Duke University Alumni Magazine



The Master of New York
Clay Felker
by Robert J. Bliwise


Photo: Matthew Klien



New York magazine reflected the pioneering editor's view of the world-- an outlook that accented status and ambition.

ay up in the Berkeley Hills, along a serpentine road named for a Spanish adventurer and dotted with home-construction projects that reflect the late unpleasantness of a neighborhood burnout, a pensive Clay Felker strolls out on his back porch. He looks out beyond the sprawling stuccoed houses, beyond the fields of wildflowers, beyond a pleasantly pink resort hotel, beyond a San Francisco Bay that, from here, seems steel-gray and steel-smooth.

     "The view," he says, "gives you a sense of endless possibilities."

     Inspired by endless possibilities, and driven by a boundless curiosity, Felker '51 invented a magazine. More than a magazine--a magazine movement. With his New York, Felker the trend-spotter became Felker the trend-setter.

     For Felker, journalism wasn't so much a choice as a given. In his hometown of Webster Groves, Missouri--which he calls "the quintessential American suburb"--his father was managing editor of the weekly newspaper The Sporting News and editor of the monthly Sporting Goods Dealer, a trade publication; his mother had been a women's editor before her marriage. When he was eight, he started his own neighborhood newspaper--"the publishing equivalent of a lemonade stand," he says. Both his parents, along with his grandparents and other family members, had graduated from the University of Missouri. He figured he would go to Missouri's journalism school. "My parents said no, that was not a good idea, that as a journalist, you use everything in your life that you've ever learned. So I should try to get the best general education possible, and I could pick up the techniques of journalism on the job."

     One night his father came home and spread out a pile of college catalogues. He asked Clay which school he found appealing. "The Duke catalogue had the most attractive layout to me. I've always been attracted to publication layout."


At Berkeley's journalism school: still spotting trends, still asserting the enduring place of print in an electronic age
Photo: Mary F. Calvert / Oakland Tribune

     There's a historical figure who, improbably but providentially, hovers over Felker's career: Horace Greeley, the nineteenth-century journalist. Felker grew up on Greeley Street. As a Duke undergraduate, he was wandering through the library one day and happened upon some bound volumes of Greeley's Civil War-era Tribune. "I spent the whole afternoon reading these things; I didn't even realize where the time went, because they were so gripping. They were written in a narrative structure. And I realized that they were so much more interesting than the newspaper stories I had grown up reading."

     Greeley saw news as narrative. In a characteristic report from 1863, the Tribune took the reader onto a Virginia battlefield with a hardly disinterested correspondent. Using precise topographical detail, tight chronology, and vivid discussion of technical feats and military tactics, the story followed the Union forces as they mounted a surprise river crossing and then surrounded and captured the enemy. "On Wednesday morning," went part of the narrative, "long before the day had dawned, the tramp of feet was again heard on the floating way, and, when the gray light of morning rose on the scene, long black lines were projecting themselves in radia from the pontoon landing, and the plain beyond the river was soon covered with moving masses of men."

     Now Felker, on his own terms, is heeding Greeley's immortal advice to an inquirer: "Go West, young man, go West!" At the University of California at Berkeley, he is teaching a graduate seminar and heading up a Magazine Center that bears his name. And he is still spotting trends, still asserting the enduring place of print in an electronic age. This spring he had this to say in The New Yorker about the Microsoft-Michael Kinsley project to create an electronic magazine: "Our eyes get tired quicker on a computer screen. Plus, it isn't very practical. People look at a screen as work, not pleasure. It doesn't have the portability of print. As a result, you have to write differently in order to keep people interested."

     If he discovered the potential of journalism from his library diversion, he discovered something of his own potential as a journalist from The Chronicle. He entered Duke in the spring of 1942, before graduating from high school (not an unusual circumstance during the war years). He quickly rose through the editorial ranks. As editor, he committed himself to increasing the publication frequency to twice a week; he committed himself as well to "The Journalist's Creed" as set down by a former journalism dean at the school he turned aside, the University of Missouri. The creed concluded that "the supreme test of good journalism" is "the measure of its public service."

     In a later editorial, he reflected on how students should respond to the onslaught of communist revolutions--expressing an exuberance for learning, an appreciation for the power of history in providing context, and a faith in democratic institutions that, for Felker, would be enduring themes. "Study and become well-informed, because education is the first step toward peace. Have unshakable faith--in democracy and the American way of life and above all have faith in God, and His divine wisdom."

     To some extent, Felker was a force on every student publication. He was an assistant editor of Duke and Duchess, a humor magazine edited by Peter Maas '50. For one of his contributions, Felker interviewed a professional humorist named Max Shulman. ("How do you get to be a successful writer?" went one of his questions. "Poverty isn't an essential, of course, but it helps make a man work," answered his subject.) For The Archive, edited by Robert D. Loomis '49, he wrote a short story about a twenty-four-year-old aspiring writer, a New Yorker, who is struggling to come up with a fresh idea.

     Maas, who went on to become an investigative reporter and author of books including Serpico and The Valachi Papers, worked on Felker's Chronicle. He says Felker served up the moment that gave him his start in journalism. Walter Reuther, president of the auto workers union, had been moved to Duke Hospital after being shot in an apparent mob "hit" attempt. "He's down at Duke and nobody can get to him--no reporters," Maas recalls. "They're going crazy. They want to get all the details on the attempted hit. And Felker says, 'You've got to go over and interview him.' And I say, 'Look, nobody can get to him.' " Felker told him to find a way.

