Prologue Magazine

Esquire v. Walker

The Postmaster General and "The Magazine for Men"

Spring 1990, Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jean Preer

© 1990 by Jean Preer

refer to caption

The August 1942 Varga girl. Named for their creator, Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas, the Varga girls were a pictorial feature each month in Esquire. (©1942, The Hearst Corporation. All Rights Reserved.) The verse "Victory Song" is by Phil Stack:

We are still masters of our glorious fate
And those who thought Democracy was dead
Are silent now . . . their taunting jibes abate
As they await in terror and in dread,
The clang of steel rings out across the sea . . .
Great silver birds are poised to take the air,
The shipyards hum a song of victory . . .
The sound of marching feet is everywhere;
We have not changed . . . there is no sacrifice
That We, the People, will not gladly make,
Blood, sweat and tears will crush the crawling lice
Who thought a sleeping eagle would not wake!
And we who conquered pain and loss before
Will raise our flag above Corregidor!

On September 13, 1943, front-page stories heralded the progress of American soldiers in Italy. The Washington Star proclaimed, "Million Americans Are Buying War Bonds; Put Your Name High Up on the Honor Roll." Deep in the first section, an Associated Press wire story announced a renewed battle on the homefront: the United States Post Office had attacked the smoking-room humor and girlie cartoons of Esquire magazine. Charging that Esquire had published matter of an obscene, lewd, and lascivious character, the Post Office directed the magazine's publisher to show cause why Esquire's second-class mailing privileges should not be suspended, annulled, or revoked.

The story of the postmaster general and "The Magazine for Men" can be told through the records of the Post Office Department, which are found in Record Group 28 at the National Archives.(l) Departmental correspondence, hearing transcripts, legal briefs, and news clippings reveal the role of the Post Office as national censor of popular magazines. Although postal authorities threatened to revoke the second-class mailing privileges of more than seventy periodicals, it was Esquire that finally mounted a full-scale legal challenge to Post Office censorship. With splashy press coverage right up to the Supreme Court's decision in 1946, the case attracted national attention and spotlighted changes in values intensified by wartime pressures.

Esquire was one of the big success stories of the magazine boom of the 1930s. As its editor Arnold Gingrich recounted in his testimony, Esquire had begun as a merchandise catalog, free to customers of clothing manufacturers. Hurt by the depression, it evolved into a trade magazine and finally into a fashion magazine for men with articles "fore and aft." Gingrich described these stories as "sugarcoating the fashion pill." "Men," he said, "would feel a bit sissyish to be seen carrying away from a store a magazine that had in it no content whatever than, let us say, a foppish devotion to the subject of clothes."(2) In its expanded format, Esquire could no longer be given away free. When offered for sale in 1933, it immediately sold 100,000 copies. Unexpectedly, the newsstand trade surpassed sales through clothing stores.

From the start, Esquire applied a double standard to its text and its cartoon features. Its literary selections included articles and poems by some of the nation's outstanding and most promising authors. Contributions by Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gallico, Langston Hughes, and Clarence Darrow fulfilled Arnold Gingrich's ambition to have good stories that might also be good literature. The magazine's cartoons, however, caught the eye and gave Esquire its distinctive look. Voluptuous females, golddiggers and chorus girls, leering old gents and wisecracking servicemen provided endless variations on familiar themes. Esquire also knew how to package its product. Bedside Esquire, a collection of the magazine's best stories, published in 1940, was advertised as "A book for men who have hair on their manly chests." Critic Raymond Gram Swing observed that "The combination of Esquire's text and pictures is as surprising as would be the mind of Madame Curie and the body of Sally Rand."(3)

Under the law, postal officials had two different grounds for determining the mailability of newspapers and magazines. In 1865 Congress had barred obscene materials from the mails to stanch the flow of off-color literature to soldiers at the front.(4) At the urging of Anthony Comstock, a one-man lobby for purity in the mails and mainstay of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, it passed a more comprehensive measure in 1873. Known as the Comstock Act, it prohibited mailing any lewd, obscene, lascivious matter or any information or article related to contraception or abortion.(5) From time to time the law was amended to either ban from the mails or allow ads for liquor, films of prize fights, and information on state lotteries.

Under a separate statute passed in 1879, Congress authorized the Post Office to divide mailable matter into four classes.(6) A magazine or newspaper could qualify for cheaper second-class rates by meeting four conditions: first, publication at least four times a year at stated intervals; second, from a known office; third, in a prescribed binding. The fourth condition required that the magazine "must be originated and published for the dissemination of information of a public character, or devoted to literature, the sciences, arts or some special industry, and having a legitimate list of subscribers." The Post Office Division of Classification determined whether a publication qualified for second-class mailing privileges.(7)

Shortly after Frank Walker was named postmaster general by Franklin Roosevelt in August 1940, postal officials stepped up scrutiny of the popular press. Walker, a lawyer and one-time Montana politician, had been an early supporter and successful fundraiser for FDR. Later he played various behind-the-scenes roles for the New Deal, surfacing for each reelection campaign. After Roosevelt's nomination for President in 1932, Walker had been named treasurer of the National Democratic Committee and served as its chairman from January 1943 to January 1944, the year in which the Esquire case was initiated. A graduate of the law school at Notre Dame, Walker solicited support for Roosevelt in the Catholic community and was active in lay activities of the church.

