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A City Built of Clay

From left: Felker with his second wife, Pamela Tiffin, in 1963; with Dolly Schiff (the New York Post owner who sold the paper to Murdoch).  

I don’t think Clay even knew who Max Weber was or what “status,” let alone “styles of life,” meant in sociology. But his Show me! instincts led him directly to the same line of thought and toward styles of life that made big news. When Clay edited New York as a Sunday supplement and when he turned it into the magazine you can buy on newsstands today, the range of exclusives, of scoops, as it were, was extraordinary, looking back on it.

He published an astonishing report by Gail Sheehy on prostitution in New York. She had taken to the streets herself in hot pants that came up to here, white vinyl Courrèges boots, and an areolae-oriented top in order to mingle with the “working girls.” What she brought back to Clay at New York was not only an eyewitness account of the trade, which was remarkable enough, but also an analysis of prostitutes as a status group with six distinct social gradations. He published the first account of how the mega-wattage of newspaper, magazine, and television coverage, abetted by PR resources of the fashion industry, had created an entirely new kind of socialite, who so outdazzled the old capital-S Society based on Protestant family lineage that it was reduced to obscurity. He even published the first report from inside a hippie commune at a time when hippies were still called acid-heads. The material was hot—but how could you expect readers to thrill to the lives of people called acid-heads? For that matter, he published the first account of life within a California surfer commune, “The Pump House Gang,” and the first account of life among the student radicals who stormed Columbia University and took it over for a week in 1968. These three styles of life, the hippie, the surfer, and the radical, would change the lives of American youth and with them American life in general in ways beyond imagining at the time.

Clay’s magazine brought to life the inner emotional lives, not just the financial adventures, of the boom-time financiers in the voice of Adam Smith, the pseudonym for George J.W. Goodman, an investor who had made a modest fortune, set up an investment fund, lost several modest fortunes, his own and the investors’, before making what was to be his real fortune by creating an irresistible new approach to business news. His stories for New York, reworked only slightly, became the best-selling book The Money Game. Jimmy Breslin wrote a priceless piece for Clay, “Namath All Night Long,” about life as lived by the first Bad Boy professional athlete who became the prototype for all the Bad Boys, the John McEnroes, the Jimmy Connorses, who were to follow. Clay published Mark Jacobson’s bizarre account of “the hip fleet,” the world of the Dover Taxi Garage’s nighttime cabbies, a superiority complex of professors, former priests, artists, musicians, M.A.’s, D.J.’s, and others who classified themselves as intellectuals, padding out their miserable livings by driving at night—and whose greatest fear was working the day shift, which would mean the worst had now happened: They had become real cabdrivers. He published Nik Cohn’s “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” depicting a world of lower-middle-class, lower-IQ youths in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx in the mid-1970s who lived for Saturday nights in disco joints. Cohn’s piece was the basis of the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta. The white suits Travolta wore throughout created a sudden effulgence of white suits in the men’s clothing stores that made my own look trite … until the travolting faddists found out how much trouble and expense they require to maintain, and the Saturday Night Fever whites vanished as fast as they had appeared. He published a remarkable account of 1970s hangover of all of New York’s young hipsters and yipsters and granolas who had based their status dreams completely on one “Counter Culture” style of life or another. And he published Gael Greene’s reprise in 1970—“How Not to Be Humiliated in Snob Restaurants”—of Clay’s own “Siberia” piece in Esquire a decade before.

Up against work of this sort, based on reporting this solid, The New Yorker never had a chance. In its “Talk of the Town” column, the magazine began to fling zingers obviously aimed at us, always omitting the name of the magazine, New York, that was already making them look second-rate. We were working for an old newspaper, the Herald Tribune, that was all. This culminated in a full-blown parody in the body of The New Yorker of Breslin’s work for New York and mine … without mentioning New York. (To tell the truth, it was pretty clever stuff, that parody.) So they wanted to play. That much they made clear, as Clay and I saw it, and we certainly didn’t mind obliging them. Why should we?