     And Maas did, walking through the hospital carting a pile of books--an image chosen to make him look more like a preoccupied student than a determined student journalist. He found Reuther's room unguarded, and he walked in. "I said, 'I'm from the Duke Chronicle, the student paper, and I'd like to interview you. He said, 'Sit down.' I guess he was dying to talk to somebody." Maas ended up with an exclusive interview, which was picked up by the Associated Press.

     Felker's time at Duke was twice interrupted. During a three-year military hitch, beginning in the fall of 1943, he worked for a Navy newspaper, Blue Jacket, and was trained by the Navy in photography. In the fall of his junior year, 1948--the year of his Chronicle editorship--he was expelled for staying out with his date beyond the Woman's College curfew. He would marry his romantic partner, Leslie Blatt (he's since said that college-age individuals are "just too young" to handle the responsibility of marriage); he was allowed to return in the fall of 1950, and finally earned his degree in 1951.

     In that interim period, Felker got a job with the New York Giants baseball broadcast group. He traveled with the team and worked as a statistician. He also contributed daily stories on the team to newspapers that didn't have their own traveling correspondent, and wrote on occasion for his father's Sporting News. Felker says that sports was never particularly interesting to him. But because of his father's connections, sports was his route into journalism; and he had a hard time changing paths.

     After he graduated, he began with Life as a sports writer. His earliest scoop came from a secret Brooklyn Dodgers scouting report on the arch-rival New York Yankees. Enterprising effort got him the report: He managed to strike a common bond with the scouting official, another native of Webster Groves. "There was one striking item in the report: that Joe DiMaggio's arm was shot, his throwing arm, and that it was only strong enough to make one throw a game from the outfield. So after that one throw, anybody who hit a ball to him could run unimpeded.

     "Well, DiMaggio is a very proud man. And although he had a very good series, he quit baseball after that. And the Yankees never forgave me: They accused me of causing DiMaggio to quit baseball. Well, he was at the end of his career and he might have quit on his own. In any event, that's what happened. And whenever I would have to cover the Yankees, they wouldn't let me sit in the press box, they wouldn't answer my questions."

     Because of his sports seasoning, Felker was put on the development staff of a new Time, Inc. sports magazine. He considers that move a turning point in his professional life. Some years later he told an interviewer: "In that unit--which was isolated in that vast Time, Inc., building--we also had financial people, promotion people, advertising people. We were all working together as a unit in a compartmentalized corporate style.... So for that first time I saw all the elements of the publication being put together."

     Sports Illustrated was unveiled in August 1954. Felker was already pushing another idea on his bosses, "a magazine about New York using Life magazine picture techniques." But the corporation wouldn't buy it.

     He worked for a couple of years in Washington as a political reporter for Life. Then, in 1957, Peter Maas was offered the editorship of Esquire. Maas turned down the offer but suggested Felker instead. So Felker spent five years, in a sort of audition for the top spot, as features editor of Esquire. Esquire turned out to be an inviting laboratory to put into practice the Greeley-inspired notion of reporting. Its pages saw some of the earliest expressions of the New Journalism, which applied, Felker says, "the standard literature techniques rather than the standard newspaper techniques--narrative structure, scene-setting and characterization, dialogue."

     The November 1960 issue published a long, lyrical Norman Mailer piece on the previous summer's Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. Mailer mused on the convention city, Los Angeles, as a place seemingly "built by television sets giving orders to men"; the competing strains of American politics--the concrete and practical against the ferocious and romantic; and the "incredible dullness wreaked upon the American landscape" in the Fifties--"a tasteless, sexless, odorless sanctity in architecture, manners, modes, styles." He declared that with the prospect of a Kennedy White House, the country might "recover its imagination, its pioneer lust for the unexpected and incalculable." Politics might become "America's favorite movie, America's first soap opera, America's best-seller."



Photo: Courtesy Gail Sheehy

     "Journalism is very often about the future," Felker says. "And that's one of the things that interests me more than anything else--to try to come to the meaning of something and extrapolate that into, if not the far future, the immediate future. It's just a way of thinking about something. And I had learned this technique at Esquire, where we had to project three or four months in advance. And I found out that you could do this very safely if you just did more research than other people and particularly if you could go back and get a historical perspective on something that would show the historical trend."

     Time, Inc.'s legendary Henry Luce, whom he came to know through the Sports Illustrated project, was an early influence on Felker. So was Arnold Gingrich, the longtime editor of Esquire.

     "Their magazines reflected them, and I realized that you had to have confidence in your own point of view about things, that news isn't just what happens, but news is what you thought it was. Luce used to say, what news is, is what gets off the page and into the reader's mind. So it wasn't just going out and getting a story. It was also presenting it in a way that would engage the reader's mind, whether it was in writing or in graphic presentation or both."

     From Gingrich came some lasting lessons in the nurturing of writers. "He used to say, he who edits least edits best. What he meant was, take the best people that you can. You come up with the ideas--and editors more often come up with ideas than writers do. In that way you get the essential control of the subject matter. You ask questions: Here's a question that I want to have answered. That's how you define a story."

