Clay Felker, 82; editor of New York magazine led New Journalism charge
By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 2, 2008
Clay Felker, the innovative founding editor of New York magazine who was widely considered one of the great post-World War II magazine editors in the U.S. and a key figure in the emergence of New Journalism in the 1960s, died Tuesday. He was 82.
Felker, who had been married to bestselling author Gail Sheehy since 1984, died at his home in Manhattan after a long battle with throat cancer, said a spokeswoman for New York magazine.
"American journalism would not be what it is today without Clay Felker," Adam Moss, the magazine's current editor-in-chief, said in a statement. "He created a kind of magazine that had never been seen before, told a kind of story that had never been told."
As an editor, Felker was known for having what Newsweek magazine once described as "a Gatsbyesque drive, a zest for power and an uncanny knack for riding the trendy currents of Manhattan chic."
"He ranks with Henry Luce of Time, Harold Ross of the New Yorker and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone in that these are all people that brought out magazines that had a new take on life in America," writer Tom Wolfe, a New York magazine alumnus, told The Times on Tuesday.
Describing Felker, Wolfe said, "He at first seemed very bluff and even could be gruff, but he created an atmosphere in which everybody wanted to do their very best for Clay.
"Everybody said he'd tell a writer he liked, 'I'm going to make you a star.' I never heard him say that, but that was the atmosphere he created in your mind."
Felker began his rise in the magazine industry as the enterprising features editor at Esquire, beginning in 1957, after several years as a writer and reporter for Life magazine.
"Clay was always widely enthusiastic about writers and ideas," John Berendt, a former editor at Esquire, told Marc Weingarten, author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight," a 2006 book about the New Journalism revolution -- journalism whose practitioners used literary techniques to produce factually accurate stories that read like fiction.
Felker, Berendt said, "could sniff out a developing story before anyone else. He was always out, going to parties, schmoozing, trying to match the right writers to the right stories. He had his finger on the pulse of things, just an amazing sixth sense about trends."
After seeing singer Sammy Davis Jr. perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1959, for example, Felker suggested that writer Thomas B. Morgan spend time hanging out with the entertainer for what became an insightful profile, "What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?"
Felker also tapped novelist Norman Mailer -- and gave him free rein -- to cover the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, at which John F. Kennedy was nominated for president and Mailer produced a lengthy, thought-provoking piece of literary journalism, "Superman Comes to the Supermart."
And Felker gave Gloria Steinem, then a little-known freelancer, what she calls her "first serious assignment" as a writer: a report on the then-new contraceptive pill.
After researching and writing her story, Steinem recalled in a 2005 piece on Felker in California magazine, a publication for UC Berkeley alumni, "Clay blue-penciled my pages on the history of the pill, told me I had left people out, and made the memorable comment: 'You've performed the incredible feat of making sex dull.' "
Felker, Steinem wrote, then "sent me out to do interviews and a total rewrite. That was why I produced in 1962 an article on sexual politics and new science that prefigured the women's movement. I had a great editor."
After losing a battle for the editorship of Esquire to Harold Hayes, Felker left the magazine in 1962.
The next year, he was hired as a consultant at the New York Herald Tribune, where he helped remake Today's Living, the magazine supplement of the newspaper's Sunday edition.
Renamed New York -- and with Felker taking over as editor -- the revamped Sunday supplement became a weekly showcase for the talents of Wolfe and his Herald Tribune colleague, columnist Jimmy Breslin.
Within two years, the city-oriented New York was considered the hottest Sunday read in town.
Helping fuel New York's reputation were stories such as Wolfe's controversial 1965 send-up of the staid, in-house culture of the New Yorker magazine and the idiosyncrasies of the 40-year-old literary institution's low-profile editor, William Shawn: a two-part, more than 10,000-word piece written in what Wolfe has described as a "hyperbolic style."
The first installment ran under a blaring, tabloid-style headline, "TINY MUMMIES! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!" and featured an illustration of Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker's monocle-wearing Victorian dandy icon, wrapped up like a mummy.
In a 1997 interview, Felker described Wolfe's "incredible piece of reporting" as "the making of New York magazine."
