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A City Built of Clay

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From left: Felker in 1969; at the premiere of Bright Lights, Big City, in 1988.  

I looked up at Clay and said, “I don’t see how you can not run it.”

“That’s the way I feel,” said Clay. And he ran it, story and photograph, in New York’s fourth issue.

Dynamite! Dynamite this story and this photograph were! So where did that leave the advertising department? Had they been a bunch of panicky philistines and Mrs. Grundys? As it turned out … no. New York lost every high-end retailer on Madison Avenue and beyond. This precipitated a crisis. The board, made up of the big investors, summoned Clay to a meeting at the Park Avenue apartment of one of them, a much respected elder statesman of Wall Street named Armand Erpf. I came along, too, since technically (and technically only) I was a vice-president of the magazine. Erpf’s apartment was nowhere near as grand as Clay’s, but the living room was lined—lined—with paintings such as I had seen before only in museums or Skira art books, Impressionists and the like. In terms of current prices, there must have been a billion dollars worth of pictures hanging on those walls. The directors weren’t looking at the pictures. They were hopping mad over this “Viva” business. They could see their investment sinking without a bubble after only four issues. They were ready to can Clay then and there and probably would have, had not the elder statesman and maximum art collector, Erpf, exercised moral suasion.

“Look at this,” Clay 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.

Incidentally, Diane Arbus is today the St. Diane of photography as an art. An original print of Viva would fetch $500,000 and possibly much more, judging by the latest auction prices of her work. Clay’s writers could only admire him for the risk he had taken, for brushing aside all the business types and seeing to it that a great story and a great photograph got published. His writers … for by now, quite without intending to, he had cast his own spell over New York’s writers and editors and illustrators, graphic artists, photographers—in short, the entire creative side of the operation. Soon we were all breathing Clay’s own mental atmosphere of boundless ambition, his conviction that we were involved in the greatest experiment in the history of journalism. Even back when his platform was nothing more than that miserable little bullpen at the Trib, he had a way of convincing you that his dream was as good as an action accompli. What we’re doing with this magazine is … Big League stuff! … If you put everything you’ve got into what I’m asking you to do … “I’ll make you a star.” According to the fast-accumulating Felker lore, that was the way he always put it, “I’ll make you a star.” I never heard him utter those very words, but one way or another he imparted that heady prospect to me and everyone else who worked for New York … He’ll make me a star. He wasn’t just blowing smoke, either. He did exactly that many times. And now that New York was a magazine on its own, more and more writers … believed. This … is … Big League stuff. And most of them—once they got a look at Clay’s Xanadu on 57th Street, they surrendered all doubts. Either this is the Big League … or there is no Big League. The only grandeur missing from Xanadu was Pamela. She was spending more and more time acting in movies in Italy, and by and by she and Clay went their separate ways. Years later he married Gail Sheehy.

If Clay was crazy about some story a writer had done for him, then he couldn’t do enough for the writer. The ultimate case was Gloria Steinem. Glo-Glo, as Clay called her, had done some great pieces for New York on the subject of feminism. So when she founded Ms. magazine, Clay gave her a hoist and a half. He printed the entire first issue of Ms., featuring a piece by Glo-Glo herself entitled “Sisterhood,” as a pull-out within an issue of New York. That was her start-up: a debut under the aegis of the most talked-about magazine in the country. It reminded me at the time of the way NASA used to carry rocket airplanes such as the X-1, the first ship to break the sound barrier, up to an altitude of 10,000 feet in the belly of a cargo plane. Then they would cut the little beast loose on its own so some pilot like Chuck Yeager (and there were two or three other pilots like Chuck Yeager) could take it “booming and zooming” up into the thin atmosphere on the edge of space. That way they didn’t have to use up most of the rocket fuel overcoming gravity. Likewise, Glo-Glo didn’t have to burn up a fortune in start-up money getting the perfect audience to look at Ms.—and the novelty of the stunt generated publicity money couldn’t buy.


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