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My God, What Trouble You Could Cause!


Felker with wife and star writer Gail Sheehy.  

In April 1965, Felker published in the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday supplement a piece that killed several birds with one stone. “Tiny Mummies,” by Tom Wolfe, about The New Yorker and its editor, William Shawn, simultaneously gave Felker’s magazine a national reputation, made Wolfe a household name, gave Felker the confidence that he could start a magazine of his own—and began a literary feud that lasted decades.

We started to promote the “Tiny Mummies” story within the pages of the Tribune on Wednesday. Shawn saw this ad. I had met Shawn casually before. When I got home that night, I got a call from Shawn. He didn’t want the story to run. I tried to tell him that there was nothing I could do. It was already printed.

The next morning, I went into [Tribune editor Jim] Bellows’s office to tell him about this. That’s when I saw what a big-time newspaper editor was. He told one of his people to get the press editors of Time and Newsweek on the phone. It became a big national story. It made Tom Wolfe quite famous. The result was more or less to put New York in business. Our advertising doubled that year. It occurred to me at that point it would be a good idea to do an independent magazine about the city sometime.

MILTON GLASER, New York’s co-founder and design director.
When he moved on to doing the Sunday supplement in the Herald Tribune, I did a piece for Clay on the “Underground Gourmet.” We were sort of thinking that the one thing that people wanted in New York was information about cheap restaurants. Newspapers and magazines weren’t covering them because they didn’t advertise. So we started this column with a piece called “Yonah Shimmel vs. The Mock Knish,” about how the knishes that you got in the delis were so inferior to the real potato knish, which you could only get in lower Manhattan at a place called Yonah Shimmel’s, where the baker thought he was still in Russia and would never come out from the cellar bakery. Then we produced a button called save the knish foundation. But the Sunday supplement folded, and all that was left at the old Herald Tribune building were the people who were sending out save the knish buttons. After that, Clay and I decided that we would like to do a magazine together. We began to do dummies for a magazine based on the New York success in the Herald Tribune. We called it every which thing, Metropolis, Gotham, New York New York, Metro. Then Clay discovered that he could buy the rights to New York the magazine from the old Herald Tribune. He did, and we started New York Magazine, by which time we were really very close and good friends.

PETE HAMILL, writer and early New York contributor.
Felker edited the magazine and Glaser edited Felker. And neither one of them was a text guy.

The first year was enormously difficult partially because we had been working on a successful supplement. We thought that the secret—and it was perfectly logical—would be to transfer all the successes of the supplement into a freestanding weekly publication. There are astonishing things one discovers in trying to make this transfer. One is that writers don’t read the same on a small page with a slick surface than they do on a large page with a rough surface. You would think that almost anything that was good in one format would be equally good in another. This simply isn’t true. The old magazine had a series of fantastically well-executed covers that were just photographs of scenes around New York. Then we would run anything that was interesting, which was the way we started the newsstand magazine. That didn’t work at all. We had forgotten or overlooked the fact that now the magazine was competing on the newsstand with hundreds of other publications. What we didn’t like was the old New Yorker, where you didn’t even have a table of contents. We tried to design a magazine that you could understand completely in ten minutes just by flipping through the pages and using those overarching heads that we always had, and those subheads that sort of explained things. Once you had the magazine in hand, you had the feeling that you understood it all within moments of having received it.

Felker was essentially a reporter whose method was to gather information at lunch and dinner and then unload it back at the office. And he had a trust in his own journalistic impulses that many found uncanny. But he took ideas promiscuously, from everywhere and everyone.


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