     Felker left Esquire in 1962, when he lost out to Harold Hayes in competition for the editorship. (Some Felker associates say he hurt his chances by operating from the start as if the editorship were destined to go his way. Others insist the organization was simply more comfortable with Hayes, an ex-Marine who placed a premium on punctuality and discipline that didn't exactly square with the Felker style.)

     But Felker had mastered the city. Bob Loomis, now executive editor at Random House, says, "Clay was really amazingly adept at finding out what the hell he should know" in New York. "He came to a strange town, and he managed very quickly to find out what was going on, what it was about. He became very, very knowledgeable about stuff he didn't know anything about, like the art world. That took a good deal of intuition and skill."

     That skill included adeptness at social climbing, according to Peter Maas. A mutual friend, New Yorker writer Michael Arlen, "represented the ultimate in sophistication as far as we were concerned," he says. One Friday night the three of them headed to Twenty-One; they weren't allowed in, and settled on the somewhat downscale Stork Club. "We were sitting at the bar and Arlen ordered a Ramos Gin Fizz, which I had never heard of, nor had Felker. It's got the white of an egg in it; it's a complicated drink, which apparently was invented in New Orleans. So we ordered two more, and we're all sipping at it. And I said, 'It's really pretty good.' And Arlen said, 'No, it's not up to snuff.' 'Really?' Clay says. 'So where do you get the best ones?' And Arlen says, 'At the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.' And Felker says, 'Let's go.'

     "And we went out to the airport to catch a plane. There were no jet planes in those days; it was a six-hour flight, something like that. It wasn't like walking three blocks to another bar, I'll tell you that."

     Felker worked as a consulting editor to Viking Press, Curtis Publishing Company, and for both Ladies' Home Journal and Holiday, thinking up story ideas. In 1963 he was taken on as a consultant by The New York Herald Tribune; he was named editor of the paper's Sunday supplement magazine when the incumbent editor, Shelly Zelanick, was given charge over the whole Sunday paper. The Herald Tribune's city-centered supplement was called New York. "As opposed to The New York Times Magazine, which was international, national, and local, ours was just to be local," Felker says. "Well, this happened by coincidence to be what I had in mind."

     One thing he didn't have in mind was responding to the shooting of a president. Felker was in the city room of the Herald Tribune when he heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. "I knew from experience in Washington, when Eisenhower had had a severe heart attack, that very soon the focus would be on the vice president possibly becoming the president. And in this case it was certain."

     Back at the 1960 Democratic Convention, Norman Mailer--on the scene for Esquire--had introduced Felker to Jacques Lowe, the official photographer of the Kennedy for President campaign. Lyndon Johnson had just become Kennedy's vice-presidential nominee, and Lowe had photographed their momentous meeting.

     On November 22, 1963, Lowe was back in New York running his studio, which was just blocks from the Herald Tribune. As Lowe recalls: "A man suddenly burst through the door and ran up the stairs, screaming as though pierced by a spear: 'Where are the pictures? Where are the pictures?' I came out of my reverie. 'What pictures, Clay?' 'The pictures of L.B.J. getting the nomination.' " Felker dashed out clutching the negatives, and then was on the phone badgering Lowe for a write-up. The story took up the entire front page of the Tribune on November 23.

     Such dramatic moments aside, the paper was tottering financially; Felker began planning a city magazine--preparing sample budgets and building advertising and circulation models--while taking part in the chronic strikes against management. In 1966, three major New York newspapers--the World-Telegram & Sun and the Journal-American along with the Herald Tribune--folded and then merged into the World Journal Tribune.

     Under Felker, the Sunday magazine became another laboratory for the New Journalism. "It was a more complete way of interpreting reality in journalism," says writer Tom Wolfe. "It was also something that captivated readers." Because the newspaper was fighting for its life, it was willing to take big chances, he says. "Sunday supplements were junk, with the possible exception of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, which was merely boring--a serious- minded magazine, but very boring."

     The World Journal Tribune survived for just ten months. When it shut down, Felker began making plans to sustain the magazine. He used $6,575 of his severance pay to buy the rights to the name New York. (Wolfe had suggested New York Moon; there were visions of delivery trucks announcing "The moon is out!") After a year of courting investors, he had exhausted his personal checking account and rounded up financial backing of $1,100,000.

     With that he began shaping the revival of New York as an independent publication in collaboration with some of his old editorial team. The staff, and some of the furniture from the old Herald Tribune, moved into the fourth floor of art director Milton Glaser's Push Pin Studios at East 32nd Street. Money raising remained a priority that enlisted--in fact, hinged on the involvement of--Felker's stars. "We had endless lunches with rich people," says Gloria Steinem, another early contributor. The writers would refer irreverently to their "tap-dancing" shows--being on their toes, as it were, for the financially well-heeled.



     Wolfe had been producing a weekly story for the supplement while still a Herald Tribune general-assignment reporter. One of his early efforts, in 1965, was a sardonic profile of William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker--a publication that Wolfe dubbed "The Land of the Walking Dead." Shawn called the piece "a vicious, murderous attack on me and on the magazine" that was "wholly without precedent in respectable American journalism." In a letter to the publisher of the Trib, he said: "For your sake and for mine, and, in the long run, even for the sake of Wolfe and his editor, Clay Felker (God help me for caring about them), I urge you to stop the distribution of that article." Felker publicly professed to be "amazed" at the request, which went unheeded. In Wolfe's view, Felker enjoyed the spat.

