Clay Felker, the legendary editor and founder of New York magazine who was considered the father of New Journalism, died here Tuesday at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer.
Credited with inventing the modern city magazine, Felker’s encouragement of journalistic stars to produce vivid, detail-laden writing about the city’s power struggles changed American magazines.
“American journalism would not be what it is today without Clay Felker, and neither would New York City,” said New York’s current editor in chief, Adam Moss, in a statement. “Those of us lucky enough to work in the house that he built are reminded everyday of the depth of his genius. He created a kind of magazine that had never been seen before, told a kind of story that had never been told. Nobody I have ever met in this business was as passionate a champion of talent, as relentlessly curious or as successful in getting the world inside his head onto the magazine page. He changed the way we look at this city and, in that sense, the way we live in it. All of us who practice journalism today carry Clay’s legacy into everything we do, and we will never do it even half as well.”
Born in Missouri to two journalists — his father was managing editor of The Sporting News and his mother had worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — Felker graduated from Duke and spent three years in the Navy. After working for several years at Life and Sports Illustrated, he became features editor at Esquire as the magazine was entering its heyday. Upon losing the editorship of Esquire to Harold Hayes, he took a job as a consultant at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. When the Tribune folded in 1967, Felker used his own severance package and secured outside financing to buy the rights to the paper’s Sunday magazine and launch it as New York magazine.
“I was so surprised because he always said, ‘We can be the greatest magazine in the country,’” said Tom Wolfe, who honed his signature style under Felker in famous pieces such as “Radical Chic.” “We were just a little piece of a newsroom. He always felt convinced that he could do something no one else did, and he went ahead and did it.”
His New York magazine grew to be a potent cultural force, driven by Felker’s story sense and eye for talent.
“I think Clay had a special antenna for what people could write about, what they could be,” said Gael Greene, a food writer, author and contributing editor at New York. “There was a kind of wonder, appreciation, excitement for everything that was first, and there were a lot of things happening first at that time.” When the magazine took off, “it was like everyone in the world was reading you.”
“He had ceaseless energy. The world was his,” said Jimmy Breslin, who wrote for Felker’s New York until famously quitting in 1971, calling the magazine “boutique journalism.” “He knew how to come into a room at lunchtime. He made an entrance.”
Said Wolfe: “Clay was his own best reporter. He was out on the town all the time. He hardly ever had dinner at home.”
Felker also helped start Ms. magazine, initially launched as a supplement to New York by, among others, Gloria Steinem, whom Felker had encouraged to write about politics. “He was so interested in ideas and so devoted to learning and figuring out why things happen that he didn’t really care about [the gender of] the writer,” said Steinem. “He was certainly the best editor I’ve ever known…. Writers would follow him anywhere. If you got into a room, people would always be telling Clay stories that had to do with his obsession with an idea.”
An exacting editor, the at-times gruff Felker liked a drink at lunch — and the fine food that followed. His curiosity seemed endless and he would pump anyone he met for the latest tidbit around which he could build a story.
In 1977, Felker lost New York magazine in a takeover battle with Rupert Murdoch, and in the decades that followed edited several other titles, including Esquire for three years, Adweek and the short-lived Manhattan Inc., a business spin on the city magazine. That title later merged with Fairchild Publications Inc.’s upmarket men’s magazine M to form M Inc., which Felker helmed until the magazine was shuttered. He began teaching in the Nineties at the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, which eventually named its magazine center after him. He is survived by his wife, author Gail Sheehy, a contributing writer for Vanity Fair.
In a tribute to Felker’s New York magazine posted online Tuesday, Kurt Andersen wrote: “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….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-20th-century quality-newspaper solemnity.”
Greene remembered Felker, in more recent years, gleefully going around the table at a brunch at his home and counting the total of number of books his guests had published. “He was so pleased that there were something like 19 books at the table.” She added, “I’m trying not to say a cliché, because I know Clay wouldn’t like that.”