When the Herald Tribune merged with the New York World Telegram & Sun and the New York Journal American in 1966 to become the New York World Journal Tribune, Felker was appointed the paper's associate editor, overseeing its Sunday literary supplement while continuing as editor of the Sunday magazine.
After the World Journal Tribune folded in 1967, Felker acquired the magazine name New York for $6,575, lined up financial backers and relaunched New York as an independent magazine in 1968 -- with Wolfe, Breslin and other Herald Tribune vets joining him and innovative graphic designer Milton Glaser.
Targeting his new publication at educated and affluent or upwardly mobile New Yorkers, Felker stated that his mission was to produce a "weekly magazine that communicates the spirit and character of New York."
New York's hip and sophisticated blend of stories focusing on the city's culture, politics, business, and life and style -- along with its eye-catching illustrations -- spawned countless imitative city and regional magazines around the country.
"I call it an eternal magazine formula," Felker told the New York Times in 1995. "I used to compare it to what the conversation is at a round dinner table or a dinner party that well-informed people talk about."
Always, the emphasis was on good writing. And Felker, widely regarded as a "writer's editor," attracted many of the era's best, including Sheehy, Pete Hamill, Nora Ephron, Peter Maas and Aaron Latham.
As an editor, Felker recalled in the 1995 interview, "I had been experimenting along with several other editors in town with something that was then called the New Journalism and is now called Literary Journalism.
"These were people who could do that, using the traditional techniques of English literature in a different form -- which I have always felt communicates not only the facts but the emotions. And these people were those who connected emotionally with our particular kind of audience."
During his tenure at New York, Felker helped launch Steinem's feminist magazine Ms. by inserting a 30-page preview excerpt in a December 1971 issue of New York and funding the new magazine's first stand-alone issue.
In 1974, New York magazine's parent company bought the Village Voice, the Greenwich Village weekly newspaper, and Felker eventually named himself its editor-in-chief and publisher.
He also expanded to the West Coast, founding Los Angeles-based New West magazine in 1976 but displeased his company's board of directors by reportedly spending four times his original $1-million estimate to launch the new magazine.
In early 1977, Felker lost control of the New York Magazine Co. after a hostile takeover by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Embittered over having New York magazine "sold out from under me by money-grubbing little men" -- as he described the situation to Newsweek -- Felker made a comeback later that year by acquiring Esquire magazine with the financial backing of Vere Harmsworth, head of Britain's Associated Newspaper Group Ltd.
Felker vowed to restyle the ailing magazine to "appeal to the interest of sophisticated men."
But in 1979, with strained finances due to the expense of turning the magazine from a monthly to a biweekly and drops in advertising and circulation revenue, Associated Newspapers sold Esquire.
Among Felker's numerous post-Esquire ventures were stints as editor of an unsuccessful afternoon edition of the New York Daily News and the magazines Adweek, Manhattan, inc. and M.
"Journalism," Felker told Newsweek in 1977 after losing New York magazine, "has been my life."
Born Oct. 2, 1925, Felker grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., an affluent suburb of St. Louis.
Journalism was a natural career choice: His father was managing editor of the weekly newspaper the Sporting News and editor of Sporting Goods Dealer, a monthly trade publication; and his mother was a former newspaper women's section editor.
After graduating from high school in 1942, he went to Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he worked as a reporter on the school newspaper, the Chronicle.
A year later, he joined the Navy and became sports editor and a writer for the Navy newspaper, the Blue Jacket.
After graduating from Duke in 1951, Felker was hired as a sportswriter at Life magazine.
He later turned one of his Life features, a profile of baseball legend Casey Stengel, into the 1961 book "Casey Stengel's Secret."
"I enjoyed writing," Felker later told Weingarten, "but it wasn't my real ability."
In 1994, Felker began teaching a course called "How to Make a Magazine" at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where the Felker Magazine Center was established the next year, with Felker as director.
Felker's first two marriages, to Leslie Aldrich and actress Pamela Tiffin, ended in divorce.
In addition to Sheehy, Felker is survived by his sister, Charlotte Gallagher; his daughter, Mohm Sheehy; his stepdaughter, Maura Sheehy Moss; and three step-grandchildren.