     From their start together, Wolfe says, Felker impressed him as a glamorous and theatrical personality--a quality accented by Felker's second marriage, to actress Pamela Tiffin. "I guess the first thing I noticed about Clay was that all his clothes were custom-made. I was kind of a clothes nut, and you didn't see this very often. I remember he had tiny shoes. They were so small they had to be cut for him; otherwise they couldn't have fit on his feet. And he had custom-made shirts, he had gold cuff-links, he had a gold ballpoint pen. And then when I saw his apartment, I couldn't believe it--the same apartment he has now, a two-story living room. Anytime you went in, it was like the beginning of a drama of some kind."

     With a talent for scene-setting and for encapsulating popular culture through its most outlandish exponents, Wolfe says he and Felker were "very much in tune" about the allure of status. An annual feature in Felker's New York centered on the city's power brokers. Wolfe had been interested in the subject of status since his graduate days at Yale, where he focused on Max Weber, the status-oriented German sociologist.

     "Clay's real interest, although I'm not sure he ever thought it out conceptually, was status and how it operates in New York," says Wolfe. "At Esquire, he was the creator of this idea of making charts out of what part of a restaurant you should be seated in, and rating all kinds of things by their status. And so much of Manhattan is concerned about that; that was the key to the success of New York magazine. Manhattan is in love with ambition, and Clay made New York magazine into a reflection of the drama of ambition that Manhattan is. There is no other reason to be in New York but to be around ambitious people. The quality of life is dreadful. But the people are fascinating.

     "New York magazine was not market-driven, it was Clay Felker-driven. It was Clay's view of the world. In New York magazine, Clay really wrote an enormous novel about the city. He had a lot of collaborators and writers. But it was his vision, his plot--a huge novel called The City of Ambition."

     New York's fixation on Manhattan status-seekers mirrored Felker's own Manhattan status-seeking. "Clay was the boy from Missouri who was going to make it in the city--which he did," Wolfe says.

     Some years after the start-up, in 1974, Felker moved the magazine to expensive quarters on Manhattan's Second Avenue. The new quarters included a gym and a staff dining room, presided over by a figure who grandly signed each day's menus "Felipe--Executive Chef." There has always been a creative tension between two strains of Felker's career: his exuberance for the elite, and his reverence for rough-and-tumble democracy. He enjoyed operating from "the editorial bullpen," and part of his style was to station his desk in the midst of the reporting action.

     "The instant communication gives you a collective wisdom that you might not have if you're working in an isolated office," he says. "But later on I realized that I had stumbled onto something: that our principles as Americans are increasingly egalitarian, and if you don't make artificial barriers or symbolic status barriers between people such as private offices, you get more out of people. The issue of personal parity is very important to people." But personal quirkiness, not personal parity, was Wolfe's concern. In 1968 New York ran his feature on the psychedelic-drug-suffused world of writer Ken Kesey and his "Prankster" hangers-on. In language that rips, roars, and rushes, he tracked them in a cross-country bus trip that becomes an allegory of ripping, roaring, and rushing lives. (The bus headed out of Kesey's California retreat with a destination sign in front reading "Furthur" and a sign in the back saying "Caution: Weird Load.") The story evolved into a book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe describes his approach as an effort to portray subjective reality--from the viewpoint not of the writer but the characters he's writing about. He discerned those subjective states through interviews, tapes, and correspondence, and represented them through a kind of stream-of-consciousness reporting. Critic Michael Johnson called the result "perhaps the best single work of New Journalism to date."      Wolfe's devastating portrait of conductor Leonard Bernstein's stylish party for the Black Panthers, which took up most of a 1970 New York issue, paralleled his writings on California communes: It was weirdness, and feel-good therapy, in a peculiarly New York setting. The label "radical chic" became--well, a chic disparagement. Wolfe wondered whether "the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons." In his dialogue-rich write-up, he reported one guest's awed response to the evening: "I've never met a Panther--this is a first for me!"

     Today, Wolfe says he sees the write-up as "social comedy. To me this was not serious business--more mock than serious."

     Felker is so completely a journalist, Wolfe says, as to be completely nonideological. At the time, a lot of au courant editors wouldn't run a story like "Radical Chic"; their instincts would tell them that it would hold back progressive causes. But Felker's editorial instincts weren't rooted in a political agenda. "In the middle of dinner, in the middle of anything, he'd pull out this little pad--right in front of somebody. If something in the conversation struck him, he would write it down."

     Evidently Felker was struck by an unseemly side of the world of Andy Warhol. In a story called "La Dolce Viva," writer Barbara Goldsmith profiled a model who was part of Warhol's "Factory" crowd--which she portrayed as an environment obsessed with drugs and sex--and who starred in Warhol's soft-porn movies. The profile ran in the fourth issue of the magazine. It included a full-page Diane Arbus photo of a naked, anorexic-looking Viva sprawled on a shabby velvet couch. In her quotes, Viva came across as frighteningly servile to Warhol's whims; she even compared him to Satan in the eternal hold he exerted on his followers. "I'm nude because Andy says seeing me nude sells tickets," she told New York. "It's hard to believe. I think I look like a parody, a satire on a nude, a plucked chicken."

