Clay Felker, Magazine Pioneer, Dies at 82


Published: July 2, 2008

Clay Felker, a visionary editor who was widely credited with inventing the formula for the modern magazine, giving it energetic expression in a glossy weekly named for and devoted to the boisterous city that fascinated him — New York — died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

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Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

Clay Felker in the offices of the Village Voice in 1976.

United Press International

Clay Felker stood on a desk to address the staff of New York magazine during a battle for control of the company with Rupert Murdoch in 1977.

His death was of natural causes, said his wife, the author Gail Sheehy. He had throat cancer in his later years.

Mr. Felker edited a number of publications besides New York magazine. There were stints at Esquire, The Village Voice, Adweek and others. He also created an opposite-coast counterpart to New York and called it New West.

But it was at New York that he left his biggest imprint on American journalism. He had edited the magazine when it was a Sunday supplement to The New York Herald Tribune founded in 1964. Four years later, after the newspaper had closed, Mr. Felker and the graphic designer Milton Glaser reintroduced New York as a glossy, stand-alone magazine.

New York’s mission was to compete for consumer attention at a time when television threatened to overwhelm print publications. To do that, Mr. Felker came up with a distinctive format: a combination of long narrative articles and short, witty ones on consumer services. He embraced the New Journalism of the late ’60s: the use of novelistic techniques to give reporting new layers of emotional depth. And he adopted a tone that was unapologetically elitist, indefatigably trendy and proudly provincial, in a sophisticated, Manhattan-centric sort of way. The headlines were bold, the graphics even bolder.

The look and attitude captured the attention of the city and influenced editors and designers for years to come. Dozens of city magazines modeling themselves after New York sprang up around the country.

Mr. Felker’s magazine was hip and ardent, civic-minded and skeptical. It was preoccupied with the foibles of the rich and powerful, the fecklessness of government and the high jinks of wiseguys. But it never lost sight of the complicated business and cultural life of the city. Articles were often gossipy, even vicious, and some took liberties with sources and journalistic techniques.

A National Profile

Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem and others in Mr. Felker’s stable of star writers helped give the magazine national prominence. Meanwhile, what he called its “secret weapon,” its service coverage — on where to eat, shop, drink and live — kept many readers coming back.

Mr. Felker eventually lost New York magazine to Rupert Murdoch in a bitter takeover battle in 1977. But his influence can still be felt in the current magazine, from its in-crowd tone to its ubiquitous infographics and inventive typography tailored to each article.

“American journalism would not be what it is today without Clay Felker,” Adam Moss, New York’s current editor, said in a statement yesterday. Mr. Felker, he once said, “was obsessed with power, and he invented a magazine in the image of that obsession,” one that “reported on the secret machinations of the city’s players.”

Mr. Felker’s roster of writers also included Ken Auletta, Julie Baumgold, Steven Brill, Elizabeth Crow, Gael Greene, Nicholas Pileggi, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap, Mimi Sheraton and John Simon. Many of them called him the best editor in the country, although some said he was autocratic and took joy in hectoring and humiliating them.

“His voice, his personality, his superhuman animation were horrifying, of course, but they were also the best part of working with him,” Ms. Crow, who later became editor of Mademoiselle and who died in 2005, wrote in 1975. “Clay’s booming tenor voice was simply the most noticeable manifestation of the 100 percent in-your-face and in-your-ears and in-your-brain atmosphere he created wherever he went.”

The supercharged atmosphere of New York was a long way from Webster Groves, Mo., where Clay Schuette Felker, born on Oct. 2, 1925, grew up. (His German immigrant forebears had changed their name from von Fredrikstein to Volker and later anglicized it as Felker.) Journalism ran in his family. His father, Carl, was the managing editor of The Sporting News; his mother, Cora Tyree Felker, had been women’s editor of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch before having children.


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