‘always drawing and I always had an artist’s portfolio with me’.

“Since I was a kid in public school, I’ve lived to draw, design, rearrange things,” he said during his talk in Miami Beach. “I could draw better, design better, sculpt better, paint better, do better in art history class than anyone in school.”

He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan in 1949, then attended the Pratt Institute, where he met Rosemary Lewandowski on the first day of class and married her in 1951. She died earlier that year.

Mr. Lois left Pratt after a year, taking a job with New York designer Reba Sochis. After serving in the Korean War, Mr. Lois worked at several Madison Avenue companies, including Doyle Dane Bernbach, which he left with several colleagues in 1960 to found Papert Koenig Lois.

In 1962, Hayes, the editor of Esquire, asked him to help him with the covers of the magazine, which were sober and boring. “The cover should make a statement, tell readers not only what this issue is about, but also what Esquire is about,” Lois told Hayes, according to Carol Polsgrove’s magazine story. “One cover followed another, until people understood: it was a great magazine.”

Mr. Lois’ covers often drew complaints from readers, but Esquire stood by it as the magazine became one of the hottest titles on newsstands, with Gay’s writing Talese, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, among other big names in rising literature, fill the interior. pages. Mr. Lois’ big personality annoyed some of his colleagues at Esquire, who thought he was taking too much credit for work that was actually more collaborative than he let on. He left the magazine in 1973 amid slowing newsstand sales.

Mr. Lois is survived by his son Luke and two grandsons. Another son, Harry, died in 1978.

Towards the end of his life, Mr. Lois was often asked about the authenticity of the hit TV show “Mad Men,” an AMC drama about Madison Avenue rulers in the 1960s. In a 2013 interview with Newsweek he called the series human excrement, saying the characters – including Don Draper – were “talentless bums”.

The show, he wrote in a CNN.com article, “is nothing more than the realization of every possible stereotype of the early 1960s neatly bundled together to convince consumers that the kind of behavior morally repulsiveness manifested by its characters – with one night stand and excessive consumption of Cutty Sark and Lucky Strikes – it’s glamorous and “vintage”.

Mr. Lois had a higher self-image.

“By far the most exciting moment” of his career, he told The Associated Press in 2008 at the MoMa exhibition of his Esquire covers, was seeing his work on display at the museum. “I always considered myself an artist,” he said. . “And this is the Museum of Modern Art. And I’m an artist.”

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