     "It was a great piece of journalism," Wolfe says. Everyone had heard about the world of Andy Warhol, but no magazine had taken the wraps off and depicted the kind of decadence that surrounded it. According to Wolfe, the magazine lost its Madison Avenue retail advertising for a time; the financial backers met in crisis circumstances, and there were doubts about whether Felker would endure as editor. "Clay knew there would be hell to pay, but he couldn't resist running it, which is one of the reasons I admire him. It took a lot of courage. In the long run it made the magazine greater." What made the magazine great wasn't just Felker's editorial vision and daring, but his knack for finding and cultivating writers. Peter Maas, whose career already had been interestingly intertwined with Felker's, wrote hard-edged stories on politics and crime. He covered a new militancy in New York's labor unions sparked by an illegal (but successful) transit strike; the influence of prominent lawyer Roy Cohn, under investigation by the FBI, on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; and the murderous and drug-suffused world of Joseph Valachi, a thirty-three-year member of the Mafia who turned government informer. (The article was an excerpt from Maas' The Valachi Papers, based on his interviews with Valachi in prison.)

     Maas has hanging in his apartment an early poster for the magazine. It trumpets "Tom Wolfe on the city streets," "Peter Maas on crime," "Judith Crist at a screening," "Jimmy Breslin anywhere." And it declares that "We want to have a direct involvement in this city. We want to be inseparable from it. We want to be its voice, to capture what the city is about better than anyone else has. And we can. Because we have the most powerful tool that anybody can have. Good writing."

     Another Felker star among good writers was Gloria Steinem. Steinem had worked for Felker at Esquire, where she earned her first bylined piece in a national magazine; it was on the then-new contraceptive pill. She learned in the course of her research that the developers of the Pill, strangely, had been driven by the goal of increasing fertility by suppressing ovulation in the short run. "So I ended up writing about the development of the Pill. And Clay told me that I had performed the incredible feat of making sex dull." She rewrote the story with a greater focus on the social impact of the invention.

     "He didn't really remember people until they had given him an idea he liked," Steinem says. "And then they registered on him. So I'm sure it was a little upsetting to meet him for the sixth time and he didn't know your name. But once you said something that interested him, then he didn't care whether you were the doorman--he didn't care who you were, he was completely democratic. And you could argue with him, which is something I treasure, because I find it very hard to argue and get angry. But Clay allowed me to do that. So we would fight tooth-and-nail. He was so passionate that he allowed you to be passionate. And he didn't hold a grudge at all. If you turned out to be right, he would never confess it, but you knew it, because you would hear him repeating your words to someone else."



Photo:upi / bettmann
 

     Felker's New York gave Steinem the chance to do political stories--a beat not then considered fit for a woman reporter. (As the only woman journalist on the Nixon campaign plane, she was given access only to Mrs. Nixon.) After the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King Jr., she documented unease in the simmering city. "I was in my apartment watching television, just dazed," Steinem recalls. "And Clay called me up and said, 'What are you doing in your apartment? You call yourself a reporter? Get up to Harlem and interview people and see what they're saying.' That was kind of hard--but to good purpose. I mean, I'm very grateful that he called. It gave me something to do with my grief. And it was much more important than wandering around my apartment not doing anything."

     Steinem says that Felker had an early sense that "something was changing" in the role that women perceived for themselves. He considered producing his own women's magazine, and he arranged a photograph of all his women writers to promote it. Steinem helped to move him away from the idea. She thought it would be important for a feminist magazine to be controlled by women.

     Beyond that, most of Felker's women writers were not feminists, Steinem says. (In 1973, the National Organization for Women presented its Hypocrite's Award to New York "for its many sexist covers and backlash articles against the women's movement.")

     As a well-traveled speaker on feminist issues, Steinem had helped to start the Women's Action Alliance. The alliance was an information clearing-house to handle concerns ranging from child care to filing lawsuits. She and her colleagues considered publishing a newsletter to support its work. They discovered that newsletters don't make money, "unless they're giving out stock tips." So, about a year after Steinem had helped quash a Felker-style feminist magazine, the idea was given new life.

     "We had a dummy, we had lists of writers, we had everything you do when you start a magazine. We were trying to raise money--unsuccessfully, for two reasons. One, the idea of a feminist magazine didn't strike people as hot. The kinds of people you go to to raise money are not the kinds of people necessarily who are empathetic with social movements. So they didn't think this was a great idea. And two, we wanted it to be controlled by the staff. We felt it had to be controlled by women, not by money interests, and that's very rare. It doesn't exist in most magazines now."

     New York at the time produced a double issue at the end of the year, signaled by some special theme or insert. Felker suggested that the December 1971 issue incorporate selections from the first anticipated Ms.; he would choose thirty pages or so from the Ms. preview issue-in-progress, which would appear as a solo publication some six months later. New York would bear the full risk of the $125,000 necessary to support the preview's 300,000 copies. Half of the newsstand profits (if any) of the Ms. preview issue would go to New York, and so would all of the advertising proceeds.

