The Story Behind the Iconic Andy Warhol 'Esquire' Cover

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Before the breast-feeding three-year-old and gay Obama, there was Warhol, drowning in a can of soup. Below, legendary designer George Lois talks about how he created the image.

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During his legendary advertising career on Madison Avenue, George Lois's creations included campaign ads for Robert Kennedy, the "I Want My MTV" commercial, and appeals for the retrial of the imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. But he's arguably more famous for a side project. From 1962 to 1972 he moonlighted as the art director for Harold Hayes's Esquire magazine, designing 44 covers revered for their simple images, complex messages, and outrageous gall. Those covers, installed in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection in 2008, include a portrait of the Seneca chief who had posed, 52 years previously, for the buffalo nickel, and a depiction of Muhammad Ali, recently stripped of his world heavyweight title for dodging the Vietnam draft, as the arrow-riddled martyr St. Sebastian. In light of the past few months' string of controversies over magazine covers, we asked Lois to share a sketch and several photographs from one of his most famous covers, in which Andy Warhol drowns in a can of Campbell's soup. The sketch and final product are above; the photos and Lois's story of creating the cover is below.


Harold Hayes and I would have lunch once a month at the Four Seasons. He would run down what was in the issue. In this case, he started off with a title: "The final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde." Almost immediately I said I got it: I'll have Andy Warhol drowning in a can of tomato soup. He said, "You think he'll do it? And I said, "Yeah, sure he'll do it." Andy was a big fan of the covers. I knew him pretty well. I met him when I was 19 years old—that was in 1950. At that time his name was Andy Warhola. He was a quiet kid. Did great drawings. Saturdays, after I played basketball, I used to go up to Madison Avenue to look at the art galleries. Andy used to be a scavenger walking up and down Madison Avenue looking for art. He had terrible taste. He used to buy things made yesterday morning being passed off as African art.

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I called Andy and said, "I'm going to put you on the cover of Esquire magazine." And he said, "Wait a minute, George, I know you. What's the idea?" I said, "Andy, I'm going to have you drowning in a giant can of Campbell's soup." And he laughed and went, "Oh, I love it." Then he said, "George, won't you have to build a gigantic can?" And I said, "Andy, what are you, a schmuck?" This was before computers. I said, "Andy, we take a photo of a can, and photos of you looking like you're drowning, and I take black and white stats and paste them together, and have it printed on one surface—the C-print, it was called in those days—as neatly as possible, and I re-touch it, and it looks like you're drowning." He was amazed you could do that.

He got to the studio, and did those funny poses. They're a scream, aren't they? I sent you three rejects, and the one I used is not one of them. There are probably 12 or 13 all together, all crazy. He worked his ass off. I said, "Andy, you're drowning." "Andy, yell this time." He loved it. He had a lot of fun. He was a good guy. I sound critical of him, but I liked him a lot. He was a sweet kid. I used five or six photographers over the years. The guy who did this was Carl Fischer. When he took the photographs of him, I had to get this crazy, frightened, psychotic look. I didn't have him going down easily.

You could look at it as just funny, or you look at it as how fame swallows people—the absurdity of fame. He's drowning in his own soup. He created himself. He was a walking logo, you know. He lived this incredibly large life. That goddamn wig was so shockingly terrible. When you thought about what he was doing, it was sort of silly. But he really stood for something. Pop Art was ludicrous to me, but I could see why it was catching on. You can look at [the cover] as critical of the period, and I was somewhat. But it's also an homage, and he thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

People say, would you have done Sonny Liston wearing the Santa Claus hat [if he hadn't posed]? Nah. It's not a question of honest. I wanted it to be real. I did a cover where Lyndon Johnson is sitting down and on his lap is a dummy of Hubert Humphrey. The dummy is saying, "I have known for 16 years his courage," wonderful things, and you open up the spread and you see Johnson, and Johnson says, "You tell 'em Hubert." Everyone knows that's not a real shot. But Liston with a Santa Claus hat, if I just [superimposed] it on him, it would've been very unsatisfying. I could've put a Beatles wig on Ed Sullivan [by doctoring the photograph]. But the name of the game is that I put a Beatles wig on Ed Sullivan, this stiff, a week after he introduced the Beatles to America. There's a big difference.

I did a cover with Lieutenant Calley and Vietnamese kids. Harold said, "He'll never do it." But I knew Calley was trying to sell a book. He put on his uniform, and I sat down alone with him. He's the only guy I shot that I really bullshitted. I said, "I'm with you. I was in the Korean war." I don't feel ashamed of it. I knew he wanted to be on the cover of Esquire, to sell this book. "What you're saying is that you love these kids," I told him. After about 10 or 20 photographs, I said, "Lieutenant, this is terrific. Give me a grin." And he did. I showed him like a jackal. A lot of people didn't get the fact that I was saying he was a monster.

The period when Harold Hayes was the editor was called the Golden Age of Journalism. Everyone said I had the balls to do the covers. The covers were easy to do. Harold Hayes had the balls to run them. Every few covers we'd lose five or six advertisers. But we'd pick up other advertising. I'd say, "Harold, this one is going to get us in big trouble." And he would say, "Yeahhhh." The covers happened because of him. If he talked to me and I didn't have a cover by 10 that night, I'd be in a panic. I couldn't go back and think about it, because I was running an ad agency. When I'd come home and see my kids and have supper with my wife, I couldn't go to bed that night without having a cover idea.

George Lois, as told to Alex Hoyt

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Will Shortz, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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