The swimsuit issue generates the most mail of any issue you publish every year. By far. The cancellations are mixed with the high-hormone exultations of fraternity lads in small schools in cold climates and the condemnations by school librarians in the Midwest and the kidding by supposedly henpecked husbands everywhere and the moral outrage of the easily outraged and the requests, O.K., for that model's telephone number, the model in the green suit, O.K. It sometimes seems as though the appearance of the pictures of these women is the start of an annual Great American Theme Contest, same theme every year, same opinions, stated in unique ways.
"The letters come to me in boxes," said Verigan. "Boxes and boxes. There's a three-month period, from February through April, when the mail to the magazine is especially heavy, and letters on the swimsuit is-sue are part of that. But some swimsuit letters actually arrive every week during the year. We keep statistics about it all."
The record rush was 3,658 letters in an eight-week period in 1978. This was the year Cheryl Tiegs wore that white mesh bathing suit. Yes, that one. The see-through bathing suit. Cheryl smiled at the sports fans of America, and the sports fans began typing. There were 1,050 letters of praise. There were 1,571 critical letters. There were 578 requests for information about Cheryl or the suit. There were 339 cancellations. There were 120 letters on the swimsuit issue in general. The previous record was 2,360 letters in 1975, when Cheryl wore a green bikini and splashed water on the cover. Last year, when Elle Macpherson came out of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay on the cover with a look of wonder and a black neoprene suit, 1,082 letters arrived. In a normal week, the magazine receives more than 500 letters regarding all stories.
"You wonder how long it can keep going," said Gay Flood, the senior editor in charge of your letters to the editor page. "I sometimes think it's like Dynasty—how can this plot stay alive? But it does. It's become an institution. It never dies."
I spent a day in your offices learning these facts. I put a dollar in the cancellation pool, picking the number 128.1 received photocopies of all the letters that have been printed over all of the years. I photocopied that 1978 picture of Cheryl in that fishnet bathing suit.
Are you familiar with the name of the Reverend Philodore Lemay, M.S.? I am sure that you are.
He is 73 years old and he is a priest with the Missionaries of Our Lady of La-Salette in Attleboro, Mass., and he is the champion of all of the swimsuit letter writers. As he often points out, he is "a charter subscriber" to your magazine. He has written letters after virtually every swimsuit issue and has been published six times.
"It's not the swimsuits, themselves, that bother me," Father Lemay said recently in Attleboro. "You can see those any day when you go to the beach. It's the poses. The way the models look. That's what's bad for youngsters. You can see the same stuff on television, but you can turn it off if you don't want to look. The magazine comes right to your door."
Father Lemay said he usually sees trouble on the cover and does not have to look much further. He rips out the offending pages from the middle of the magazine so he can read the rest of the stories. And he begins typing.