The Clay Felker Book That Should be Written

By Jack Limpert

In a post yesterday about books, I noted that good biographies have yet to be written about two great editors—Harold Hayes and Clay Felker. Will Sommer of the Washington City Paper then sent along a link to a wonderful piece about Felker that Tom Wolfe wrote for New York magazine after Felker died in 2008.

In the piece, Wolfe captured one of Felker’s great strengths: “I had never worked with an editor who generated so many story ideas himself. He was his own beat reporter. He always kept a small pad of paper in the left-hand inside pocket of his jacket. At dinner, even a formal dinner in some swell private home, as soon as he heard a wisp of conversation that gave him a story idea, Clay would draw the pad from his pocket and draw it fast, as if he kept it in a shoulder holster, slap it flat on the table, and write his inspiration down with a fourteen-karat-golf ballpoint pen. The pen inevitably created a flash of electric light. I saw him do it many times.”

There’s another version of that Felker story. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I got up to New York often while on the board of the American Society of Magazine Editors and one of Felker’s key editors at New York magazine told me this one about Felker going of parties and dinners at night and coming in the next morning full of  story ideas: “We also had story ideas, but Felker didn’t seem to want to listen. We figured out a strategy: We’d ask Felker’s assistant where Felker was going that night. If we knew someone also likely to be there, we’d call and suggest that this someone might want to bring up an idea or subject with Felker and mention that lots of people seemed to be talking about it. Sure enough, Felker would come in the next morning, telling us about this great idea he’d picked up the night before.”

Another of Felker’s editors told me that how it came to be that New York magazine became one of the pioneers of service journalism (The Underground Gourmet, etc.). When New York started as an independent magazine in April 1968—it earlier had been the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune, which died in August 1966—Felker had a stable of star writers: Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinen, and others. But after a few years those star writers had so many book deals that they were writing less and less for New York. This Felker editor said that was when New York created its flashy brand of service journalism to replace some of the star writing power it had lost.

Much of what’s been written about Felker focuses on his great years—the late 60s and early 70s—while his passion was editing New York magazine. It all began to go downhill for him when he bought the Village Voice in 1974 and started New West magazine in California in 1975, leaving him vulnerable to the 1976 takeover of his magazines by Rupert Murdoch. Felker tried to breathe new life into Esquire, buying it in 1977 and selling it in 1979, and then had stints at a weekly paper, the East Side Express, and at Manhattan Inc., a magazine about New York business.

In 1994, Felker joined the University of California-Berkeley faculty as a lecturer and a year later UC’s Graduate School of Journalism established the Felker Magazine Center. He ended his career as a teacher and mentor, living part of the year in Berkeley but also maintaining his home in New York City, where he died on July 1, 2008.

What a good Felker biography could do is tell the New York magazine story, a great journalistic tale, but also tell how expansion and overreaching led to almost 20 years of wandering in the the journalism wilderness before he found his place at UC-Berkeley. As Jimmy Breslin likes to say, stories about losing often are more interesting than stories about winning.

Comments

  1. What, perhaps should also be mentioned in a book about Clay Felker is his apparent role in editing a cia-funded newspaper at a Helsinki world youth festival. Under Steinem’s leadership, the CIA-funded Independent Research Service had, according to Ramparts magazine, “actively recruited a delegation of hundreds of young Americans to attend” world youth festivals in Vienna in 1959 and in Helsinki in 1962 “in order to actively oppose the communists;” and important officers and ex-officers of the CIA-funded National Student Association “were very active in the Independent Research Service activities in Vienna and Helsinki.” At the 1962 Helsinki Youth Festival, the Independent Research Service distributed a daily newspaper, The Helsinki News, which was printed in five languages. The Helsinki News was apparently edited by Clay Felker—the New York magazine editor who would later fund and distribute Ms. magazine’s initial December 1971 sample issue as an insert in his patriarchal New York magazine.

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