Before we draw an affectionate puff of Cigar Aficionado, America’s staunchest defender of the right of free individuals to join together and fill entire rooms with dense clouds of blue tobacco smoke, let’s check the latest headlines:

  • Maxim murders fourth U.S. men’s magazine

  • Life, 64, dies for good as Time pulls plug
  • Jann Wenner gives birth to US Weekly

Yes indeedy, the magazine world is as volatile and Darwinian as ever. Maxim the shamelessly sassy British magazine that has captured the hearts and minds of young American wankers, continues to slaughter members of the sleepy American men’s magazine sector like a deadly virus.

Since it hit these shores less than three years ago with its American edition, Maxim has already killed off Bikini, Icon and P.O.V. Now, as Maxim’s circulation races toward 2 million, Advertising Age’s “Magazine of the Year” has finished off Details.

The 12-year-old rag that once looked so hip and promising turned out to be defenseless against Maxim’s killer blend of sex, sports, beer, gadgets and other manly wants/needs. Details, which reportedly lost $5 million last year, will be revamped by Conde Nast and recast more narrowly as a sophisticated young men’s fashion magazine.

And poor Life. Wandering around in a daze for years as an under-sized, general-interest monthly, looking for a new editorial direction it could never find, the once great weekly pictorial of American life started by Henry Luce in 1936 will be no more after its May issue.

It still has 1.7 million subscribers. But of late Life only shined when someone famous like Sinatra or Princess Di died. Actually, Life died once before — for six years in the early 1970s, until it was brought back as a monthly in 1978. It was officially put out of its misery last week by Time-Warner, which says it’ll reappear intermittently on newsstands. In other words, when the next millennium rolls ’round or Ronald Reagan passes on.

As for the long-anticipated birth of Jann Wenner’s newest magazine baby, US Weekly, it looks like what everyone said it would look like. The debut issue, sporting Julia Roberts on the cover, is a lively, celebrity-fixated cross between People and Entertainment Weekly.

Wenner, the still-entrepreneurial founder of Rolling Stone, is betting $50 million that he can sell a weekly mix of actual news, commentary, big photos and gobs of movie, music and TV news to the all-important 18-34 demographic. It’ll be primarily a newsstand magazine and is aimed at carving off the hipper, younger part of People’s 3.7 million weekly circulation.

Whether America needs another weekly devoted to cozy interviews with Roberts, first-person accounts from Oscar night by Matt Damon or even well-reported news stories about Puff Daddy’s latest legal troubles, only the cruel marketplace will tell.

One classy/slick magazine that has already proved that it can make its way is Cigar Aficionado, whose editors are not the least bit ashamed to say was founded eight years ago to “explore the world of cigars and the good life from the male perspective.”

Its March/April issue, for instance, has an illustration of lovable tycoon J.P. Morgan holding a cigar on the cover. Inside are so-so columns by old-timers William F. Buckley Jr. and George Plimpton. The main package is a nice spread on the ravenous financial titans of yesteryear – Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor – and their modern descendants, Bill Gates, Sam Walton and Ted Turner.

It’s interesting, informative and ideologically restrained. Only Morgan holds a cigar. But elsewhere in Cigar Aficionado, especially in full-page ads and group photos sent in by everyday folks at smokers and weddings, you will find at least 150 images of smiling, contented men (and about 10 women) gripping fat cigars in their fingers or teeth. You don’t have to be an anti-smoking zealot, or Gloria Steinem, or even Freud, to suspect that Cigar Aficionado has gone a little overboard with its manly love affair with Churchills and Torpedoes. Sometimes a cigar is only a smelly bunch of hand-rolled tobacco leaves, after all, and not something that should put you in danger of violating the First Commandment.

But let’s give publisher and editor Marvin Shanken a break. He may overdo it with the cigar worship, but when it comes to politics, Rush Limbaugh’s golfing buddy is squarely on the side of the Founding Fathers.

He has brought his magazine fame by putting celebrities cigar users on his covers, including such lefties as Fidel Castro, JFK and Whoopi Goldberg. But in his editor’s note this month he rails in fine libertarian fashion against the “extremists” and “self-appointed moralists” who are mounting a crusade to outlaw tobacco, alcohol, red meat, sugar, butter, eggs, soda, caffeine — many of things his hedonistic tobacco-stained readers, and readers of Maxim, hold dear.

It’s time to fight back, he says. “This country was founded on the ideal of individual liberty: the right for people to do as they wish, as long as it does no harm to others. These zealots are stealing away one of our founding principles: our freedom to choose how we live our lives.”

“Stop the zealots,” he implores, before they take away what’s left of our freedoms – and our Macanudos.

Covering the Big-Three Weeklies

Time: In “Everyone’s a,” Romesh Ratnesar and Joel Stein say that thanks to the wonders and cheapness of technology it is now possible for anyone “with minimal geek skills and lots of free time to make his own movies, TV shows, albums, books and even radio programs at the merest fraction of what it cost only a few years ago.

“It has suddenly become cheap to create your own entertainment — and cheaper still to distribute it online. It’s the do-it-yourself dream, and it’s seizing the imagination of thousands of auteurs — amateur and professional alike — yearning for a mass-market way to express themselves.” Needless to say, this kind of democratization is terrifying the entertainment industrial complex.

