Sonny Liston – the Santa that scared America

Stuart Cosgrove explains the origins and impact of one of the most iconic magazine covers of all time

On a stifling hot day in August 1963 America’s most celebrated art director George Lois was already imagining Christmas. Esquire magazine had commissioned him to design an eye-catching and festive front cover in the run-up to a much-anticipated heavyweight boxing bout between the holder Sonny Liston and his challenger, the garrulous Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had not yet taken his Muslim name of Muhammad Ali. 

Lois and his photographer Carl Fischer hired a suite at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, where Liston trained. They lugged equipment through the lobbies and converted the hotel room into a makeshift photography studio. In a corner next to lighting boxes was a suitcase containing a carefully folded Santa costume, an elf’s hat and an acrylic white beard. Their plan was to put the most notorious boxer on the planet on Esquire‘s Christmas cover, dressed as Santa Claus. Although a celebrity playing Santa Claus is now a familiar trope of magazine journalism, the Liston cover shot was not only brazen, it came in times of heightened racial sensitivity, and what began as a creative ruse erupted into a full-blown controversy. The Liston cover not only shocked white America but simultaneously drove a wedge through the civil rights movement, many African-Americans believing that Liston was anathema to their cause.

More myths have congregated around Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston than any boxer before or since. Born in St Francis County, Arkansas on May 8 1932, he grew up in anonymous poverty, the 24th of his father’s 25 children. There was no certificate to support his birth and suspicion has persisted that he faked his age as a teenager. Whatever his real age, Liston survived a chaotic and brutal upbringing, eventually leaving home for a wayward teenage life on the streets of St Louis’s Westside. In 1950, he was convicted of first-degree robbery and spent more than two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Prison was a turning point. A Catholic chaplain introduced him to boxing and for the first time in his life he was an achiever. His strength marked him out as a natural heavyweight and he excelled in the prison boxing programme.  

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On his release from prison and desperate for work, Liston befriended John Joseph Vitale, the surrogate head of the St Louis mafia. Vitale secured him a union card with the Local 110 union and found Liston a job for $25 a week working as a cement labourer. It was a front that benefitted Vitale, who could exploit Liston’s raw violence, instructing him to work as a strike-breaker and to terrorise union men that were challenging pay grades in the concrete industry. From there, Liston became a debt collector for the mob. To the loose talkers in the world of boxing, his work in the cement industry and his nefarious bosses provoked speculation that he disposed of bodies and had littered the concrete bridges of America’s expanding highway system with the dead or dying. It was almost certainly an exaggeration but in boxing myths multiply, and Liston’s associations with murderous crime enhanced his reputation as a stone-cold killer.

By Christmas 1963, racial tension was America’s raw nerve. The civil rights movement backed Liston’s more trustworthy rival Floyd Patterson and even President Kennedy confessed that it would be a reversal for civil rights if Liston reigned as heavyweight champion. The writer LeRoi Jones, later to become Amiri Baraka, believed it was all racial stereotyping and that Liston had become “the big black negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under, for all the hurts white men have been able to inflict on his world”. 

Into this exaggerated melodrama came Cassius Clay, who personified a new generation of African-Americans. Black journalist Alex Poinsett was the first to detect a more complex side to Clay and to the racial dynamics of boxing. “When he says ‘I am The Greatest’, he is not just thinking about boxing…” Poinsett wrote knowingly.  

When the cameras were finally ready inside the Thunderbird Hotel, Liston hesitated. He initially refused to put on the Santa costume, suspecting he was being set up, but after lengthy reassurances he was charmed into taking part in the shoot. The final image was unusually powerful, disrupting the traditional image of a rosy-cheeked Father Christmas. Liston stared blankly to the camera, the hat framing his head and a white pom-pom trailing down to his earlobe. It was both sinister and spectacular.

Despite some internal misgivings, Esquire pushed forward with the cover but the public were not as receptive. Focus groups recoiled and some advertisers who were shown advance artwork got cold feet. On publication, complaints flooded into the editor’s office and regular readers cancelled their subscriptions. Esquire lost an estimated $750,000 in advertising revenue that Christmas, as agencies pulled their slots.  

Despite winning numerous magazine awards for its audacity, middle-America was not ready for a black Santa. To complicate the story, Cassius Clay won their title fight two months later, when Liston tore his shoulder muscles and retired hurt. The stench of fix was in the air and an investigation into criminal interference in the fight has thrown doubt on the decision ever since. When the dust eventually settled, Liston’s reign as heavyweight champion was over and among his favourite memorabilia was a framed photograph of his days as Santa.  When asked what he thought of the cover, the defeated champion simply said, “It shows that when Christmas comes round, even I can be the good guy.”

Stuart Cosgrove’s Soul Trilogy of Detroit 67, Memphis 68 and Harlem 69 are out now

The story behind Liston’s legendary Santa shoot 

Esquire art director George Lois is an iconic figure in magazine history. Offering unique, and exclusive insight, he tells The Big Issue how the cover was created. Below is his original sketch.

“I conceived each cover from 1962-72, and personally art-directed almost every one,” Lois says. “I recently came across a couple dozen of my original sketches for the Esquire covers that I used to show photographers to give instructions and show the concept.

“When I showed Cassius Clay the Sonny Liston cover, he said, ‘That’s the last black motherfucker America wants to see coming down their chimney!’” 

Black santa