My God, What Trouble You Could Cause!

Milton Glaser, Lally Weymouth, Clay Felker, and Katharine Graham in 1976.Photo: Jill Krementz

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.

Felker with wife and star writer Gail Sheehy.Photo: Cosmos Sarchiapone

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.

Murdoch and Felker in East Hampton. "This was when the magazune was really flying high. I remember Felix [Rohatyn] turning to Clay while we were sitting there and sayin 'You should plan on being the next Henry Luce." —Rupert MurdochPhoto: Janie Eisenberg

NANCY NEWHOUSE, a senior editor in New York’s early years.
I have never seen anyone who is as open to his intuition as Clay was. He had no barriers between his intuition and himself. Most of us have all kinds of defenses. But with Clay, there was no barrier. Sometimes he was wrong, but he was right enough of the time, and spectacularly right, that it was astounding.

NICK PILEGGI, writer and early New York contributing editor.
Clay had the attention span of a gnat. He’d be onto something really brilliant and then skip off to something else really brilliant. He’d give six or seven different things the same amount of attention and then get up and walk out of the room. And we’d be like, Where the hell did Clay go?

MARK JACOBSON, writer and longtime New York contributing editor.
He was dressed in his three-piece suit and his gold cuff links and his $50 haircut, which is probably $300 now. He was just this totally upper-class guy. I would hang around the magazine, and he thought it was hilarious. He loved that he had a guy working for him that would come to work with holes in his pants. When he found out I was driving a taxicab and working for him, he thought it was the greatest thing he ever heard. It made him feel connected, attached to the center of the world.

He would be out all night at dinner parties writing ideas for stories on little pieces of paper. He was like a sponge to the city. He’d come in to the office in the morning, and he’d empty his pockets of all these papers and all these ideas. And here we are, these dopey young writers, and he’d throw these ideas out.

Whatever was around us, you made a story out of—we all learned that from Clay.

BYRON DOBELL, early New York and Esquire editor.
He dined out every night. And he talked and people talked to him. He came back the next morning and said, “This is what I’ve learned, and this is what I’ve heard.” He was, at heart, an incredible reporter who got other people to do the work.

On April 8, 1968, Felker published the first issue of New York Magazine, with an elegant cityscape for a cover, and set about revising the hierarchies of urban experience. Felker had observed something new happening in the city, and he’d brought his own outsider’s sense of romance and a fascination with power and status. The magazine he made had a new palette of interests, with no brow distinctions. Restaurants were as important as business, or politics. Everything that went on in a city dweller’s mind was something to be curious about.

Cities were really down when he started all this. We had just come out of the fifties, where the cities were slums and people were getting mugged and Chicken Delight wouldn’t deliver. All of a sudden, he’s writing about all the great stuff about a city: the greatest dry cleaner, the greatest grocery store, where to get the best ice cream. Clay is out there reviewing restaurants. Little ones, cheap ones. None of the newspapers were doing it. And all of that was critically important to the people who wanted to stay in the city.

One or two weeks after we started, we were beginning to get apprehensive that we weren’t getting any buzz or feedback. This extraordinary story came in by Barbara Goldsmith on Viva. It was a very powerful story with these extraordinary pictures that Diane Arbus had taken. She was at the height of her abilities. So we looked at this stuff, and we said this is really going to make people jump out of their seats. The story itself was very powerful, but those images were so compelling and so troubling. We thought that if this doesn’t get some conversation on the street going, we don’t know what will. At the time, Hustler and Playboy and even Vogue magazine were customarily running stories of nudes, where there didn’t seem to be the kind of apprehension or anxiety about seeing a nude in a magazine. What we didn’t realize was that this was not a nude, it was a picture of a naked person. The pictures revealed something much more deeply than the surface qualities of a woman’s body. This picture of a woman stripped down to her most fundamental psychic dimension just troubled people enormously. The response was extremely negative, and certainly from advertisers. They felt betrayed and horrified. On our part, it was a real misjudgment of the nature of the audience and what it was willing to experience. It could have put us out of business.