Newsweek: Jesus makes his annual appearance on the cover. Inside, in “The Other Jesus,” Kenneth Woodward explains the surprisingly different ways Christ is viewed by Muslims, Jews and Hindus and Buddhists. “Jesus has become a familiar, even beloved, figure to adherents of Asian religions as well. Among many contemporary Hindus, Jesus has come to be revered as a self-realized saint who reached the highest level of ‘God-consciousness.'”

U.S. News & World Report: Porn, of course, is the nearly profit-free Internet’s fattest cash cow – nearly $1 billion was spent paying just for access to e-porn sites last year. The porn industry has largely missed out on “the dot-com initial-public-offering blitz,” reports Brendan Koerner in his cover story, “”

But that may change soon. Koerner says investors will be closely watching “the fortunes of softcore stalwart, which makes its Nasdaq debut next week. If the IPO succeeds, companies that rely on such indelicate slogans as ‘Young teen lesbians get nasty!’ could be the latest beneficiaries of Wall Street’s Internet infatuation.”

Quick Reads

What would Vanity Fair do with its April issue each year if it couldn’t turn it into a fat love-tome to Hollywood? The “news” hook for Vanity Fair’s biggest issue ever — “470 star-studded pages!” blares its cover — is the Oscars ceremony Sunday night, an annual movie-industry PR event that has become a national religious holiday.

Vanity Fair goes Hollywood whole hog — and it goes mostly for the entrails. It’s mostly inside stuff for industry insiders. At least you don’t have to have a Beverly Hills phone prefix to be interested in “Till MGM Do We Part,” yet another story about the tormented love life of Judy Garland.

Much classier, not to mention more interesting, is Architectural Digest’s 396-page “Hollywood at Home” issue, which presents its annual tour of Tinseltown’s famous homeowners, dead or alive. Some of the home furnishings are god-awful ugly — Mickey Rourke’s Manhattan apartment comes immediately to mind.

But nowhere else will you find 20-some articles and photo spreads documenting the living room furniture of such old and new stars as Clark Gable, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Wood, Ronald Reagan and Claire Danes.

If you must drink deeply of the Hollywood wine, but don’t want to get stinking drunk, your best bet is to hunt through your neighbor’s trash for GQ’s March issue, “Leading Men of Hollywood.”

It has a mere 364 pages of “stars, style and sin,” and its great clouds of fluff include a profile of praise to Tom Cruise. But it also is loaded with readable, gritty stuff, including three pieces by James Ellroy (fiction and non-fiction) and the story of Howard Rushmore, the dirt-and-gossip-and-scandal slinging editor of Confidential, the Hollywood tell-all mag of the 1950s.

The March American Heritage has at least two good pieces, one on the Father of our Country, George Washington, and one on the “Father of American Terrorism,” abolitionist John Brown.

The article on Washington demonstrates how his sophisticated intelligence-gathering and brilliance at espionage helped win the War of Independence. The piece on Brown, whose terrorist raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 failed to ignite the slave revolt he hoped it would, vainly tries to settle the question of whether Brown was a bloodthirsty madmen or a heroic martyr in the fight to end slavery. It can still be spun both ways, and is.

And just so you know: Next year, each copy of Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit edition will not include an inflatable doll of Heidi Klum. That is just a nasty rumor started by ESPN the Magazine, which does not need 3-D glasses or any other mechanical or electronic device to enhance the reading/viewing of its sex-free, sports-heavy content each week.

Sports Illustrated’s most famous contribution to the men’s eye-wear sector (not yet available on the Web), actually sells a third of its copies to women. Real men who want to see young women in teasing states of undress, but don’t want to get to the gynecological depths of Playboy or Penthouse, read Maxim, Stuff or Gear. Those who want to read about real women athletes can now buy Sports Illustrated for Women, which debuted March 1.

Stale but still nourishing

In a month or two, you’ll get around to reading your Feb. 7 New Yorker, which will have a decent website by about 2020. That’s the issue that contains John Cassidy’s near-beatification of Friedrich August von Hayek, the great Austrian-born economist whom libertarians revere but not more than 11 New Yorker readers ever heard of before.

As all devout Hayekians know, Hayek, who died in 1992 at age 92 and was not Salma’s father, consistently defended the practical and moral virtues of freedom and free markets in seminal books like “The Road to Serfdom” and “Law, Legislation and Liberty.”

During his lifetime, Hayek’s ideas were ridiculed by the left-liberal establishment. He was horribly unfashionable in the halls of academia and hallowed writing carrels of the New Yorker — right up to when the Berlin Wall fell and Hayek got to say, “I told you so, you collectivist slime balls.”

Cassidy is clearly uncomfortable with many of Hayek’s positions. He doesn’t want to be associated with the “rightwing cranks” who he says, unfairly, mainly favored Hayek’s ideas. He makes Hayek seem less anti-government on principle than he actually was. And he ignores Hayek’s lifelong interest in maximizing individual freedom (he was a 19th-century liberal, not a conservative, Mr. C).

Nick Schulz ripped Cassidy for his sloppy/sneaky thought crimes and gave a half-hearted half cheer for the New Yorker in the Feb. 5 National Review. Ex-Reason editor Virginia Postrel also took Cassidy apart in Reason Online. But let’s give Cassidy some credit for what he does have the cojones to say right in the headquarters of East Coast liberalism: that Hayek’s view of free-market capitalism as “a spontaneous information-processing machine — a ‘telecommunications system’ was how Hayek referred to it — was one of the great insights of the century.” In a publication that has dodged or derided Hayek and his powerful ideas for 75 years, that’s a brave thing to say.

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