Clay Felker founded this magazine 35 years ago, but I have a bond that extends beyond that: We were both roughed up by the same money guy. Alan Patricof, who caused me woe during the Internet era, screwed Felker out of this magazine twenty years before.
When I’ve spoken to Clay, who now runs the magazine program (which is named after him) at Berkeley’s journalism school, we have invariably spoken about Patricof. We’re almost blood brothers for having gone up against—and having been taken down by—the same sonofabitch. It still obviously causes Clay great pain—he created the most influential magazine of the age, and it was sold out from under him in the dead of night (or its equivalent). He still dwells on it.
But I would argue that Clay’s run-in with Patricof, or the inevitability of it, was not just the drive-by affront to journalism that it remains in Clay’s mind but integral to the magazine that he created.
Here’s the DNA of the magazine: An editor who wants to be a mogul (the word mogul, extrapolated from its Hollywood roots to include all people with outsize visions of empire, was first popularized by this magazine) comes to recognize that the driving force of the age—full of drama, pathos, and comedy—is ambition.
All mass-market magazines are aspirational. We call them consumer magazines. They create a world to strive for and dream about. It is, however, in almost every instance a fake world. You won’t ever live among the celebrities of People or Vanity Fair; you won’t have sex with a Playboy Playmate or a Maxim babe; your house won’t ever look like the houses in Architectural Digest and HG.
Clay, on the contrary, created a magazine that offered a precise map for becoming what the magazine was about. I was going to say that in many ways it was like a hobby magazine, or computer magazine, which are all about the equipment you need to pursue your interests, but those magazines, too, were influenced by this one.
He had the crass but revolutionary (revolutionary in the sense that it overthrew generations of class conceits) notion that you are what you buy. He sniffed the great consumer revolution with its social, political, and aesthetic implications. And New York Magazine became the first magazine to spell out where to get the goods (and at the best price).
Of course, he created the “city” magazine—and after New York, hundreds would pop up in locales across the country. But they largely missed the point. Felker’s magazine wasn’t so much a guide to the city as it was a guide to being cleverer, hipper, more in-the-know (in time, all magazines would seek to fulfill this mission).
In some sense, it was like Playboy. New York’s New York didn’t exactly exist—or it was only as real as a centerfold. But as it happened, the fantasy was so powerful and compelling, and every week the magazine offered such a precise social-engineering white paper, that it came true.
My wife grew up in Upper East Side Wasp comfort in the fifties and sixties and, in her recollection, never once went with her parents to a restaurant. The city before Clay was a stodgy, formal (you had to dress for it), upper-class, adult place (or, conversely, a hardscrabble, urban jungle). Clay, as an out-of-towner, saw the city with a different sort of enthusiasm and potential. New York Magazine turned the city into a middle-class (okay, upper-middle-class) playground. It took it away from the inbred upper class (and, as well, from the inbred lower class).
Clay’s chronicles of life in the city were not about the remoteness of power and status and prestige but about the immediacy of those things, even the intimacy, and the excitement, the buzz, of power gained and power lost. (This is really the point about the New Journalism that Felker helped invent.) My first memory of New York Magazine—I am 15 years old, in suburban New Jersey—is of a very snarky story about Nelson Rockefeller. By bringing the large and powerful down to size, you could, of course, begin to see yourself in those roles—and shortly we were all role-playing.
Clay Felker, the boy from Missouri, created the yuppie (long before the word).
Or the new meritocracy. And the new free agent. And the new entrepreneur.
There would be, of course, a certain order of snobbishness that was appalled (my mother-in-law is still appalled) by all of this graspiness and personal transformation. But old-line snobbishness mostly rolled over—indeed, both the Times and The New Yorker, those staunch supporters of old-line Manhattan, went through their own wrenching transitions to become part of the new, buzz-worthy, Felkerized, consumer world. (Not, of course, that it became a world without snobbishness, but certainly the snobbishness became more inclusive and polymorphous.)
But back to Alan Patricof.
Clay’s own over-the-top ambition was expansive, overflowing (he was always promising to make writers famous—and often delivering on that promise), and loquacious. There was probably no more enthusiastic and nuanced a running commentary (except in the pages of New York Magazine itself) on the headiness and pitfalls and methods of fame and celebrity and achievement and social climbing than what came from Clay himself (who, in addition to founding and running New York, had bought The Village Voice and started New West magazine in California). Clay, like New York, was not too circumspect. Accordingly, everybody who was anybody came to know that Clay and Patricof hated each other.
There is an oft-told story of Clay yammering about his terrible relations with Patricof one evening in East Hampton to dinner companions who, unfortunately, included the Australian Rupert Murdoch, who, shortly after this dinner, called Patricof and bought out (with several other shareholders selling to him, too) a controlling interest in New York.
Fourteen years later, having himself overreached, Murdoch would be forced to relinquish the magazine to Primedia, our present owner.
This is the game we play—and New York Magazine is one of its great trophies.