The Post Office did not take formal action against Esquire until September 1943, but correspondence in the National Archives indicates that the department's solicitor, Vincent Miles, was in touch with Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich as early as the fall of 1940. In a letter dated November 1, 1940, Miles recorded a meeting in which he and Gingrich revised a poem scheduled for the December issue.(8) The offending verse was "The Knight Before Christmas," which depicted Santa Claus as a lover paying a nighttime call. Unless Esquire agreed to make changes in the verse, the entire December issue would be declared unmailable. "The verse under the pictures shall not read as it does in the proposed copy," wrote Miles, "but will be changed as follows." In the Post Office version, Santa Claus was no longer a freewheeling, skyborn lover but a stray husband who called on his wife and departed "long before dawn." Because the issue had already gone to press, Esquire had to print over the unacceptable verse in black and then print the new verse in white. Gingrich recalled, "I said that we would be very glad to change anything at any time in the magazine to which objection was taken, but it was certainly difficult to do it after a magazine was all printed."(9)

With continued questions from the Post Office over Esquire's moral tone, Gingrich undertook monthly trips to Washington, where he went over the dummy of each forthcoming issue "page by page, cartoon by cartoon, to get clearance prior to publication." Although bothered by this process, Gingrich concluded, "It seemed the only safe way to stay out of trouble. I would make all the required revisions on the spot, and some of the things I had to 'tone down' seemed to me to be a case of bending over backward to avoid offending even the most sensitive of sensibilities to a degree that was nearly ludicrous."(10)

While the Esquire case ultimately attracted the most public notice, postal authorities scanned, cited, or banned more than seventy periodicals in the early 1940s. As Washington Times-Herald columnist George Dixon reported, the campaign started out with True Confession and College Humor. "These publications did not put up much of a fight. They caved in, allowing the Post Office to virtually dictate what their content should be in the future."(11) Senator James Langer of North Dakota entered in the Congressional Record a list of all the publications challenged by the Post Office prior to the Esquire case.(12) Langer took particular exception to scrutiny of the National Police Gazette, which he defended as a staple of American barbershops and the reading matter of Presidents.

In May 1942, however, the Post Office called a halt to all prepublication reviews. Miles informed Gingrich that the Post Office was not required to rule on mailability and advised, "If one harbors doubts as to the mailability of the material offered, because of the statutes relating to obscenity, a sense of decency and good morals should compel him to conclude that the material should not be sent through the mails."(13)

Like other magazines, Esquire published stories and articles on the United States' fighting forces abroad and civilian activities on the homefront. The February 1943 issue, for example, included "Esquire's Pocket Air Power Course," an article on "The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe," and a story on "The Unsinkable Sailor." Arnold Gingrich estimated that the issues challenged by the Post Office included eighty-five articles on subjects of current interest. largely to do with the war. Even the cover reflected the changing role of women in wartime: Esky, the magazine's trademark playboy, ogles the Esquire version of Rosie the Riveter at work in an airplane factory.

Esquire's motives were not solely patriotic. Esquire was, after all, in the fashion business. Arnold Gingrich described how Esquire had calculated the good will of the armed forces since the fall of 1940. "We think of these men . . . as being an extremely valuable advertising market," he said, "[T]hey will constitute the single most important block of customers for the post-war years." A typical fashion foldout, showing what the smart man would wear to the launching of a new American submarine, nicely combined Esquire's traditional focus on clothes with the appropriate patriotic sentiment.(14)

Left to its own editorial judgment, Esquire continued to offend the sensibilities of postal authorities. By the time the Post Office issued its show cause order in September 1943, its officials had closely scrutinized the 1943 issues. Taped to the cover of each copy later offered in evidence was a list of its offending pictures and passages. Inside the magazine, a postal censor had stamped a pink finger which pointed accusingly at each objectionable item.

Ironically, some of Esquire's difficulties with the Post Office stemmed from features calculated to boost the war effort. Censors objected to a number of items from army camp newspapers that were reprinted in the popular feature, "Goldbricking with Esquire." A number of the offending cartoons also had wartime themes. One showed two civil defense workers on a roof, peering through an artist's skylight. The reader was left to imagine why one of them laments, "And to think I gave up drawing." Much remained for the imagination in another that showed a voluptuous warworker on the job in her bridal gown while a co-worker comments, "She came directly from the wedding-boy! that's patriotism."

Esquire v. Walker, Part 2
Esquire v. Walker, Part 3


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.