     The magazine-within-the-magazine included a personal essay by Steinem on "Sisterhood," a professor's disourse on "Why Women Fear Success," and a remembrance of a career-woman pioneer in "My Mother, the Dentist." Steinem saw an appropriate New York (and Ms.) cover in a story that traced the perception of women as household "appendages." Felker wanted a cover linked with a how-to piece on marriage contracts; the illustration would depict a couple standing back-to-back with a rope around them. "I was not in love with that as an illustration, because it looked unpleasant," Steinem says. "And marriage contracts are supposed to be positive, not negative."

     Steinem won the cover argument--though the roped-together couple accompanied the inside story. The eventual cover showed an everywoman-housewife who is blue-colored and multi-armed ("You can see that I had lived in India"). The figure is clutching a clock, telephone, typewriter, iron, steering wheel, frying pan, broom, and cosmetic mirror.

     When the Ms. insert ran, it set a newsstand sales record for New York. It also attracted more than 20,000 letters from women all over the country.

     Felker's closest collaborator and co-visionary was Milton Glaser. Glaser was described in a New York Times profile last spring as "an overarching figure--painter, graphic designer, teacher, food writer, designer of shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants." He created the "I Love New York" logo for New York State, redesigned the Grand Union supermarket chain, and has been given one-man shows by the Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center, and Cooper Union.

     "What we really did was not so much a question of style or aesthetics or beauty," says Glaser. "It had to do with intensity and clarity. New York was never a beautiful magazine. It was never elegant. It was useful, strong, vigorous, sometimes conflicted. It represented the general taste and rhythm of the city itself. I guess the city isn't pretty either. One of the characteristics of this place is its vitality--and very often its rawness. We did not want to make a nice, refined piece. We wanted to reflect the general situation of being under construction, like the city--changeable and mutable--and not worry about design elegance or design refinement."

     Mulling over Glaser's comment, Felker says, "If you refine something too much, you take the energy out of it."

     In his 1973 book, Graphic Design, Glaser noted that it took New York's team almost two years to understand how to translate the qualities successful in a Sunday supplement into a magazine format. "The writing style had to be more compact and more dramatic. The original supplement --because it never had to sell on newsstands--could run beautiful pictures on its cover with relatively small headlines, while magazine covers must grab potential readers by the lapels since a hundred other magazines clamor for attention."

     Felker brought to the magazine the curiosity of "a perpetual outsider," an "endless interest and inquiry about any subject as though it were the first time it had ever been looked at," as Glaser describes him. "It didn't matter what the subject was. It could be politics, it could be food, it could be subway construction--he had this universally astonished attitude toward everything that fell within his purview.

     "I had already developed a long-term sort of immunity toward those things, because they had been so much a part of my life. One of the great problems in life, and certainly in art, is that you become immune to everything you become familiar with. The great thing about Clay was he was unfamiliar with so many things about the city. What Clay did for me was to make me look at what I was already familiar with again. And I think that's actually a very good sort of general definition of what happens in the creation of art, which is the examination of the familiar. Most often what familiarity means is that you simply stop looking at something. I discovered that when I was sitting at a table deciding to draw my mother, and I realized that I had no idea what she looked like. Clay led us all into a willingness to look at things that we had stopped looking at years ago, those of us who had grown up here."

     Even as Felker's New York geared itself to status-seeking in the city, it became an editorial pioneer in another area--its celebrated reader-service orientation. New York, Felker says, "was a magazine that dealt with the reader in more than one way, but one of the most important ways was as a consumer--the reader's life as a consumer." The idea was to show the way to better, and cheaper, living in the metropolis. (But as Tom Wolfe observes, service, as New York defined it, wasn't far-removed from savvy status-seeking. "The place to go to get guacamole, the hot restaurant, the hot cheese emporium--most of these things didn't really have to do with taste in a gustatory sense, they had to do with ambition and status.")

     The consumer information theme began with the Sunday supplement version of New York; each week a "Best Bets" column advised readers what to do and buy. With Jerome Snyder, another designer, Glaser took readers on a tour of inexpensive eateries through "The Underground Gourmet." The very first column focused on a Lower East Side baker, Yonah Schimmel, who had started something of a fetish for knishes. The magazine put a sample knish through a chemical analysis, reported on the results, and offered a "Save the Knish" button to anyone who wrote in. Food writer Mimi Sheraton was a popular service-conscious contributor. Her first piece for the magazine surveyed the breads of New York; she followed that with a rating of the city's caterers. But probably her most ambitious writing--and sampling--exercise came with a 1972 issue. The title pretty much captured the assignment: "I Tasted Everything in Bloomingdale's Food Shop." It took her al-most one year and 1,961 food items. In twenty-four pages, Sheraton recorded impressions of delectable items (Danish Limfjord Mussel Soup: "Another near-perfect blend...reminiscent of a bracing sea breeze"), and forgettable items (Haco's Crepes Suzette Mix: "A...disaster which cooked like a limp plastic doily. I wonder how you say 'Tsk Tsk' in French"). Similarly with more conventional fare like fudge ("the smoothest, creamiest, chocolatyest non-homemade fudge I know"), and lobster and shrimp salads ("Shameful, with too much celery diluting the mayonnaise and tasteless, obviously frozen shellfish"). She speared the pepperoni sausage ("My fine Italian husband described it as having 'no balls.' "). And she found the instant coffee an instant flop ("Instant coffee is instant coffee, and I say to hell with it.")      "Of course, Bloomingdale's advertised it like mad," says Sheraton. "The bad things sold even better than the good things, because people wanted to see if something could possibly be as bad as I said it was."

