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A City Built of Clay

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“Down to every last detail” … Again, this was mainly instinctive, I think, but Clay realized the importance of detail as metonymy to bring alive the scenes that illustrated new styles of life. The new styles of life in turn revealed new status groups, some of which have proven influential enough to change life not merely in New York but all over the United States. “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” was a herald—or an early warning, depending on one’s take on the matter—of what is well known today as “political correctness.” Political correctness today transcends or is blithely oblivious of ideology. It has become an intellectual fashion, just as membership in the Baptist Church once was, believe it or not, essential to establishing one’s spiritual enlightenment. Dignified, prominent, fashionable people dread being asked their opinion of, say, soft-porn photographs of the bare haunches and school-of-bare breasts of vulvacious young things with I gotta have it leers on their lips … in fashion ads in the most elegant magazines. They shudder. Honest answers might strip them of their socially compulsory spiritual enlightenment.

Clay’s eye for styles of life and the status groups that created them, his journalist’s awareness of such things as hot news, profoundly changed magazine and newspaper publishing in the United States and, for that matter, England. So-called “city” magazines doing their best to imitate New York cropped up all over the country. Newspapers created sections called “Style,” “Lifestyle,” or using the new corporate jam-bam style of logo, “LifeStyle,” all to try to capture some of the New York mojo. The New York Times would seek to duplicate New York by slipping a multitude of new sections into the newspaper daily and on Sunday—the jumbo Sunday Times might contain three or more of them—with titles such as “Styles,” “City” (more styles), “Escapes,” “Arts” (consisting of two subsections, one for the Fine and one for the Fun), “Dining Out,” “Dining In,” “Circuits.” But the city magazines, the newspaper jam-bammers, and the Times’s one-a-day magazine (if not two- or three-a-day) quickly degenerated into coverage not of styles of life in the Max Weber sense but styles of living in the Martha Stewart sense, the right kitchenware, the right party planning, the right trips abroad, the right décors, neighborhoods, nanny services, iCommunicators, fitness programs, and “parenting.”

Throughout the thirteen years he ran New York Magazine, Clay Felker oversaw sociological studies of urban life that academic sociology had never even attempted: the culture of Wall Street, the culture of political graft in New York, cop culture, Mob culture, youth cultures in California as well as New York, New York’s self-aborting, dysfunctional, deconstructed power structure, capital-S Society and its discontents. And yet no one ever thought of it as sociology. That was thanks to one of Clay’s finest instincts. He demanded—or, better said, inspired as well as required—such depth of reporting that his writers came up with the same sort of scenes, status details, and detailed dialogue that in the past had rarely been found except in novels, short stories, and the most outrageous form of fiction, as Orwell put it, which is autobiography. (Autobiography is like Wikipedia: Some of it may be true.) And although it remains controversial, Clay’s writers often used the other favorite device of fiction writers: namely, putting the reader inside the skin, inside the head, behind the eyes of characters in the story. The New Journalism, c’est moi, Clay could have easily claimed.

One could argue—and I don’t hesitate to do it—that in those thirteen years, 1964–1967 and years 1968–1977, Clay produced a huge sprawling Vanity Fair himself … only having it written, chapter by chapter, by his writers … all of them absorbed in, exhilarated by, a Missouri boy’s wide-eyed obsession with New York as the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the capital of the world … the radiant City of Ambition.

In 1977 Clay, in his early fifties, at the very zenith of his creative powers, proved to be still an innocent Missouri boy beneath his heavy baggage of sophisticated knowledge. He looked on helplessly, utterly baffled, as a handful of what today are called “activist investors” euchred New York Magazine right out from under him. If you know the type, you can imagine their peculiar hee hee hee viperous glee.

The look on his face! It was so easy, the gang had to chuckle. Such Big Talk … the poor chump. The gang stared at the magazine for a while, and then they looked at each other. Why the hell wouldn’t the damned thing lay those golden eggs it was supposed to be so hot at doing? Presently they sold it, at a loss. But hey, that’s business. You take the bitter with the better. Looking back on the whole thing, though, you couldn’t help hee hee hee laughing again. The big talker with the big apartment and the big ideas—they sure had cooked his goose!

From New York Stories: Landmark Writing From Four Decades of New York Magazine (September; Random House). Copyright © 2008 by Tom Wolfe.


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