Glaser and Walter Bernard at work in the New York offices at 207 East 32nd Street in 1974, left, and Gloria Steinem and Terry Southern at a New York party in 1967, right.Photo: Cosmos Sarchiapone; Jill Krementz

I wanted to do a story on seltzer bottles. I mean it was crazy—seltzer bottles?—and he let me go with it. The seltzer men really knew about the ethnic world of New York, which is really what we were writing about. They could tell you about a neighborhood by the kind of soda they sold. In the Jewish neighborhoods, seltzer was very big. In the black and Hispanic neighborhoods, the multicolored drinks were big: the oranges, the grapes, the limes. In the Italian neighborhoods, cream soda was inordinately big. The old geezers who used to make wine in their basements, they made this bitter, terrible wine, but it was their pride and joy, so the only way it was drinkable is if you mixed it with the cream soda.

MIMI SHERATON, food writer and early New York contributing editor.
He knew the value of service journalism, and he wasn’t ashamed of it. He made service fashionable—that was his genius.

GAEL GREENE, longtime New York food critic.
I didn’t have the credentials to tell chefs who had been cooking since they were 14 that there was something wrong with their sauce. But what I could do as a newspaper reporter, which I had been, was to say who, why, what, when, where. I wrote the sociology of New York restaurants. One of his ideas was how to beat the menu rap. He wanted me to go to all the great restaurants, expensive restaurants, and see if you could order a salad or soup and not be thrown out. How cheap could you be and be treated decently in these snob French restaurants?

One of the great breakthrough stories—it was so obvious and yet no one had done it—Jack Nessel addressed the whole business of finding an apartment in New York, which was becoming incredibly difficult, as we know now. And no one had said, “Here are the problems, and here is what you are going to be up against.” And we did that as a cover story, and it immediately announced a new way of looking at New York City, on a practical, down-to-earth basis. It seems so obvious, but the great ideas are always obvious.

I had an idea for a story and I was trying to work it out and I couldn’t get it. Clay said, “Well, what is it?” and I said, “I don’t want to tell you yet,” and he said, “You know you’ll never get another idea until you get rid of this one. Don’t worry about this one being right, just get it out and keep on going.” It was the smartest piece of advice anyone gave me about anything connected to any creative activity.

The New York Times was very unhappy, because we were doing things that the Times didn’t do in terms of service, which of course later they completely imitated. The Times was very jealous and very angry. Every time we broke a story and they had to pick it up, they never said New York Magazine, they only said “a New York magazine,” and that was the pettiest thing I’ve ever come across in journalism, and they did it for a couple of years.

DOROTHY SEIBERLING, early New York culture editor.
I went for my interview with Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal. He started kind of whittling away, saying disparaging things about New York Magazine to indicate “Well, we don’t do that kind of thing here,” and then he asked me what I thought, and I gave him a very upbeat, rosy view of it. I said I thought that it was a wonderful, lively, inventive kind of magazine, and I thought that Clay just started a whole new movement in the kind of magazines that could be a success and be creative and constructive. And Abe was sort of silent and then he said, “Well, we’re trying to imitate him over here.”

RICHARD REEVES, early New York political writer.
I never thought of Clay as a political person. There was never any pressure of any kind from left or right from him. And some of his friends—Rupert Murdoch, Sir Jimmy Goldsmith—were rabid right-wingers, and he seemed perfectly comfortable with those people, as he seemed with people like me or Pete Hamill or Gloria Steinem or the rest of us, who were all people of the left. What he was interested in was power and how people used it. I’m sure we were considered a limousine-liberal crowd. But I think Clay thought more of limousines than he did of liberals.

Felker at The Village Voice as his company was being taken over. Photo: James Hamilton

Some on the staff had issues with the upscale direction in which Felker had taken the magazine. Jimmy Breslin was one of the few who took action.

JUDY DANIELS, early New York managing editor.
He and Jimmy Breslin had a falling-out early on. Jimmy thought that the magazine was too elitist, and he always referred to most of the women around there as “those college girls.” It was an article on maids or housekeepers or some “you know how hard it is for people to get good help.” And the piece was great, but it was badly titled. It had a horrible picture on the front cover that had a maid in a black uniform with a white apron. That was, I think, just the thing that set Jimmy off. He ranted, and it turned into something that became a split. So Jimmy gave up his stock in New York Magazine, took his name off the masthead. At that time, the stock was worthless.

