Clay Felker and New York Magazine

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.

— Kurt Andersen in New York Magazine

"Boutique journalism," Mr. [Jimmy] Breslin called it when he quit the magazine in 1971, fed up, he said, with its dilettante attitude. Ms. [Gloria] Steinem was bothered by the magazine’s East Side orientation. "When the city is falling apart, we are writing about renovating brownstones," she said.

— Deirdre Carmody in The New York Times

New York Magazine started life as a Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune in 1963. Mr. Felker, who'd been a Life Magazine reporter and worked on the development of Sports Illustrated, quit his job at Esquire Magazine when a rival got the job as Editor-in-Chief.

New York has been credited with being similar to a gigantic novel about the ups and downs of the powerful and rich in New York. What makes New York so much more exciting than other "city" magazines is that other cities typically have one or two important industries. New York City is the world's financial center, fashion center, as well as home to the business of advertising, book publishing, and theater. There are plenty of celebrities ranging from large to small screen, to musical luminaries. Felker embraced the uniqueness of the city and embarked upon an unabashed, tell-all chronicle that Tom Wolfe described as something of an enormous novel all about the wealthy, famous and, most of all, powerful and the bartering of favors amongst the power brokers of the greatest city in the world.

Country Boy Makes Good

The New York Times couldn't peg the birth date of Clay Schuette Felker. References refer to October 2, 1925 and 1928. He grew up the son of German immigrants who anglicized the family name from 'von Fredrikstein' to Felker. His boyhood was spent in Webster Groves, Missouri. He was literally born into publishing, his father, Carl, was the editor of The Sporting News (which is published to this day), and his mother, Cora Tyree, left a job as women's editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before having a family.

Mr. Felker's education at Duke University was interrupted by a three-year stint in the Navy prior to his graduation from Duke in 1951. He edited the undergraduate newspaper at Duke.

Felker married Leslie Aldridge, a fellow Duke undergraduate, before he graduated school. That marriage, sadly, ended in divorce.

Felker's second wife was extremely attractive television and screen actress Pamela Tiffin, whom he married in 1962. That marriage, also, ended in divorce in 1969.

A Legendary Publication is Born in Controversy

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.

— Kurt Andersen in New York Magazine

When the Herald Tribune folded, famed art director Milton Glaser and Felker created the new, glossy, stand-alone version of New York, which debuted to mixed reviews in 1968. A Newsweek magazine story in 1970 mentioned that although its critics found New York "excessively slick" and often "frivolous," the magazine possessed attributes which made it fly off the newsstands: excitement that reached out and touched not only readers in the five boroughs but a sophisticated audience in cities all over the U.S. Although it took a while to break even financially, it did; despite competition from the relatively new medium of television.

The roster of writers involved at one time or another reads like a literary "who's who:" Gloria Steinem, who despite her criticism of New York was assisted by Mr. Felker in the start-up of her own magazine, Ms., years later. Beside the eventually disgruntled Breslin, Tom Wolfe was an important early and constant contributor, coining the term "radical chic*." According to Mr. Felker's obituary in The New York Times, frequent contributors included Ken Auletta, Julie Baumgold, Elizabeth Crow, Gael Greene, Nicholas Pileggi, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap (no doubt to the delight of Felker, an avid sports fan), Mimi Sheraton and John Simon. The late Crow described the blustery, occasionally abusive Felker as "horrifying" but resolved herself to continue working with Felker, and did until she became editor of Mademoiselle.

New York's first few years prior to going public were financially shaky, but it broke even soon enough. The company acquired the liberal tabloid aimed at the New York City market, The Village Voice in 1974. By 1976 Felker brought his formula to a magazine targeted at the California market, calling the magazine New West.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch successfully took over New York after a fierce battle that almost ended in favor of Felker. Regardless, Felker's shares of stock netted him $1.4 million. The story of the Murdoch takeover of New York was the stuff of legend, and too long to reprise here. It involved some of Felker's wealthy friends coming to his aid at the last minute; but too late. A majority shareholder, once the subject of a quite unflattering article in the magazine, refused to sell to Felker. This despite Felker's chasing the man around the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado doing what many describe as his best job of salesmanship ever.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Felker never returned to the eye of the celebrity storm. He went back to Esquire and bought it in a joint venture with Associated Newspapers. He remained Editor and Publisher until 1981. Hollywood called and he became a producer with 20th Century Fox films. He also took on the editorship of small publications without the cache of New York,  including Manhattan, Inc. — aimed at the Wall Street market as well as an afternoon edition of New York's Daily News.

In 1984, he married writer and novelist Gail Sheehy. The match was perfect. Clay Felker had been fighting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all his life, and Sheehy was no different. Most notable was her skewering of Hillary Clinton and husband in an article for Vanity Fair in 1992. Fact-checking by editors brought gross misstatements and outright fiction to the attention of then-editor Tina Brown. Brown didn't redact the offending paragraphs and nothing short of a publishing-industry shitstorm ensued.

Sheehy was by his side when Clay Felker died on the morning of July 1, 2008. However, her own website, including the biography, is silent about her marriage to Felker.

“I know why Clay is such a good editor,” said his friend the novelist and playwright Muriel Resnick. “He works until 8 o’clock. He goes somewhere every night. He’s out with people, he talks to people, he listens to people. And he doesn’t drink.”

In closing, Clay Felker was a great risk-taker. He was a cool guy. He had the rare gift of being able to see right through people into their souls, and told it all as he saw it. He gathered a coterie of friends second to none in the business of journalism. He'll probably be best remembered, however, for having started the magazine as hip and exciting as the city itself; New York.

*""Radical Chic"" was coined in a 20,000-word article about a party given in the 1970s by Leonard Bernstein to raise funds for and raise awareness of the Black Panthers movement. The article is located here and is some of Wolfe's finest work.


"Clay Felker, Magazine Pioneer, Dies at 82," by Deirdre Carmody, The New York Times, July 2, 2008

"Clay Felker, 1925-2008," by Kurt Andersen, New York Magazine, July 1, 2008 for Clay Felker and also for ex-spouse Pamela Tiffen

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