     While even some of its own writers derided New York for succumbing to service, it's a theme, Sheraton points out, that has since permeated journalism. By the mid-Seventies, service-minded journalism had worked its way conspicuously into The New York Times, which had just developed its "special" weekday sections. Sheraton remembers having been asked which editor she thought was most responsible for the changes in the paper. Rather than supplying the expected answer--a Timesman like A.M. Rosenthal or Arthur Gelb--she answered with Felker's name. (Tom Wolfe makes the same point, insisting that New York magazine created the modern look of The New York Times. "The Times was very jealous of what was going on, because these were all things The Times could have been concerned with. But The Times' idea of a feature story then was a ninety-seven-year-old woman in Gramercy Park and her pet turtles. That was their idea of human interest--almost nothing about the play of ambition in the city. And today, when you look at the sections of The New York Times--'Home,' 'Weekend,' 'Style,' and the others--it's all New York magazine broken up into five parts.")      Sheraton served up a diet of stories that the business community might have found hard to digest. In 1974 she wrote a cover story on "The Burger That's Eating New York." She sketched the encroachment of McDonald's into the city's neighborhoods as producing the "twin evils" of littering and loitering, and as feeding into a corporate culture that depended on exploiting low-paid workers in dead-end jobs. No fan of the food, she compared McDonald's "secret" sauce to an "oily, sweet-sour emulsion" that "should be thrown, if not overboard, down the toilet." As for the shakes, they had the flavor of "aerated Kaopectate."

     A year after the McDonald's piece, New York published Sheraton's "The Rudest Store in New York." The story took on Gucci's--a store that made "haute chutzpah," in her phrase, one of its earliest imports. "Just as four generations of this Florentine family have perfected techniques of leathercraft, so the sales staff has mastered, with equal impeccability, the art of the drop-dead put-down and the icy stare, at once appraising and disapproving, flashing the warning that the would-be customer is unworthy of the merchandise he or she is about to ask to see."

     In the New York context, the result of the story was predictable. Gucci's clerks found themselves "swamped with customers," says Sheraton. "Everybody came in to see how rude they could be." Aldo Gucci, the president and chairman, sent her a bouquet of flowers.

     In 1974 Felker--by then publisher as well as editor of the magazine--went to his board with a proposal to buy The Village Voice. His goal was to expand the company while giving it a more stable economic base. But the board resisted--as did some Voice writers like Norman Mailer, worried about editorial control and about a cultural clash between New York chic and a hard-edged Voice. In the end, the two companies merged through a stock transfer.      He then decided to start a New York spin-off, New West in California. "New West was a great romance," said Gail Sheehy in Rolling Stone. (Sheehy and Felker were married in 1984.) "Clay fell in love with California, with its young, rawboned politics, is history and cultural heroes, its energy, cults, creeds, and crazy variations on the American Dream." In the same retrospective, Felker was quoted as saying that the new magazine "exceeded all our expectations in terms of circulation growth, advertising pages sold, popular acceptance." It also grew so rapidly that the costs outran the original budgets. That provided the groundwork for what Sheehy labeled a "conspiracy between the raider and the insiders."

     By late 1976, Felker began looking for financial saviors. He never looked to Rupert Murdoch as a potential savior, or a potential raider, he says; it seemed like a a friendly gesture when Murdoch approached him to meet about the magazine's future. He now says that the worst decision in his life was to have believed in that friendship. In a second meeting, the Australian press baron brought up a proposal for purchase, only to get the editorial cold shoulder from Felker. Murdoch had just taken over The New York Post, solidifying his pursuit of what Newsweek called "a jarring mix of the naked and the deadly." But he had not achieved journalistic respectability; and Felker's publishing empire would "give us a little cachet," as he put it.

     For a week, pro- and anti-Felker directors of New York Magazine Company waged battle; the drama was captured by the press as vividly as any Horace Greeley report from the front. (It would be a Time cover story, "The Battle of New York.") Briefly it seemed that Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham would rescue the Felker forces with a friendly buyout. But Murdoch managed to sew up 51 percent of the company stock, and Felker resigned--with much of his team following in his lead.

Photo: Courtesy Clay Felker and Gail Sheehy


     Faced with the end of civilization as they had known it, the staff gathered at a midtown restaurant to hear the news from Felker. Sheehy wrote of a phalanx of fifty reporters and a climate that "came close to the hysteria of covering a politician's downfall." Felker told his writers: "Rupert Murdoch's ideas about friendship, about publishing, and about people are very different than mine. He should know that he is breaking up a family, and he does so at his peril." Then a reporter asked him, "What kind of day was today for you?" "A terrible day," he answered. "It's also the best day of my life," he added, his voice breaking, "because of the support and the love these people have shown me."

     "It was all about principle," says Gloria Steinem. "It was writers versus money people--writers and editors with the talent versus the bank. We felt that the magazine should belong to the talent that created it."

