Bingham: A history of SI's swimsuit issue

A look at this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Former SI editor Walter Bingham shares stories from swimsuits past.AP Photo/Sports Illustrated, Walter Iooss Jr.

By popular demand – I won't say whose – I've been asked to write about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, not the one on newsstands now, with Brooklyn Decker on the cover, but the issue's history, since I was already a magazine veteran when it began.

I'll start with a disclaimer. I am not a swimsuit fan. I was early on, when it was merely a section of SI's regular weekly issue, when the suits themselves looked like those you might see on your favorite beach. Today they are straight out of Victoria's Secret, or something youngsters might gawk at for a quarter on Eighth Avenue.

Let's start at the beginning, which right away was a subject of debate when SI decided to celebrate the swimsuits' 25th anniversary back in the '90s. (I am holed up in an apartment in New York without access to the magazine's bound volumes, so I'm going on memory.)

In a February issue in the 1960s, we put a pretty woman on the cover who was standing thigh-deep in blue water. Why? Our managing editor, Andre Laguerre, thought it would be a welcome relief amid the crunch of football, basketball and hockey action. There was, I think, a travel piece that accompanied the cover, but no avalanche of models in bathing suits.

Was that the genesis, or was it the following year when, as I recall, we had four pages inside showing women in modest suits, straight off the rack at Bloomingdale-type stores? I forget which way we ruled, but in any case, the swimsuit issue was on its way.

My favorite cover was the following year. Sue Peterson was her name, a beautiful young woman who did not look undernourished. The locale was Baja California, Mexico, and one of our best writers, Jack Olsen, was assigned to the project. I forget if Olsen liked Baja California, but he sure liked Peterson, marrying her a few months later.

I hope I didn't offend my female readers with the word “undernourished,” but I remember the year when twins were put on the cover. Soon after, Jule Campbell, the editor most responsible for the popularity of the issue, invited the youngsters to lunch with the editors.

On the cover they looked – don't they all? – voluptuous. In person they were a pair of skinny 16-year-olds.

A word about Jule Campbell. Sweet looking herself, soft voice, ever so gentle in any discussions you might have with her. But, I hear, on location for a shoot, she became a Marine drill sergeant.

I can't tell you how many people have told me they would love to go along down to the Seychelles or Maui for a swimsuit shoot.

Answer? You'd hate it. Up before dawn, Jule would decree. The early light is good for photography. Rest period at midday, but a second shoot as the sun was setting. I'm told the models – Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Elle MacPherson, for instance – would be wiped out.

Over the years, many photographers were assigned to the project, but one, Walter Iooss, was – and is – the most prominent. It was he who photographed Tiegs in 1978 wearing a wet fishnet bathing suit, arguably one of the the most popular shots, and it was Iooss who shot Brooklyn Decker – Andy Roddick's wife, by the way – this year.

Digression: In 1961 I was assigned to sit in Yankee Stadium's right field stands for the final game of the season to see if Roger Maris would hit his then record-breaking 61st home run. The photographer with me was 17-year-old Walter Iooss, who with authority beyond his years, handed me a camera with an attachment the size of a howitzer and ordered me to click the second Maris took a swing. Maris did, I did, and we got a splendid picture.

Back to the swimsuits: At a certain point, the section became so big, such a money-maker, it was decided to make it an issue unto itself. The suits got skimpier and skimpier, the models' attributes bigger and bigger. Letters from the mothers of teenage boys poured in saying this was not what they had in mind when they bought Johnny a subscription. Please cancel.

And although many of us tended to agree, there was no way Sports Illustrated could abandon this unexpected gold mine. The project expanded into swimsuit calendars, videos, a TV show. I sometimes think a majority of readers would rather have us abandon our Super Bowl coverage than the swimsuit issue.

In point of fact, I have had a minor role in the issue. Over the years I came up with a number of cover billings. When the locale was Thailand and editors were mulling it over, I suggested “Thailand Fling.”

One year the managing editor and Jule were struggling for a billing when I happened to pop by.

“Come here, Bingham,” said the M.E. “You're good at this.”

“Where was the locale?” I asked.

“Maui,” he said.

Joking, I blurted out “Zowie, It's Maui!”

I was kidding, of course, but so help me, it ran.

Walter Bingham, a former editor and writer for Sports Illustrated, lives in Truro. He can be contacted by e-mail at">

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