The main reason that most city magazines suck, and have always sucked, is that their founders misapprehended Clay Felker’s biggest Big Idea. The brilliant germ of this magazine, when Felker launched it in 1968, wasn’t the duh geographical idea, covering a particular set of Zip Codes stylishly and colorfully on glossy paper. Rather, New York’s central subject has always been our local pageant of ambition, the yearning and hustling and jostling for power and—even more—status. The magazine was conceived as a kind of gleeful, fervid, useful weekly chronicle of social and cultural anthropology, descriptive (such as Tom Wolfe’s premiere-issue taxonomy of local accents, “Honks” versus “Wonks”) but also prescriptive (the grooviest merchandise and experience and art to ogle or buy).
Smart, knowing, slightly acid depictions of New York swells were not an entirely new periodical-journalism form. Around 1850, John Jacob Astor’s grandson published a magazine series on his fellow members of “The Upper Ten Thousand,” and The New Yorker in the twenties and thirties was up to something similar—but no one had ever done it quite so brazenly or consistently as Felker.
When I learned that his father ran The Sporting News, and that young Clay’s first magazine jobs were covering sports for Life and working with the team that created Sports Illustrated, I had an aha moment: His founding inspiration was to cover the scrum and spectacle of urban life as if it were sport of the most interesting possible kind, the city (or anyway the lower two-thirds of Manhattan) as postmodern gladiatorial coliseum, complete with colorful play-by-play and the latest stats and rankings.
This is not just some after-the-fact conceit about Felker’s vision. Thirty years ago, not long before his fellow owners and Rupert Murdoch squeezed him out of the magazine he had founded, Felker defined New York very simply as a guide to “how the power game is played, and who are the winners.” And Wolfe, his early superstar, has said that “Clay’s real interest, although I’m not sure he ever thought it out conceptually, was status and how it operates in New York. … In New York Magazine, Clay really wrote an enormous novel about the city. … It was his vision, his plot—a huge novel called The City of Ambition.”
One of the reasons this template can work well in New York City is that there are so many different high-profile, major-league “power games” being played here simultaneously. Whereas Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are, for the kinds of people who read city magazines, one-industry towns, each with a single, consolidated, relatively unambiguous pecking order. New York, on the other hand, was and is the undisputed national epicenter of no fewer than seven glamour businesses—finance, news media, advertising, book publishing, theater, fashion, and fine art, with serious players in TV, music, and the movies on the field as well. Each one of those professional realms has its own complicated dynamic and etiquette and greasy poles, each with its own set of players perpetually scrambling up, sliding down, or holding on for dear life. Which means endlessly fresh material for journalism, as well as a critical mass of readers both fevering to read dissections and affirmations of their own professions’ tyros and machers and monsters, and also passingly curious about the big-timers and up-and-comers in the other games in town. (And about crime, a journalistic mainstay that was suddenly, wildly rife as Felker was inventing his serious but sensational magazine: Murders in the city increased by more than 50 percent between 1966 and 1968.) New York was made for New York, but also vice versa.
In his essay “Here Is New York,” E. B. White wrote of the three overlapping New Yorks, the most vibrant and important being “the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.” It’s no coincidence that White’s great venue, The New Yorker, was founded (in the twenties, at a thrilling, vertiginous, unsustainably go-go moment for the city and nation) by an editor reared in Colorado and Utah, just as New York was founded (in the sixties, the next great thrilling, vertiginous, unsustainably go-go moment for the city and nation) by a man who grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri.
For hyperambitious provincials like Harold Ross and Clay Felker, the impulse and ability to deconstruct this city’s life entertainingly was a result of their outsiders’ unjaded shock and awe at the spectacle, their clarity of vision. What people born and raised here understand intuitively and tend to take for granted—the precise paths to glory, the unspoken demarcations of power and status—are secrets that an émigré must puzzle out for himself when he arrives from the sticks. Probably all outsiders (if they are, in White’s genius phrase, “willing to be lucky”) mentally compile a New York City field guide and playbook when they’re in their twenties and thirties, but Felker did so literally, and published it in weekly serial form.
The late sixties were especially ripe for his vision of ambition-as-sexy-sport. (It makes perfect sense that the actual New York sports teams—the Jets of Joe Namath, the Knicks of Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier, the Amazing Mets—achieved their apogee of sexiness at the same moment.) As the baby-boom generation came of age, the new postwar meritocracy was fully ascendant, hedonism and even libertinism went mainstream, and the hegemony of the city’s Wasp elites declined. In the late sixties, after a quarter-century of suburbanization, the seemingly unstoppable abandonment of old cities by the middle and upper-middle classes, grotty Manhattan neighborhoods started to be refurbished and reinvented as epitomes of a new cool. The word trendy entered the American vernacular. Felker saw not only that “the power game” was the perfect subject for a magazine about New York but that the game’s rules were suddenly being refashioned in a way he could chronicle and arbitrate uniquely, with snazzy packaging and smart, gossipy, call-a-spade-a-spade attitude, freed of the fetters of mid-twentieth-century quality-newspaper solemnity.
From the beginning, Felker’s focus on high-end strivers and their status markers annoyed some people as much as it riveted others. For certain kinds of old-school New Yorkers—fogeys of all ages, old-school Wasps of every ethnicity, and prissy Upper West Siders in every neighborhood—Felker’s magazine and its view of New York City were (and are) irreducibly vulgar. It’s bad enough to obsess, almost pornographically, over the local quests for power and privilege and status, and to anoint the game’s latest winners and losers, but Felker actually celebrated it all, not just depicting the lives of the metropolitan haute bourgeoisie but shamelessly serving as a kind of wannabes’ how-to guide to succeeding in the new, emerging New York City, the ferociously lifestyling yuppie metropolis of these last four decades.
As it happened, the chart of Felker’s own professional life was an ironic rise-and-fall case study of New York ambition. For the first half of the career, his combination of acuity and hustle were perfectly timed, pluck plus luck hitting the sweet spot again and again: as a young man at Time Inc. in the heyday of Luce’s American Century; at Esquire just as the cerebral but swingy modern-glossy-magazine form emerged; at the cooler of the quality dailies, the Herald Tribune, during the civil rights and Vietnam years; and then New York Magazine, the base camp from which he also launched Ms. and bought The Village Voice. The second half of the career was a mirror-image series of Zeitgeist misreadings and unfortunate timings: a return to Esquire just as men’s magazines entered a postfeminist identity crisis; an attempt to turn the proletarian Daily News upscale; a consulting gig at U.S. News & World Report, the also-ran newsweekly, at the moment newsweeklies started losing their mojo; then a comebackish arrival at superhot Manhattan Inc. a few months before the Crash of ’87 burst the eighties bubble of Wall Street self-regard.
About his last big editorship, after Manhattan Inc. went under in 1990, he was, as ever, bracingly reductivist in his diagnosis of the half-life of heat, the evanescence of buzz, how the power game is won and lost. The magazine, he said, “was founded on the premise that investment bankers were the rock stars of the 1980s. Then, in one day, they weren’t rock stars.”
Clay Felker’s own rock stardom as a media pioneer, however, endures. It doesn’t matter that he did his great, seminal work way back when. So did Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. During the seventies and eighties, the Times (and much of the rest of mainstream media) thoroughly Felkerized itself. Practically every species of insidery, smart-ass Web journalism carries bits of his DNA. He permanently transformed his white-hot corner of the world. And on these very pages, fresh chapters of his novel about the city are still being published every week.
• Tom Wolfe on How Felker Changed the City
• Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, and More Share Their Memories
• Felker on His Own New York
• A Selection of His Memorable Covers