Sonny Liston: “I Sure Didn’t Expect To Be Treated Like No Sewer Rat.”

Sonny Liston: “I Sure Didn’t Expect To Be Treated Like No Sewer Rat.” 

By Paul Gallender

A year after Sonny Liston won the heavyweight title, the second chance he longed for had not been granted him. He felt the fans had treated him like dirt and he was still bitter five years later when he told his sparring partner, Ray Schoeninger, that everyone acted like he had “stolen the title.”

“I didn’t expect the President to invite me to the White House and let me sit next to Jackie and wrestle with those nice Kennedy kids,” he said, “but I sure didn’t expect to be treated like no sewer rat.” 

Rocky Marciano once said that while popularity would never give you ability, ability would put the crowd in your corner almost all of the time. The Bear was one of the few exceptions to that unwritten rule.

The public never embraced or even warmed to Liston, a fact that Esquire learned the hard way when the magazine’s circulation was at an all-time high.

“In 1963, Esquire editor Harold Hayes decided to rethink the covers of the magazine and George Lois devised a Christmas cover that was outrageous,” photographer Carl Fischer wrote in his description of the photoshoot. “The unthinkable conceit was to show an unlikeable, intimidating black man as Santa Claus.” 

Esquire’s advertising director had suggested to Hayes that the magazine ought to wait until Saks Fifth Avenue put a black Santa in its stores before putting one on its cover, much less “the baddest motherfucker ever kissed by fame” as George Lois, the cover’s creator had called Liston.

Lois acknowledged that “many advertisers don’t like to buy ad pages from niggerlovers.”

As offensive as that quote was, Lois was merely stating the obvious back then. Sports Illustrated later wrote that Sonny was the last man on earth that America wanted to see coming down its chimney and they seem to have been right. Liston was the perfect choice for that cover but he wouldn’t travel to New York so Fischer set up an impromptu studio in Las Vegas at the Thunderbird Hotel.

“Liston had not been told that he would be wearing a Santa Claus hat, of course. That was the usual subterfuge of Harold Hayes, who feared that famous subjects would discuss the picture with agents or friends and would refuse the egregious situations which Esquire wanted to see on its covers…

Esquire had the foresight to hire the respected ex-heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who was admired by Liston, and who worked in Las Vegas, to attend the shooting and to use his persuasive powers, if required. They were required.

Liston was angry and dismissive when the idea of wearing a Santa Claus hat was brought up. I quickly offered to do the cover without the hat (a delaying tactic to keep him from abruptly leaving) and started taking pictures.

Liston had brought a friend’s child with him and I suggested taking souvenir snapshots of them together. While taking these informal pictures, I supposed that the Santa Claus hat might be appropriate with the little girl, and Liston grudgingly agreed. After seeing the Polaroids of himself in the Santa hat with the little girl, and seeing that the girl loved them, Liston softened a millimeter. Louis told Liston that the hat looked good on him and I said:

‘Why don’t we try you alone with the hat, just to see if you agree?’ And so it was done.”

That little girl was Ash and Marilyn Resnick’s daughter, Dana, who was three years old when Sonny first came to Las Vegas in 1963. The two quickly became great buddies and she was the reason that iconic cover came to pass.

When Newsweek ran a full-page story about Esquire’s cover in its December 16 issue, it said Fischer’s photo was “at first glance, simple and pleasant. Then it turns savage. It is the face, uncaptioned but unmistakable, of the heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston.”

If you take a good look at Carl Fischer’s cover, the word savage probably won’t come to mind. Of course, it was Newsweek that described Liston with the words “viciousness and everything that is evil” less than 15 months earlier in the lead-up to the first Patterson-Liston bout.

The cover won an international award as the Finest Front Cover of a men’s magazine in 1963, and a professor of art history termed it “one of the greatest social statements since Picasso’s Guernica. That was the good news. 

The bad news was quantifiable. Both the magazine’s editor and advertising director estimated that the cover cost Esquire at least $750,000 in pulled advertising revenue, which back then was a lot of money. At least one of its major advertisers abandoned the magazine for ten years. 

Sonny’s Santa was Esquire’s most controversial cover until 1970 when Fischer photographed Lieutenant William Calley Jr. with four small Asian children. Calley had been convicted of murdering civilians at My Lai in Vietnam. The heavyweight champion of the world had worn a red Santa’s cap. Two brilliant covers but only one should have been controversial.

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