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Storytime with George Lois, Part 2

Juxtapoz // Monday, 29 Nov 2010


A few months back, I (first person for this post, I, the web editor) sat down with George Lois at his Manhattan apartment for a conversation about his career and magazines. Most of that conversation was published in our new December 2010 Juxtapoz, but for the next few weeks, we are posting bonus coverage on the website. We think its important.

This part of our discussion regards Mr. Lois' cover of Esquire with Muhammad Ali posing as the Christian Saint Sebastian, a controversial cover in 1968 as it is now.


I think of the Ali cover from April 1968 with the arrows because was a couple years after Ali became a Muslim, when he first came out against the war, and was sentenced to 5 years. I use to do a lot of covers with out even talking to Harold (Harold Haynes, editor of Esquire at the time). I really trusted him because I could tell him what I was doing.

The war had become a lot worse, and nobody was very positive of Ali. I had good friends of mine who were great fight fans that didn’t like him. People stopped liking him, they would say he’s a great man, but I fucking tired of his mouth.

Anyways, so I told Harold, we got to do another Ali cover. So he said, “I’m with you George, what do you have in mind?” And I said “I want to take a picture of him like Saint Sebastian with arrows in his body. Harold, this one could really get us in trouble.” Every time I would say this is going to get us in trouble, Harold would say “Yeah!” Trouble meant losing advertising clients. All of the textile mills were down South and all the clothing manufactures were down South, too. There was a lot of money down there.

Anyways, Harold knew what he was doing. I mean, none of these covers could have happened with out him. There hasn’t been anyone before and there hasn’t been anyone since. So the cover was a go, and Harold was going to arrange Ali’s travel stuff so we can get him here.


I get Ali on the phone and told him that I need him in NYC for 2 days, and he says “Gee George, I can’t…”. And I said, “Fuck you, you’re not doing anything.” There wasn’t a fight. He had no license to fight, and he would just go to colleges and give talks. He was funny as hell. Anyways, so I said “I’m going to take a photo of you as Saint Sebastian, blah blah blah.” And Ali says okay. I told him to bring his pretty white fucking trunks and his pretty white shoes and bring your sorry ass.

The day of the shoot, I had looked at hundreds of pictures of the great painting of Saint Sebastian and they are all really bright. But I told Ali, “I want you to pose where your body is very quiet but your head is in pain because I don’t want to show your body like that. I want to show your body strong, but your head is in pain.” So he’s looking at this postcard of the painting and he looks at it and says, “Hey George, is he a Christian?” And I say, “Saint Sebastian… yes he’s a Christian!” And Ali says. “George I can’t pose as a Christian.” I said, “It’s a symbolic thing. Anyone in the world can look at this thing and understand the imagery. And the imagery doesn’t say that you’re a Christian, the imagery says that you are a martyr. And what I am saying is that you a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.” And he says, “George, I can’t pose as a Christian, this is against my religion.”

I go holy shit, “Who can I talk to? He didn’t know who. And I said, “Can I talk to Elijah Muhammad? Can you get him on the phone?” It takes about 2 minutes, but Ali gets him on the phone, so I pick up and have about a 15 minute talk about what religion am I, how old am I, etc.
I’m talking to him about symbolism, how Ali is a martyr, blah blah blah. Finally, Elijah asks to speak to Ali. Then, Ali gets off the phone with him and says, “Lets do it!”

We got Ali in his pose, got the arrows hanging, and start shooting. And then Ali say, “Hey George,” and I just want him to fucking pose, but I said, “Okay what?” So one by one, Ali starts to point at the arrows… “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara.” Each guy that had given him shit was an arrow. It was fucking brilliant!


That was late 1967 or whatever it was. In 2004, I did a book called Celebrity, and Vanity Fair wanted to do a photo shoot with me and Ali for the book. We go out to Berrien Springs, Michigan where Ali lived, and I had been there 3 or 4 times before then. He’s got a nice piece of land, nice house there. Not too far away, Ali has a smaller house that is kind of like a museum. And in the middle of it, Ali has a ring with all this memorabilia around it. So I say, “Hey, Muhammad, let’s get you in the ring.” When he gets in the ring I’m thinking, oh shit, I shouldn’t have made him do this, its too hard. We sit in the corner, and the photographers are below the ring, and we’ve got our arms around each other, I think we are both wearing gloves or something.

The photographer says, “George, I got a problem, Muhammad is asleep.” And I said, “Fuck you… bullshit, keep clicking,” and then Mohammad pops his eyes open. And right in this moment, over 25 years after the picture was taken, and after batting Parkinson’s, Muhammad leans over to me and says, “Hey George, Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara,” and repeats the same 6 people in a row, exactly how he did it at the original shoot. Incredible.

People always say to me, “How’s Ali’s head?” And I say, “How’s his head!? His memory is better than mine, you know what I mean?!” He’s still sharp on his shit, but the Parkinson’s is just terrible. But he’s still just sharp as hell. Anyways, that’s the story.


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