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A City Built of Clay

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From left: Jimmy Breslin, George Hirsch, Tom Wolfe, and Felker at a New York party in 1967.   

So what inna nameagod was all this? He who had staged this style of life, Clay Felker, was a Midwestern boy, from Webster Groves, Missouri, which always made me think of Grover’s Corners in Our Town. Like the two great American magazine founders of the first half of the twentieth century, Harold Ross of The New Yorker, a real Colorado boy, and Henry Luce of Time and Life, born to missionaries in China, Felker grew up far from the magnetic pull of New York’s much-vaunted glamour and excitement. His obsession with New York seems to have begun so early in his life that no one, not even the man himself, can remember what set it off. Introducing him many, many years later at a fund-raiser for the Felker Magazine Center of the University of California, Berkeley, I claimed his sister had told me Baby Clay’s first complete sentence was “Whaddaya mean, I ‘don’t have a reservation?’ ” At the time I thought I was only making a little joke.

The standard line about boys from Missouri is, “I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me,” meaning, “Don’t you glib city slickers try to slick-talk me. You’ve got to prove it.” But to Clay Felker it was a Dionysian cry of a Midwesterner who had come to New York to swallow America’s great City of Ambition whole, slick talk and all. “You’ve got to show me!”—all of it, the very process of status competition, the status details, the status symbols, the styles of life, everything that indicated how one ranked. The posh details of his private life were the reverse, like the reverse surface of a silk le smoking, an inside look at his obsession with status as the drive that runs the world—certainly the New York part of it.

At Esquire our man had produced an article comprised mainly of elaborate illustrations of the interiors of Manhattan’s most fashionable nightspots—‘21,’ El Morocco, Sardi’s—carefully designating where the social ringmasters, the maître d’s, seated VIPs … and where they stowed very unimportant people, the nobodies, usually out of sight in the rear of the room. At ‘21’ they took no chances. They put the poor devils up on an entirely separate floor. Either way, these dead zones were known in the business as “Siberia.” As soon as Felker published it, the term spread like a smell to swell restaurants all over the country. To this day unsteady souls enter such joints in a state of dread, resentment on the hair trigger, fearful lest the wardens, i.e., the maître d’s, icy smiles of welcome frozen on their faces, lead them straight to the gulag. Such are the status details that intrigue the human mind and, once inside it, never leave. They get under your skin—so much so that there would come a day when one author would write in New York Magazine’s pages that Clay Felker had “Felkerized” New York.

At that moment, the moment I first saw the big man accomplish the improbable stunt of standing up and balancing himself on two elfin feet, the Herald Tribune was trying to pull itself together after a four-month-long American Newspaper Guild strike. The sheet had brought our Whale in from the beach as a consultant in a total revamping of its Sunday edition and especially the Sunday supplement, whose name had been changed from Today’s Living to New York. A … Sunday supplement! The Sunday supplement was the lowest form of newspaper journalism in America at that time. With the single exception of The New York Times Magazine, Sunday supplements were cotton candy for the two areas of the brain (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) that process language.

New York’s first editor, Sheldon Zalaznick, had a mandate to turn it into a serious enough sheet to compete with The New York Times Magazine. He arranged to have Jimmy Breslin and me do an article for New York, both of us, every week, in addition to our daily chores for the City Desk. Zalaznick proved to be serious enough, all right. The Trib had recruited its most famous literary alumnus, John O’Hara, who certainly didn’t need the work, to do a column for New York once a month. His first contribution was so sloppy, not to mention surly, it was obvious he had dashed the thing off during some quick fit of pique or other. Zalaznick rejected it, and O’Hara piqued into just as quick a fit and quit—to the profound consternation of the Trib’s advertising department. They were using O’Hara’s name as their lead lure for the renovated Sunday edition. Right away I could see this was a very different sort of Sunday supplement. I was good enough to write for it, but John O’Hara wasn’t.


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