JIMMY BRESLIN, writer, contributor for New York’s first issue.
I don’t want to say nothin’ about that bum. I fucking hate the guy.

Felker’s volume and temper were legendary—but his bark was worse than his bite.

AMANDA URBAN, literary agent and former New York general manager.
When I started, I just sat there with my mouth open. Because he was loud, he was enthusiastic, he barreled around shouting orders to people. I got to see a certain amount of what was going on in his life just by being at that desk, answering the phone, doing appointments, and it was completely amazing to me. I realized that one day I wanted to grow up to be like Clay. I kept thinking, At what point in someone’s life do they just know everybody? And know everything?

JAMES BRADY, writer, editor of post-Felker New York.
The old New York Magazine headquarters down on 32nd or 33rd Street on the East Side was a dump of a building, and when it rained heavily on the roof, the water came down the stairs like a waterfall, four floors down to the ground. We had cubicles with partitions instead of walls. And so you could hear everything that was going on. And I remember the art director, Walter Bernard, was in Clay’s “office” one day, or Clay was in his office, and Clay was cursing him out with every four-letter word ever heard. And then he stormed out and went on his way. And I took Walter Bernard aside shortly after that; I was just a columnist at that point. I said, “Doesn’t that bother you, Walter, all that cussing you out?” And Walter Bernard’s a wonderful guy, he said, “Oh, no, it’s very healthy for Clay to vent like that. We all encourage it.”

WALTER BERNARD, New York’s first art director.
I think we were doing a picture story on Joe Namath. I had come from Esquire, as did Clay, and had a certain idea of how a picture story should be designed. Clay had come not only from Esquire but Life magazine, which he thought of as the epitome of the great picture stories. In my opinion, Life had great photographs but not great design, so we had a big argument about this picture story. It got louder and louder, and finally I said, “Have it your way, I’m done,” and I walked out. Clay was having a party that night. Later in the afternoon, Gail Sheehy called to make sure I was still coming. I did—still fuming—but to Clay, it was like it never happened. Clay had a great ability to have a fight, finish it, and forget about it immediately.

He hated confrontation. As much as he yelled and screamed at people, I really do believe he hated to fire people. He often did it so gently that people didn’t even know they’d been fired. Particularly at Esquire. Really, the worst job I ever had in the world was … when Clay had fired somebody and they would keep coming to work … and he would say to me, “Why is that person coming to work?” And I would say, “Didn’t you fire the person?” And he would say, “Well, I thought so.”

Clay liked women romantically, and he liked them professionally, and in fact, the two spheres were seldom separate. Thrown out of Duke for sneaking a woman into his dormitory (he was later reinstated), he was married twice before he was 40, the second time to the actress Pamela Tiffin, and had also had several other serious relationships, some with writers. He married Gail Sheehy, the love of his life, in 1984, after a long, on-again, off-again relationship.

Clay was not a monogamous person. It wasn’t that he was such a physically lustful male. It was that he really preferred women to men. I mean, without fuss or anything. He loved variety. Really, it was sort of in a not mean way—it was a harem mentality. I don’t think he even felt guilty about it. If he could keep the ball in the air so that he could be seeing three or four women at the same time, he was delighted. As I say, not that he was a great stud. He wasn’t. But it was because he just loved seeing different women and having friendships and racing around.

I still remember as we came back from this weekend in the Hamptons, after he had supposedly broken up with Gail, and arrived at his apartment. I went into the bedroom to comb my hair or go to the bathroom or something. Gail was there. She had let herself into the apartment. There she was, and she had prepared an elaborate dinner for Clay. She had been there all day preparing this dinner. I was just floored. I was so surprised, but it gave me a tremendous negative insight into Clay when, instead of saying “Gail, I’m sorry,” he kind of said, “Well, Gail fixed this big dinner and everything, so I guess you better leave.” That was the bottom line. That’s when I knew that this was never going to be a beautiful friendship. I’m sure he thought it was fine. He was a great accommodator. And he was never really prepared to leave Gail.

One time when a meeting began, he said, “Well, now I want to discuss the woman problem,” and all the women in there were just sort of on edge, ready to pounce on the subject, when he said, “The problem is that we only seem to get women who want to write for us, we can’t seem to find any men who want to write for us.” And that was really because a lot of men were going off into Hollywood TV and whatever who-knows-what, and the women were just dying for any toehold in business, in journalism, in whatever. He was always pushing women to do whatever they could do.

