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A City Built of Clay


After no more than six weeks, Zalaznick was promoted to editor of the entire Sunday edition. At that point the newspaper’s maximum editor, Jim Bellows, brought Clay Felker on staff to edit New York.

Not long thereafter Clay was sitting in the bullpen with his staff. Staff … The staff, the entire staff, consisted of one full-time editorial assistant, Walter Stovall, and two part-time writers, Jimmy Breslin and myself. What with two metal desks taking up more than half the space, you couldn’t have fitted more than four people in there, anyway.

I remember Clay saying, “Look … we’re coming out once a week, right? And The New Yorker comes out once a week. And we start out the week the same way they do, with blank paper and ink. Is there any reason why we can’t be as good as The New Yorker? … Or better. They’re so damned dull.”

At first I wrote that off as brave bluster. The New Yorker was also so damned solid. They had long ago established themselves as the very embodiment of New York sophistication. You could make the argument that it was the most prestigious magazine in America. College-educated souls all over the country subscribed to The New Yorker to be … with it. High-end retail companies loved all these people above the B.A. line. They were positively stoking the magazine with ads.

At The New Yorker they had not an inkling of what was about to hit them, namely, Clay Felker’s new kind of news.

Wolfe at the door: Two of the author's collaborations with Felker.

As I recall, the first assignment Clay gave me was a story on the promenade les chic and les chic-lettes took every Saturday morning through the art galleries along Madison Avenue from 57th Street to 79th. I was totally unaware of any such custom. Fortunately for me, Clay assigned a photographer, Freddie Eberstadt, to the story, too. Freddie knew his way around in that world already. The next Saturday morning we set out on the promenade and ran across half the what’s happ’nin’ population of Manhattan, everyone from Greta Garbo, looking as inconspicuous as possible in the Wildenstein gallery—but Freddie recognized her immediately—to Tiger Morse, a flamboyant fashionista of the time, walking along the Avenue and gaily waving … to Freddie. When the piece, entitled “The Saturday Route,” came out, people thought of me (not Freddie) as an ingenious reporter capable of sniffing out all these icons and novoscenti on a single Saturday-morning stroll. They were also astonished … and thrilled … that any such promenade took place … and now les proto-chic-lettes came skipping and screaming onto the Madison Avenue Saturday-morning gallery scene, pretty young things in short skirts and jeans molded to their pelvic saddles. They became known as the “art birds.” As late as 1989 Japanese art collectors liked to have these pretty little American girls by their sides in the front rows for the “important” auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. They loved the pretty things’ lithe young legs with their epidermi of sheerest ravage-me nylon shimmering up to the most tumescent swells of their thighs as they crossed and then re-crossed and then re-re-crossed and then re-re-re-crossed them shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer beneath the downlighters.

As I say, I had never heard of this Saturday-morning art promenade before, but Clay had. He made it a point to hear about such things. I had never worked with an editor who generated so many story ideas himself. He was his own best reporter. He always kept a small pad of paper in the left-hand inside pocket of his jacket. At dinner, even a formal dinner in some swell private home, as soon as he heard a wisp of conversation that gave him a story idea, Clay would draw the pad from his pocket and draw it fast, as if he kept it in a shoulder holster, slap it flat on the table, and write his inspiration down with a fourteen-karat-gold ballpoint pen. The pen inevitably created a flash in electric light. I saw him do it many times.

One afternoon I came by to see Clay at his Xanadu on 57th Street and found him sitting at a desk going through a date book to put together some income-tax data.

“Look at this,” he told me, riffling through the date book, “I only ate dinner at home eight times last year!”

I don’t think I can adequately convey the pride he took in this discovery. He had developed night vision for detecting new styles of life. “Style of life”—Lebensstil in German—was a term invented a hundred years ago by the German sociologist Max Weber, the father of status theory itself. All new styles of life, he said, were created by “status groups,” like-minded souls who try to create spheres of their own, insulated from the opinions of people outside. The socialites of the Saturday route had their style of life in the 1960s … and hippies had theirs. It was not until the late 1950s that the terms themselves, “status,” referring to social position, and “style of life,” referring to the manners and mores of status groups, emerged from academic sociology and became part of everyday language.


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