The most famous thing Esquire magazine founding editor Arnold Gingrich ever said was, “The sonofabitch bit my finger!” In what he describes as “both the best-remembered and the worst-remembered day of my life,” Gingrich found himself shuttling back and forth across the street between his boss Dave Smart’s office in Chicago (where he was supposed to fire an unsatisfactory European contributor to a new magazine) and the historic Drake Hotel, where F. Scott Fitzgerald was falling off the wagon for perhaps the last time in his short life.
Fitzgerald, not Smart, bit Gingrich’s finger.
The year was 1938. Gingrich, who had made friends with Fitzgerald in the author’s star years just after World War I, had brought him to the new Esquire magazine as a contributor from the book’s start, in 1933. Smart, the adman who, with partner Bill Weintraub, had conceived Esquire as a Forbes lookalike elaboration of their earlier quarterly catalogue publications to men’s wear stores, had hit the jackpot with the new magazine, largely because they had firmly established their advertising and circulation strategies before they started — and thereby paid the bills. Fitzgerald was living with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who described the drunken scene at the Drake in pitiless detail in her memoir, Beloved Infidel.
Fitzgerald would be dead at 44 two years later. And nowadays no one remembers Arnold Gingrich, the man who published “The Crackup” and Hemingway’s “The Snow of Kilimanjaro” and who, with Smart and Weintraub, invented the modern magazine.
GINGRICH STARES, SLIGHTLY pop-eyed, from the photograph on the back of his Esquire memoir, Nothing But People (Crown, 1971). He has a triangular gray mustache and neat hair (a gentleman should never look like he needs, or has just had, a haircut, he once wrote). He puffs on a simple billiard-shaped meerschaum pipe. He wears a navy wool blazer with a precise quarter inch of French cuff showing, his collar is pinned under a narrow dark tie, and he displays the left lapel of a creamy tailored waistcoat. Behind him, on the wall of his office, hangs framed a silhouette portrait of a slender girl of the Twenties in a cloche hat. On the back of The Well-Tempered Angler (Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), Gingrich’s hymn to fishing, he appears in similar cocked-brow pose in a skilled caricature, uncredited. It looks like it could have graced the walls of a Manhattan restaurant. It may still. Plainly, he was a man of consequence in the New York City of his day.
Plainly, that New York City does not exist any more.
It existed in 1965, when I arrived in Manhattan with my nascent pipe collection to start college. Lexington Avenue, a gloriously old-fashioned and slightly seedy thoroughfare, featured a haberdasher and a tobacconist on every other block. Madison, only slightly flossier, was home to the famed Wilkie Sisters pipe shop. Men wore hats, and stores displayed them. At Gingrich’s Esquire then, the old editor had hired a room full of young turks to bring his book into the then modern era. That team included Clay Felker, who would go on to start the pace-setting New York magazine (in the wake of which a dozen city magazines blossomed in the 1970s), Ralph Ginsburg, who would start and fail with Eros, and fiction editor Rust Hills, who repeatedly and kindly corresponded with me in my youth.
Esquire‘s “image,” Gingrich said back in the thirties, though the term was not then used, was “Mister.” Men’s style is what designers want to make, he said, and fashion is what men want to buy. Esquire‘s grasp of that principle, and its rock-solid startup distribution via men’s wear stores and manufacturers, resulted in the establishment of the first magazine appealing to the “horizontal demographic.” It was not for everybody, like the Saturday Evening Post. Its shallow audience layer crossed all geographic regions, all ages, and, in its modern version (think of the Michael Jordan cover), all ethnic groups. “This is what you want to look like,” Esquire said to a certain man, and that man agreed.
GINGRICH BECAME EDITOR by default. He, Smart, and Weintraub had sold out the first year’s ad contracts, set up the distribution deal, and engaged the photographers and agencies, when it only then occurred to them that a magazine needed something else — words, editorial matter. Gingrich, who had been a copywriter, got the job because Smart and Weintraub so obviously could not do it. And for the first year or two, any time an assigned writer failed to come through, Gingrich supplied the copy himself.
This testifies, if to nothing else, to the literary abilities of commercial men in those days, an ability now just as gone as the old Lexington Avenue.
Not that Gingrich lacked for contributors. He had formed an early friendship with Ernest Hemingway. In exchange for an agreeing always to pay Hemingway twice the magazine’s going rate, Gingrich got to use the author’s name to land other talent, which he did, notably Ezra Pound and Theodore Dreiser. The magazine also printed George Jean Nathan, H.L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, Havelock Ellis, Thomas Mann, John Steinbeck, and Sean O’Faolain. Gingrich did all-star jazz bands before Playboy, and entertained Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart in his office when they were smart young whippersnappers. He held a regular literary salon at the Plaza Hotel on Dave Smart’s generous tab, and he worked hard, rising at 4:40 every morning and getting to his office by 6:30.
GONE, GONE, ALL GONE. NOWADAYS, as I discovered in searching the Internet to try to find out when Gingrich died, there is almost nothing about him alone that would tell you. It must have been just before 1974, when the first Gingrich Memorial Award was presented. Gingrich’s books include the already-mentioned Nothing But People and The Well Tempered Angler, as well as A Thousand Mornings of Music (Crown, 1970), about his late-blooming obsession with the violin; Toys of a Lifetime (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), about clothing, cars, pipes, fishing rods, ocean liners, and other good things of the last century; Business and the Arts: An Answer to Tomorrow; and his 1935 volume, The Gift of the Laurel (I cannot find the publisher for the last two; indeed, cannot find them at all). The books I’ve just re-read ring with the decisive tone of the self-assured American go-getter. None is in print.
The closest thing to available Gingrich is his loving introduction to The Pat Hobby Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which can be bought in paperback. Gingrich published all 17 of those stories in Esquire, five of them after Fitzgerald’s death.
What? You haven’t heard of The Pat Hobby Stories, either? Well, get acquainted, then. And get to know Arnold Gingrich. I had to dig his books out of libraries all over Massachusetts, and they are a pleasure to read, if for no other reason than to hold signature-bound volumes printed on good rag paper, the way books used to be. And to read the writing of a gentleman the way it used to be not so very long ago.
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