The Mystery Of The 1969 Naked Esquire Photo Shoot

The Mystery Of The 1969 Naked Esquire Photo Shoot

It sounds preposterous, and it is. But the story of Esquire’s grand plan to shoot a bevy of distinguished men and women in the altogether is, so far as I know, true. Here’s the first paragraph of the unbylined, unheadlined story from the February 1970 edition of The Los Angeles Advocate:

Amazing! But how is it possible there is no record of these scandalous plans, save for a microfilm’d squib in a West Coast gay rag? (Go ahead and look. You will find nothing.) Before consigning this to the realm of the urban legend — albeit a legend that no one seems to know — I ran it by Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer. Alas: “Sorry, Elon,” said he, “but I know nothing about it.”

So I went to the New York Public Library, which has a cache of Capote’s correspondence. Surely if Capote, who was by then comfortably in his forties, had been asked to pose nude by Esquire he would have squeaked it from the rooftops.

I found nothing to suggest he had done so. (This is true of the rest of the worthies, too; none of the available papers or respective biographies refers to Esquire’s plans.)

One could, in fact, attribute the story of the phantom photo shoot to a flight of fancy, or a prank, were it not for the Advocate’s second paragraph:

Thankfully, Ned Rorem is very much alive. So I called him at home and reminded the remarkable man of the greatest photo shoot that never was. Did he remember anything of Esquire’s editorial plans?

Again, alas: “I have no memory of it,” he said, with a mix of regret and impatience.

This is a small tragedy because he alone spoke to The Advocate. In the third and concluding paragraph, he castigated Esquire with a vigorous, slashing eloquence:

Notwithstanding Mr. Rorem’s on-the-record confirmation, it is not a surprise the story has evaded his memory palace. How, after all, do you recall something that never happened?

Still, I’d like to think someone would remember this. Wouldn’t word of a plan to shoot Marshall McLuhan in the buff have been passed down like smutty samizdat through decades of Esquire art departments? So I wrote to George Lois, too. He designed only covers — legendarily great ones! — but perhaps he’d gotten wind of the transgressive plans?

No. “I can’t believe Harold Hayes would be part of a ridiculous suggestion,” he replied. “It sounds like Ned Rorem was fantasizing.” (However, he noted: “Jack Nicholson did pose nude for me, wearing a sailor hat sitting by his LA poolside.” Well then!)

It is extraordinarily difficult to prove a negative, forty years after the fact, when nearly everyone involved is dead.

The full article:

Related: Wurtzel, Crichton & Yoo: Inside The Delightful ‘Harvard Crimson’ Archives

Elon Green is a contributing editor to Longform.