Legendary 'New York' editor was champion of the new journalism


Clay Felker:CLAY FELKER, who has died aged 82, was a great editor who mistakenly thought of himself as a great publishing magnate.

His delusion became apparent when he lost a titanic struggle with Rupert Murdoch for control of New Yorkmagazine in 1977. Murdoch, who had recently bought the city's blue-collar tabloid, the New York Post, smiled at Felker over lunch and expressed interest in his ideas for the magazine, while reportedly negotiating behind Felker's back with the majority shareholder.

After his ousting Felker said: "Rupert Murdoch and I disagree on the meaning of friendship, of human values and the meaning of journalism."

From 1957, when he became features editor of Esquire, until his dismissal by Murdoch two decades later, Felker was the most admired editor in Manhattan. Art director Milton Glaser, designer of the celebrated "INY" logo, thought that Felker had an extraordinary sense of the moment, and an ability to harness talent to his vision.

"You work for me and I'll make you a star," Felker told Tom Wolfe, and he once offered a low-pay job to a Harvard Business School graduate, urging: "Trust me, this will be good for you."

He thought of New Yorkmagazine as an extension of smart Upper East Side dinner parties, with peppery talk of politics, real estate, money, business and gossip. Felker was intensely curious about the rich, and relished the nuances of power and status in the city. New Yorkmagazine told readers where you could get the best bagels, olive oil, coffee beans, fine old silver.

The city may have been falling apart, but New Yorkmagazine was the style guide for the new conspicuous consumption. Not merely luxury, as could be found in the New Yorker, but something sharp, intelligent, and always well-informed. It was very hip.

This quintessential New York insider, whose clothes were always custom-made, and whose parties at his East 57th Street apartment were for "cover-story people" and the best-looking women in town, was a midwesterner, a Jay Gatsby who never quite lost the outsider's sense of wonder at the glamorous life of the big city.

He was brought up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St Louis, and journalism dominated family life. His father Carl was managing editor of Sporting Lifefor three decades, until he was summarily sacked by its owners. Felker never ceased to feel the need for autonomy and control. He was often in conflict with his boards of directors over budgets and editorial grandiosity; a line was drawn when the board rejected his demand that New Yorkmagazine buy him a house in the Hamptons.

Felker served in the US navy during the war, graduating from Duke University, North Carolina, in 1951. He was briefly expelled from the university for spending a weekend off-campus with a fellow-student, Leslie Blatt, who later became his first wife. He worked as a sports journalist for Lifemagazine, and was then a political reporter in Washington, joining Esquireas features editor in 1957.

He hired Gore Vidal to write a column on politics and commissioned Norman Mailer to write about the 1960 Democratic convention, arranging for Mailer to meet Jack Kennedy. Felker was present at a glittering party in 1978 given by fellow journalist Lally Weymouth when Mailer tossed a drink in Vidal's face, and the two men began to manhandle each other. "God, this is awful. Somebody do something," pleaded Weymouth. "Shut up," said Felker. "This fight is making your party."

In 1963 Felker became editor of New York, the Sunday supplement magazine of the New York Herald Tribune. When the paper shut down, Felker raised $1 million to launch New Yorkmagazine. This was his golden period.

He hired Wolfe, who became the reigning stylist and poster-boy of the new journalism. He was joined by Jimmy Breslin, Anna Wintour, Ken Auletta, Gloria Steinem, Pete Hamill and Gail Sheehy (who became Felker's third wife). He had a great nose for stories, devoting almost the entire issue of June 8th, 1970, to Wolfe's account of a "radical chic" fundraiser for the Black Panthers held at Leonard Bernstein's apartment. He sent Nik Cohn to Brooklyn to investigate dance competitions, a story later made into the movie Saturday Night Fever.

Felker helped launched Gloria Steinem's Msmagazine, while Norman Mailer's run for mayor of New York in 1968 came out of a political brainstorming session in Felker's office.

His formula for a smart city magazine was copied all over the US. By 1970 it was breaking even. The expansive Felker persuaded the board to buy the Village Voicein 1974 (he never quite understood what the counter-cultural spirit of the Voicewas for), and founded New Westtwo years later. After losing New Yorkto Murdoch, Felker returned briefly to Esquireand then held one media job after another, until he joined the University of California, Berkeley, to teach journalism - a respected and revered figure, but no longer an editor, no longer in control.

Gail survives him, as do his daughter and stepdaughter.

- (Guardian Service)


Clay Schuette Felker, editor: born October 2nd, 1925; died July 1st, 2008