GLORIA STEINEM, writer, founding editor of Ms.
He was thinking of starting a women’s magazine himself, but it just didn’t make sense. I remember arguing with him about it—that you couldn’t start a magazine with the women who happened to be around. Nor could you have a credible women’s magazine in response to the women’s movement that was owned and edited by men any more than you could have a credible civil-rights magazine owned and edited by white folks. Then separately we had been talking about doing a newsletter in order to make money to support the Women’s Action Alliance. Of course newsletters don’t make money. But it was this idea for the newsletter that out of many meetings of women writers and editors grew into an idea for Ms. magazine. We couldn’t raise money for it—partly because people thought there was no audience, and partly because we said it needed to be controlled by women and by its staff. So then Clay, who was looking for a theme for the year-end issue, which was a double issue, said that if we produced an issue and he could choose from it what he wished to publish in the year-end issue, that then he would print the rest. I mean, he printed 30 pages in the year-end issue, then added the other hundred and created a sample issue—a preview issue. And that was entirely his generosity, because he didn’t take any interest in Ms. as a magazine.

For Felker, parties, both in his double-height 57th Street living room and elsewhere, were a kind of theater, where the drama of ego and ambition played out. A 1977 incident between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal at a party thrown by Lally Weymouth revealed, many thought, essential aspects of Felker’s approach. But often, one of the egos on the social stage could be his own.

GAY TALESE, writer, Esquire contributor.
He papered that house of his with personalities and recognizable people or people that were going to fit into his plan somehow either as art directors, writers, girlfriends, a movie star. When I first saw him it was at a party with Sammy Davis Jr. and Jacob Javits and there were pretty girls abundant in number. Power and the access to power is a kind of addiction that sooner or later takes over the brain waves of an editor of ambition.

MORT JANKLOW, literary agent.
The fight between Mailer and Vidal had gotten to be pretty nasty, and finally Norman took an old-fashioned, quite heavy glass that he was drinking from and bounced it off Gore’s head, and Gore was bleeding, and Gore’s companion, called Howard, was shouting, “Oh, he’s hurt, he’s hurt!” And it was getting very nasty and very physical. And this took place in Lally Weymouth’s house.

LALLY WEYMOUTH, writer, New York contributor.
Clay was standing near me, and I was like, “Oh my God, oh my God. And he was like, “Shut up, this is making your party!”

In the mid-seventies, New York Magazine, at that point a publicly traded corporation, was a success by most measures, and Felker was looking to expand his magazine empire and become a major media player, pushing his board to buy The Village Voice and starting New West magazine, based in Los Angeles, while hobnobbing with financial people at the highest levels. As often happens with empires, the expansion created a dangerous weakness within, one that was exploited by another expansionist media power: Rupert Murdoch. Felker eventually lost the magazine.

Clay and Murdoch were real pals for a while there. I remember when Dolly Schiff sold the New York Post to him, and I remember hearing Clay on the phone saying to Dolly, “This is really good. This will be great for the paper. He’s a real journalist.”

FELIX ROHATYN, financier, former head of the Municipal Assistance Corporation.
He was very interested in business stories, and he knew that his magazine was aimed not just at flashy people and elegant ladies but at the ability of New York business to survive, and if that was the case, then his magazine would survive. It was really during the New York fiscal crisis that we became very close. He had his finger on the pulse of all kinds of constituencies. I knew that if I asked him for advice on some particular matter, he would give me an answer that had already distilled other people’s views—people who read his magazines or people he had interviewed or just came across. He would teach me about those things, and I would teach him about finance. He introduced me to Elaine’s. Simply by going to Elaine’s regularly when the city’s crisis was at its height, I probably met more political figures and motion-picture and theater figures than most people.

When Clay took over the Voice, well, I think he was a little bored, and New York was running pretty smoothly and successfully, and maybe it was up against the limits of its demographics. And so he was gonna try something else, and The Village Voice, one could say that it was up against the limits of him. The Voice’s employees saw this as the desecration of a shrine. Clay hated going down there because it was very hostile.

