The recent publication of Peter Richardson’s “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” evokes memories of when San Francisco dominated pop culture and counterculture.
The 1960s gave birth to what became known as “the San Francisco Sound” (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana and others), the hippie movement, vocal anti-Vietnam War protests, and some ground-breaking magazines including Rolling Stone (1967), Berkeley Barb (1965) and later Mother Jones (1976). The magazine that preceded and influenced them all was Ramparts.
Founded in 1962 as a Catholic literary quarterly, Ramparts soon became the muckraking voice of the New Left when Warren Hinckle took over as executive editor and Robert Scheer joined as managing editor. Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Hunter Thompson, Eldridge Cleaver, Christopher Hitchens, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Erica Jong, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jann Wenner, and Adam Hochschild were just a few of the noteworthy writers who contributed to the editorial content.
The credentials on the design side were just as impressive, largely due to a young art director named Dugald Stermer. A Los Angeles-born beach boy, Stermer studied art at the University of California, Los Angeles, before joining a design firm in Houston, Texas. Even though Stermer learned during the job interview with Ramparts that the magazine only had enough funding for two more issues, he took the job and headed back to California.
What Ramparts lacked in funding, it made up for in creative freedom for the 28-year-old Stermer. Part of this freedom resulted from the fact that when it came to publishing and design, California was considered insignificant to the point of irrelevance. Everything important and legitimate was thought to happen in New York. San Francisco-based advertising legend Howard Gossage who got Stermer the Ramparts position reassured him that anything he did for Ramparts would be all right.
“Howard said to me that the Ramparts staff was like a troupe of dancing bears,” Stermer says. “Their dancing ability was less impressive than the fact that they could dance at all. No one had any expectations if you were on the West Coast. We were dancing at the end of the earth, doing things our way and nobody was telling us not to do it.”
So Stermer typeset the entire publication in Times Roman – headlines, narrative copy, caption and all. Using only one typeface in a magazine was unheard of at the time. “I was taught that the best design never gets noticed,” Stermer explains. “I wanted the design to be a frame for the illustrations and photography. I didn’t want to get in the way of that.”
Another outrageous thing he did was run Ramparts covers with a black background. He did this after a magazine distributor told him never to use dark covers because the issues would not sell at newsstands. Stermer noticed that, indeed, all magazines at the time had light colored covers. “That’s when I started doing black covers,” he says. Sales soared. At its peak, Ramparts enjoyed a circulation of about a quarter million.
“I was a dictator of the look of the magazine,” Stermer recalls. “I had all the pages to myself. We didn’t have any money, but I could commission anybody who would work for us.”
Stermer was fearless in whom he approached to illustrate for this upstart alternative magazine put out by three guys (Hinckle, Scheer and Stermer) still in their 20s. He not only sought out top talent but artists who read and brought greater depth to the editorial content. During the brief life of Ramparts, which folded in 1975, the magazine featured original covers created by such greats as Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Ben Shahn, Carl Fisher, Jeffrey Blankfort, Jacob Landau, Paul Davis, and Norman Rockwell. This was at a time when Ramparts could only afford to pay honoraria not fees, — $150 for a full-page illustration, $300 for a cover. The only two exceptions to that was Ben Shahn and Norman Rockwell, who were both paid $500. At the time, Rockwell was one of the world’s most successful illustrators. Stermer recalls phoning him to ask if he would illustrate a cover and Rockwell politely demurred. Later Rockwell called back and said that he mentioned Ramparts to his kids; they thought it would be so cool that they urged him to do it. “It was kind of like my kids who only thought of me as their dad and not an illustrator until I was asked to do a cover for Rolling Stone,” Stermer laughs.
Today Ramparts is little known, except by those over 55 and serious magazine history buffs, but in its day it rocked the editorial world with its explosive investigative reporting, entertaining style and sophisticated design. More than a fringe periodical put out by young radicals, it was a political force to be reckoned with and a launchpad for some of the top journalists working today.