The late sixties were especially ripe for his vision of ambition-as-sexy-sport. (It makes perfect sense that the actual New York sports teams—the Jets of Joe Namath, the Knicks of Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier, the Amazing Mets—achieved their apogee of sexiness at the same moment.) As the baby-boom generation came of age, the new postwar meritocracy was fully ascendant, hedonism and even libertinism went mainstream, and the hegemony of the city’s Wasp elites declined. In the late sixties, after a quarter-century of suburbanization, the seemingly unstoppable abandonment of old cities by the middle and upper-middle classes, grotty Manhattan neighborhoods started to be refurbished and reinvented as epitomes of a new cool. The word trendy entered the American vernacular. Felker saw not only that “the power game” was the perfect subject for a magazine about New York but that the game’s rules were suddenly being refashioned in a way he could chronicle and arbitrate uniquely, with snazzy packaging and smart, gossipy, call-a-spade-a-spade attitude, freed of the fetters of mid-twentieth-century quality-newspaper solemnity.
From the beginning, Felker’s focus on high-end strivers and their status markers annoyed some people as much as it riveted others. For certain kinds of old-school New Yorkers—fogeys of all ages, old-school Wasps of every ethnicity, and prissy Upper West Siders in every neighborhood—Felker’s magazine and its view of New York City were (and are) irreducibly vulgar. It’s bad enough to obsess, almost pornographically, over the local quests for power and privilege and status, and to anoint the game’s latest winners and losers, but Felker actually celebrated it all, not just depicting the lives of the metropolitan haute bourgeoisie but shamelessly serving as a kind of wannabes’ how-to guide to succeeding in the new, emerging New York City, the ferociously lifestyling yuppie metropolis of these last four decades.
As it happened, the chart of Felker’s own professional life was an ironic rise-and-fall case study of New York ambition. For the first half of the career, his combination of acuity and hustle were perfectly timed, pluck plus luck hitting the sweet spot again and again: as a young man at Time Inc. in the heyday of Luce’s American Century; at Esquire just as the cerebral but swingy modern-glossy-magazine form emerged; at the cooler of the quality dailies, the Herald Tribune, during the civil rights and Vietnam years; and then New York Magazine, the base camp from which he also launched Ms. and bought The Village Voice. The second half of the career was a mirror-image series of Zeitgeist misreadings and unfortunate timings: a return to Esquire just as men’s magazines entered a postfeminist identity crisis; an attempt to turn the proletarian Daily News upscale; a consulting gig at U.S. News & World Report, the also-ran newsweekly, at the moment newsweeklies started losing their mojo; then a comebackish arrival at superhot Manhattan Inc. a few months before the Crash of ’87 burst the eighties bubble of Wall Street self-regard.
About his last big editorship, after Manhattan Inc. went under in 1990, he was, as ever, bracingly reductivist in his diagnosis of the half-life of heat, the evanescence of buzz, how the power game is won and lost. The magazine, he said, “was founded on the premise that investment bankers were the rock stars of the 1980s. Then, in one day, they weren’t rock stars.”
Clay Felker’s own rock stardom as a media pioneer, however, endures. It doesn’t matter that he did his great, seminal work way back when. So did Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. During the seventies and eighties, the Times (and much of the rest of mainstream media) thoroughly Felkerized itself. Practically every species of insidery, smart-ass Web journalism carries bits of his DNA. He permanently transformed his white-hot corner of the world. And on these very pages, fresh chapters of his novel about the city are still being published every week.