ALAN PATRICOF, early New York chairman.
He always wanted to be respected as a businessman. Then he wanted to start New West. We didn’t have the money to do it. Clay was determined to do it. We reluctantly supported him. Clay spent freely, and he really wanted to create this footprint on both sides of the country. I remember going to Clay in ’76 saying, “Clay, we’re going to have to find some way of resolving this”—but he didn’t do much about it. Then Rupert Murdoch came along and was prepared to pay a premium on the price at the time. He knew that he was going to be buying something where Clay was not happy about it, and it wasn’t until the very last second, when the board had gone very far with Rupert, very far, at the midnight hour, that Clay produced Katharine Graham, but it was too late by then. He had plenty of time, but he didn’t want to face up to it. I have to tell you, it was one of the most reluctant sales I ever made.

Clay’s great ally and patroness at that time was Kay Graham. She was the one who called Rupert Murdoch to beg him, “Don’t do this to this boy, Rupert. Don’t destroy this boy, don’t take this boy’s magazine from him.” And Rupert put down the phone and said to those of us in the room at the time, “She keeps saying ‘This boy, this boy.’ ‘This boy’ is four or five years older than I am!”

The start-up of New West put the magazine for the first time in years into the red. That was how they were able to take it away from him.

He overreached himself, I think, when he started New West and bought The Village Voice at the same time. He was already overbudget on everything. I put in the column the business about him renting 25 or 30 cars for the staff that he sent out to start New West, and they weren’t Fords or Chevys, they were Alfa Romeos. And then he bought the set of All the President’s Men, and that was the office furniture for New West. And that cost a lot of money.

Part of what happened was Carter Burden, who was a major stockholder, hated Clay because Clay hated him. Clay had no use for people like Burden or Alan Patricof or all the money people. He—mistakenly, I think—treated them like dirt.

KEN AULETTA, writer for New York and The Village Voice.
We went on strike, 40 of us. I was one of the leaders of the strike with Walter Bernard and Richard Reeves. We learned that Murdoch made this hostile bid to buy [New York]. In an expression of support for Clay and as an expression of concern about what Murdoch might do to New York Magazine—taking it downmarket, for instance—we went on strike. It was a weeklong strike on the front page of papers, on television. Amazing how much prominence it got in the press. I went with a delegation which consisted of Water Bernard and Dick Reeves to the office of Howard Squadron, who was Murdoch’s attorney. I did all the talking. I said, “Howard, we’re here because we just wanted to tell you we hope your client, Mr. Murdoch, will step back and realize if he goes through with this hostile takeover, we’re going to leave, we’re not going to work for him, and I don’t think he wants that to happen and it would undermine the value of the property he was buying.” Howard listened to me very politely. We all smiled, thinking, Pretty good argument. Howard looked at me, then Walter, then Dick, and says, “Ken, are you finished?” I said yes. “Well, let me just say that you’re furniture. Murdoch looks upon you as furniture.”

The story was Clay was a great editor and a bad businessman, and Murdoch sensed that. He was like a wolf or a shark. He could sense there was blood in the water, and he made his move. It was a time that we all thought the power was really with the writers, with the creative people, and in a way we learned what they learned in Hollywood: That’s not the way it is. The power is with the money. While we wrote about that all the time, and while Clay understood that intellectually, as a businessman I don’t think that he did.

The first day that I went into the office as the new editor, about half the staff came up to me and said, “I resign,” took their Rolodexes, and went. There was a lot of industrial sabotage, files were ruined and wrecked. One very attractive, very well-brought-up young editor came up and handed me a gift package—I think it was a Tiffany box with a ribbon on it—and I opened it up and inside it said, “Dear Brady, F you.” And that was her resignation. So it was rather colorful.

Dick Reeves had written the cover story for the coming week, and he got his lawyer to call and put through a preliminary-injunction request banning us from using the story. Some of the people stayed around. One or two writers called me and said, “I hated that S.O.B. Felker, but now I’d like to write for New York Magazine if you want me.” I’d rather not say who.

Felker was always interested in Hollywood, which shared many of his interests—money, power, great stories. And when the magazine business wasn’t working out, he went West. But the reality turned out to be quite different from what he had imagined.

