Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Clay Felker

The man was a sponge. Creating and editing New York Magazine, he soaked up the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and 1970s and gave it back to readers as a heady brew of New Journalism and cultural chic. Clay Felker, who died today at 82, was one of a kind.

Between jobs as a magazine editor, I wrote for him and witnessed the workings of his restless mind and insatiable curiosity. Visits to his office were a montage of people popping up at an open door with gossip, news and rumors and his prowls through the corridors, asking everyone who passed, "What's new? What's new?"

Magazine editors are unique among journalists in that they invent their readers. Rather than covering news over which they have no control, they fill their pages with whatever interests or obsesses them and, like magnets, draw the attention of those who find the results to their taste. Felker's contemporary, Harold Hayes of Esquire, called it delivering an attitude toward the world on a regular basis.

Between them, they gave birth to the New Journalism, which mirrored a new kind of politics with a new kind of reporting. In New York, Tom Wolfe wrote about Radical Chic and Gloria Steinem profiled the man who was moving into the White House in 1968 ("When Richard Nixon is alone in a room, is there anyone there?")

Almost single-handedly, Felker made journalism a subject of popular interest. Wolfe satirized the New Yorker, and everybody reported on the New York Times. Even I got into the act with a piece titled "The New York Times Discovers Sex" while writing about literary auctions ("What Am I Bid for Lyndon Johnson?"). Ralph Ginzburg going to jail for what he published ("The Punishment for Bad Taste Is Three Years") and the melodrama surrounding the death of the Saturday Review.

Writers became celebrities, and Felker nurtured their fame but stayed out of the spotlight himself. After he lost New York to Rupert Murdoch in 1977, he moved to California and tried to duplicate his success there, but LA was too shallow for his kind of in-depth reporting and he turned to teaching journalism.

I would see him for lunch out there every so often, and he was still asking, "What's new? What's new?"

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