Ten Best: Clay Felker Moments
New York magazine
Clay Felker, an American journalism pioneer, passed last week at the age of 82. He was a giant in the industry, and an inspiration, either directly or indirectly, to everyone working in magazine journalism today. His achievements are numerous, but his crowning achievement was the creation of New York magazine as a Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune in 1964. He set his sights immediately on his more staid competition, The New Yorker. We both have writers and photographers; we both come out every week, he said. Is there any reason we can’t be as good as they are? By 1968, when the Herald had folded, Felker kept the title going as a stand-alone, retaining ownership until it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch after a hostile bid in the ’70s. Felker embraced what was called “New Journalism” in its formative years, cultivating a staff that included Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, Dick Schaap, “Adam Smith” and Gael Greene – more on that later. He oversaw the publication of many articles that are being taught in journalism and literature classes today – again, more later. New York is still publishing, still wins awards and still runs cutting-edge journalism.
Felker grew up in a newspaper family: His father was managing editor of The Sporting News and his mother was women’s editor (!) at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He graduated from Duke University in 1951, after a three-year stretch in the Navy, and headed for New York City to work in big-time magazine journalism. He was a staffer at Life when the magazine was in its absolute prime, and then helped create Sports Illustrated. He finished paying his dues in a tumultuous turn as features editor for Esquire, leaving under a cloud of controversy after a showdown with his enemy, Managing Editor Harold Hayes.
Perhaps my favorite writer, Wolfe met Felker while he was an overeducated, low-level reporter for the Herald and was farmed out to the Sunday supplement. Wolfe’s been eating lunch on that time for 50 years now – it was where he honed his style, created his cast of characters, sharpened his wit; Felker, for his part, let Wolfe use as many ellipsis… … … and colons::::::::::::: as he pleased.Wole penned two pieces, in particular, that I can read once a week and never tire of. “These Radical Chic Evenings” was a cultural deconstruction of a cocktail party at Leonard Bernstein’s apartment at which there were several Black Panthers in attendance, which begat a book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. The other, “Tiny Mummies: The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead,” was a skewering of Editor William Shawn and it just… it just… just do yourself a favor and read it.
Okay, maybe this guy is my favorite writer. Breslin was made in the streets and neighborhoods of his native Jamaica, Queens, and he took his seasoned, two-fisted, hard-drinking style to the Herald, where he soon was placed under Felker’s purview and produced some of his most famous works, including “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” an impression of the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave. Breslin eventually feuded with Felker, calling him a “boutiqe” journalist, and left the paper in 1971. He went on to write magazine articles, books and newspaper columns; run for New York City Council president on a ticket with Norman Mailer; and be immortalized in film, television and Lite beer commercials.
After working undercover as a Playboy Bunny for an exposÃ©, but before her political career took off, Steinem, already one of journalisms rising stars, went to work for Felker at New York, writing a weekly political column, “The City Politic,” and contributing investigative pieces. In 1971, Felker helped her start Ms. magazine, which addressed issues such as abortion and domestic violence in a time when other magazines were hesitant to do so. Ms. has been published by the Feminist Majority Foundation since 1971. Steinem is still active in feminist politics and civil rights issues.
The pen name of George Goodman, “Adam Smith” is the most influential economics journalist still working today. As a founder of the liberated New York magazine and its chief finance writer, he wrote a best-seller, The Money Game, which brought the esoteric language of Wall Street into layman’s terms and essentially reinvented the genre.
Throwing props to Pete Hamill, who worked under Felker at New York and Esquire. Kind of a shoehorn job here, because Hamill’s best-known work for New York was probably “The Death Life and of John Lennon,” published in December 1980, after Felker was gone. Also, remember A Drinking Life? That was awesome.
Born a Midwesterner, Felker was fascinated by the rhythms and currents of his adopted environment, New York City – Manhattan, more specifically. And he enjoyed the trappings of this most civilized society: At one point, the offices of New York were replete with a gym and a full-time chef. He brought his hifalutin’ style to California when he created New West, and furnished the office by buying the set from All the President’s Men, a replica of the newsroom at the Washington Post.
New West and Ms. were but two of Clay Felker’s ventures after making New York a stand-alone. He owned the Village Voice in the ’70s, to the consternation of some staffers, who thought he diluted some of the paper’s downtown cred. He was part owner, editor and publisher of Esquire for a time. And in his later years founded the Clay Felker Magazine Center at University of California, Berkley, where he was a lecturer.
“The future of all magazines,” Felker would say often, “is service.” At New York he pioneered this philosophy, giving his readers tips and advice on how to navigate the shifting cultural currents on Manhattan Island. “Best of” lists, weeklong planners, travel itineraries, comprehensive events calendars and weekend guides were the connective tissue between timeless works of literary journalism, the prototype for the modern lifestyle magazine.