     While uniformly derisive of Murdoch, several Felker associates agree that Felker's ambitions got the better of him. Maas calls Felker's loss of New York "a great tragedy," but is reminded of a comment that he picked up from Pete Hamill: "Clay's editorial act was terrific, but his boardroom act needed a lot of work." Steinem points out that when he acquired The Village Voice, Felker lost a big chunk of his ownership share in the company, and he took on board members who were hostile to his interests. "I remember saying to him, 'Clay, don't buy The Village Voice. It's like buying a hornet's nest into which you have to put your hand every morning.' But he wanted to and he did. His tragic flaw--which we all have, a tragic flaw--was his desire to be the publisher, the financial decision-maker, when in fact his genius is as an editor."

     Yet when he's asked today what role has given him the greatest joy, Felker answers, "Being able to control the total publication. It was very exciting building the business at New York; it was a constantly engrossing activity. My view was that as an editor, I didn't want anybody to tell me what to do. That's why I thought it was necessary to be able to run the entire business."

     As some Felker observers see it, his editor-to-owner transition was about more than status-seeking; it was also coming to terms with family history. Political writer Richard Reeves, one of the leaders among the team protesting the Murdoch takeover, has said that "Clay was always determined not to repeat what happened to his father." The senior Felker had spent three decades shaping The Sporting News, only to be jettisoned by its owners.

     Today, he makes no effort to hide the fact that the episode still stings. But he is also comfortable in the role of magazine philosopher, and notes that publications have natural life cycles. As he wrote in a 1969 issue of The Antioch Review: "There appears to be an almost inexorable life-cycle of American magazines that follows the pattern of humans: a clamorous youth eager to be noticed; vigorous, productive middle-age marked by an easy-to-define editorial line; and a long slow decline, in which efforts at revival are sporadic and tragically doomed."

     "There's always a terrible pain," he says today as he reflects on New York. "I'm not sure that I can ever get used to it, although I try to convince myself that I have. On the other hand, magazines are themselves not as durable or long-lived as newspapers, because newspapers are geographically anchored and magazines are anchored in values and attitudes that are constantly changing. Unless you can make an effective transition to the new values and attitudes, you won't survive. And that's very hard to do."

     Felker shifted his sights to a national magazine--the national magazine where he had earlier competed for the top editorship. In August 1977 he purchased Esquire. He went on to install Milton Glaser as design director, expand the staff size, up the subscription rate while cutting the circulation-base guarantee for advertisers, and shift the publication schedule from a monthly to a biweekly. His first editorial, in January 1978, co-signed by Glaser, promised to take the magazine "back to basics, back to being a literate, sophisticated, and useful man's magazine. Because there isn't one, and the American man needs one now more than ever before."

     But the magazine's long-troubled financial picture wasn't helped by a subscriptions campaign and the stepped-up publication schedule. Less than two years later, he sold the magazine.

     He later became editor, for a year, of The Daily News Tonight, an unsuccessful effort on the part of The New York Daily News to attract young, upscale readers to the blue-collar tabloid; editor of Adweek, a trade publication that was published in five regional editions (and that acquired such Felker-inspired touches as a "Hot" list); and for several years editor of Manhattan inc., which was later merged (in a futile resuscitation effort) with M magazine. The philosophy behind Manhattan inc. was that "businessmen were the rock stars of the Eighties," Felker says. "Well, the '87 stock-market crash proved that wasn't exactly true, and that was the fatal blow, as it turned out, because we lost a lot of our advertising."

     He was drawn especially to the idea of the alternative weekly: He started and edited the short-lived East Side Express--appealing to residents of a "movers and shakers" Manhattan neighborhood that encompasses renowned medical centers, the United Nations, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Guggenheim. "Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But I think it's a battle worth waging, to provide a number of different voices."

     In the early Eighties, he had a stint with Twentieth-Century Fox to develop story ideas. Some of the stories he had thought up for Esquire and New York earlier had been turned into movies--notably Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy. But the studio experience was frustrating. "They kept changing studio heads," he told an interviewer at the time. Lots of projects were approved; none made it to production. He concluded, "I'm really an editor."

     Not just an editor, but an editor-teacher. Felker's Berkeley assignment recognizes that distinction; so did the New York dinner in the spring of 1995 held to inaugurate the Felker Magazine Center. The tribute dinner drew some 700 writers and editors, all of them, to one extent or another, professional protŽgŽs of Felker.

     At Berkeley, Felker is focusing not just on magazine writing and the creation of new ideas for magazines, but also on hands-on collaborative effort with designers. One recent graduate--inspired by a class excercise--scraped together enough money from relatives and the sale of her boyfriend's Jeep to launch a new magazine; others have gone on to jobs with established magazines and online publications.


Writerly wanderings: frequent travelers to England, Gail Sheehy and Felker find a photogenic backdrop in the Houses of Parliament

     "My feeling about journalists is that they are very ephemeral, and that your rewards are being an eyewitness to history and having a voice in your time," he says. "But nobody will much remember you for very long. I have to explain to my students who Henry Luce is. To me, he was one of the major figures in my field and in my life. He had a major impact in his time; he created great institutions that live on after him.

     "In my own case, I'm not claiming greatness or anything like that. But it's important that New York magazine survives as an institution for understanding the great city."

     And, as all those Felker proteges would add, for understanding the great editor who gave the city its novel-in-progress.                                                      


Editor's Note: Felker is the founding chairman of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.



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