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Photo History: George Lois Gives America a Black Santa

By David Schonauer   Wednesday December 18, 2013


Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly says she was just joking when she told “kids watching at home” last week that Santa Clause, like Jesus, was white—comments that created a firestorm of criticism. “Humor is what we try to bring to this show, but that’s lost on the humorless,” Kelly said. Later, however, her colleagues at the network fanned the flames of controversy by affirming her pronouncement about Mr. Clause. Citing what he called “historical evidence,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly recently concluded, "Ms. Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person." Today, PPD would like to present an alternate history by casting an eye back to the Mad Men era of December, 1963, when a brash young art director at Esquire magazine gave the world its first black Santa. The art director was George Lois, and the man portraying Santa was the fearsome heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston—the last man on Earth, noted one commentator, that white America “wanted to see coming down its chimney.”


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Lois, Liston, and Esquire came together at a tipping point in history. As the famed art director recounts at his website, the image of Liston as Santa created its own media firestorm but helped jumpstart a new brand of journalism at the dawn of an era of tectonic change in America. 

“The early ’60s were the years of Freedom Rides, of Dr. Martin Luther King, of black revolution, of rising social tensions. I was looking into the eyes of a changing America,” notes Lois.

It was not an America that was altogether ready for what Lois was about to spring on it.  “All hell broke loose when the cover came out,” he writes. “Several advertisers took their money and ran. Subscribers demanded refunds. Angry letters flowed in. [Editor] Harold Hayes said that Sonny Liston created more trouble than any cover since the invention of movable type. But it set the spirit of the magazine for years to come.”

The photo shoot took place in Las Vegas, a place Liston called home because, as Lois notes, “he was a notorious dice freak.” And it wouldn’t have happened at all without the intervention of an ex-champ, Joe Louis. Working with Lois on the image was photographer Carl Fischer, who would go on to shoot many of the icon Esquire covers of the 1960s—including a picture of Andy Warhol in a can of tomato soup and a shot of Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian.

“We got set up in a hotel room with Carl’s photographic gear, ready to capture the Western world’s newest Santa and snapped the first shot. But Sonny wouldn’t stay put. He couldn’t resist the crap tables in the lounge,” notes Lois. “We snitched to Joe Louis. He lumbered over to Liston’s table, grabbed his ear, wrenched him around and led him back to the elevator. ‘Git,’ he whispered in Sonny’s ear. Bent over like a puppy on a leash, Liston returned to the room and we photographed the first black Santa to our hearts’ content.”

As Magazine Designing puts it, the black Santa issue “was the first issue to display the full range of literary and visual firepower that would make Esquire the great American magazine of the 1960s, if not the greatest American magazine of the 20th century.”

The great feat in photography and design, and the time it represents, is worth remembering as the historians at FOX dream of White Christmases past.

 

 

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