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My God, What Trouble You Could Cause!

Clay Felker remade American journalism—and had the kind of outsize life that even he might have found impressive. As witnessed by Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, Milton Glaser, Richard Reeves, Lally Weymouth, and others, and told to Sarah Bernard and Aaron Latham.


Milton Glaser, Lally Weymouth, Clay Felker, and Katharine Graham in 1976.  

Clay Felker had journalism in his blood. His father was managing editor of The Sporting News; his mother had been a newspaper editor before she had children (which sensitized him to the notion of smart, unfulfilled women, an idea that would play a large role in his career at New York). He started a paper at age 8 (see here) and never looked back.

GAIL SHEEHY, writer, married to Clay Felker.
The first time I laid eyes on Clay, he was yelling on the phone. Something unusual. I dared to walk down the back stairs at the Herald Tribune Women’s Department, which was a flamingo-pink ghetto. But I had a story idea. And the only way to do it was to go and talk to Clay. So I was quite terrified. But then when I heard him and saw him, he was very big. And he had a huge voice, which just, you know, sliced right through me. And he was yelling at somebody about tickets to Dinner at Eight for Senator Javits and his wife. He was just like a creature from another planet to me. But totally intriguing. It wasn’t like, you know, I fell madly in love with him. I was just magnetized by him and scared of him.

TOM WOLFE, writer and first New York staff member.
New York was made for Clay, who was simultaneously thoroughly knowledgeable about the intricacies of status in New York and, at the same time, he was just wowed by it. He was agog at what all of these wonderful people were doing. I must say that I shared that, and it was probably one of the reasons we got along so well.

Felker spent time in New York during a summer between a stint in the Navy and his college years at Duke. He came to New York permanently in 1951. After working at Sports Illustrated and Life, where he was a reporter, Felker arrived at Esquire in 1957. Under Arnold Gingrich, he and Harold Hayes began to make what became the great magazine of the sixties. Gingrich pitted the two editors, gifted in very different ways, against each other in a competition over which one would replace Gingrich. Hayes ultimately won, and Felker decamped to the New York Herald Tribune, where he ran its Sunday supplement, but Felker left with important spoils: a set of ideas that would remake magazines.

ROBERT BENTON, filmmaker and former Esquire art director.
Those Thursday editorial meetings at Esquire were just bloodletting. I just sat there. I didn’t have a chance to say a word. But they were horrible, horrible meetings. The idea of the story was stupid, or the writer. Felker and Hayes had very different ideas of what the magazine was. Harold wanted what Esquire became. Clay wanted something looser and freer and less highbrow.

GORE VIDAL, writer and longtime Esquire contributor.
Clay was the center of it. And he was never afraid to be interesting. So many of the people who get into the magazine business are terrified of being interesting. My God, what trouble you could cause!

I gave Milton Glaser a section to do, and Milton did it in a sort of faux Art Nouveau style. It was wonderful, it was a brilliant thing to do, and Clay was so blown away by it that he wanted to meet Milton. They became great friends, and it was reflected in Clay’s changing ideas about how the visual part of the magazine was integrated with the text. He became much more imaginative about it and much bolder.

When Clay lost Esquire, he was brought to the Tribune to help out with a new Sunday supplement.

And I remember being introduced to him, and I said to myself there’s something odd about him. What was odd about him was all his custom-made clothes, which you didn’t see at the Herald Tribune. His shoes were tiny.

JOHN BOWERS, Columbia professor, Herald Tribune contributor.
Clay was always on the move, boy. And he had ideas that were just unstoppable. If something was happening, he’d know about it before it really took root. New York is a place that he made. There was a young influx of people that did outrageous things, changed neighborhoods, invented dances.

Clay didn’t like things that were fussy and old-fashioned. He liked brightness and life and change and newness. New York was a place, with Clay, that was welcoming. An unfurnished apartment, New York was, and he would come in and furnish it. New York is never stable. You meet the right person at the right time, you get the right opportunity at the right time, this is one place where that happens. Clay was that guy. Clay was the guy who made everyone lucky.


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