When he was putting out New York Magazine, Hollywood was wooing Clay all the time. Because one after another, the magazine came up with stories that just cried out to be made into movies, such as Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever, and so on and so forth. And so Felker, here in New York, was sort of the darling of Hollywood. And they paid him court. There was one guy out there, Alan Ladd Jr., and he became Clay’s greatest buddy. And he’d fly out to the Coast on a moment’s notice just to hang out with Laddy at the Beverly Hills Hotel and to be wined and dined by the movie moguls. And so Clay thought, “Well, this is pretty good stuff.” And Laddy finally said to him, “Look, Clay, why don’t you stop playing around with the lousy little magazines. Come on out here to the coast, you’ll end up running a studio. You’ll be the new Irving Thalberg.” And Clay really went for it. And he moved lock, stock, and barrel out to L.A. and took on a producer’s title at Ladd’s studio. And after about six months, he realized he wasn’t doing anything. He was sitting in an empty office, no one came to see him, there were no meetings he attended, and he didn’t make any movies. He took Sue Mengers out to lunch, and he said, “Sue, I don’t understand it. When I was in New York, I was important to these guys, they were all paying court to me. I’m out here, and they ignore me. How can you explain it?” And Mengers laughed and said, “Clay, when you were 3,000 miles away running a magazine in New York, you were important. Now you’re out here and you’re just another schmuck.”

After New York, Clay Felker had numerous jobs and consultancies and stand-alone publications: East Side Express, Downtown Express, the Daily News Tonight, Adweek, and Manhattan Inc. None of them, obviously, had anywhere near the impact of New York, and several of them failed. But the fact did not overly dismay him.

Certainly, he was disappointed when things failed, but he turned out to be an enormously resilient character. I mean, New West failed, and of course we were sort of edged out of New York. Manhattan Inc. didn’t work, and then when any number of things would fail for any number of reasons, I mean, they were not necessarily simply errors of judgment that Clay made. These are sort of complex business deals that also have to be examined, I suppose, in terms of why things succeed and why they don’t. But to Clay’s credit, he never became bitter about it. He always had an extraordinary ability to bounce back, and to do without the loss of enthusiasm. It’s really a lesson in the sense of what you have to do to stay alive.

PETER KAPLAN, Observer editor, former Manhattan Inc. editor.
Clay’s idea for Manhattan Inc. was power brokers, but it’s an intimate view of the power broker. I mean, one thing about Clay is that there are always new queens. Donna Karan is the new queen of New York. There are always new queens and new kings of New York. With Clay, there were always new princes. It was a little hyperbolic. But he brought a tremendous romance to power—there were always lots of trumpets and fights and flying flags inherent in that journalism. Clay told me this amazing story once. Life sent him out to profile Gary Cooper, and Cooper was on his last legs. He was really sick at this point. The photographer set up, and Cooper and the photographer were just about to shoot. Then suddenly he did a posture, which was this incredible cowboylike posture. He cocked his head. He put his legs in this sort of cowboy-boot-like position. Clay said suddenly it was amazing. He looked like Gary Cooper.

That was always going on in these business pieces. The piece would come in and they’d go through a couple drafts. Clay would explain what he saw in these various power guys or corporate heads. He would create a cosmology; and by the time he was done, these guys would look like Gary Cooper. You know, they suddenly looked like stars.

Felker brought the same enthusiasm and passion to his work as director of the Felker Magazine Center at the University of California at Berkeley as he did to his work in magazines. It was the same activity—developing talent and sending it out into the world.

MARY SPICUZZA, Berkeley student.
When I was an intern at the New York Times, I came in one day and there was the red light on my phone. Usually if you come in first thing in the morning and someone’s already called, it’s because they are pissed about a story you wrote. But it was Clay, and he’d been sick, but he sounded like a little boy, and he was like, “Mary, this is Clay Felker. I’m so proud of you, you’re doing such a great job.” He sounded like a little excited boy on Christmas morning. But that’s Clay.

Tom Wolfe on How Felker Changed the City
Felker on His Own New York
Kurt Andersen on His Ambitious Legacy
A Selection of His Memorable Covers

Additional reporting by Geoffrey Gray, Boris Kachka, Rebecca Milzoff, and Jada Yuan

My God, What Trouble You Could Cause!