Clay Felker. Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice
No website dealing with news and commentary about Richard Nixon, his Times, and his Legacy, can fail to note the passing of Clay Felker, who died earlier today at his home in New York. He was 81 and had been battling mouth and throat cancer for some time.
More than just creating and shaping the revolutionary media context of the years from 1964-1974, Mr. Felker’s own legacy has lasted until today —literally in the pages of New York Magazine and figuratively everywhere in print, on TV, and in a blogosphere that owes much of its sense and sensibility to him— and its influence shows no signs of diminishing. Not many people have done as much, and very few have done more, to influence the way Americans saw —and see— things as Clay Schuette Felker.
After serving in the Navy and graduating from Duke in 1951, Mr. Felker worked at Life for several years; toward the end of that time he was among those present at the creation of Sports Illustrated. He was briefly features editor at Esquire before joining the Herald-Tribune —the “cool” New York daily— in 1963.
The following year he became the founding editor of the Trib’s weekend supplement magazine New York. That was when he began imprinting the outlook, and cultivating a stable of writers to expound it, that would change the face of American journalism at exactly the time when American journalism was poised to change the face of America.
By the mid-1960s, the primacy of print journalism was being challenged by the newly-pervasive medium of television. By 1960 some ninety-three percent of American homes had at least one TV set. That was why the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates were so new and so influential.
Suddenly the very basis of traditional journalism —the Five Ws of Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?— were being trumped by the One W of Watch. If one picture was worth a thousand words — how much more worthwhile were a thousand pictures? While Marshall McLuhan was up in cold Toronto trying to explain it, Clay Felker was in hot Manhattan making it happen.
Under Clay Felker’s leadership, New York shaped and showcased the “New Journalism”. The New Journalism mated a reporter’s shoeleather research with a novelist’s eye for colorful detail and a participant’s personal (and frequently passionate) commitment, to produce a wholly original offspring that heightened and shaped the reality it was purporting to present.
Over the years, Mr. Felker’s roster of writers —many of whom he discovered and developed— included Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, Ken Auleta, Julie Baumgold, Gael Greene, Nicholas Pileggi, Richard Reeves, John Simon, Dick Schapp, Steven Brill, and Mimi Sheraton. Another among his writers was Gail Sheehy, whom he married in 1984, and who was at his bedside when he died.
Clay Felker’s sensibility extended beyond print. He and his co-founder and graphic designer Milton Glaser gave New York —the new medium of the new journalism— its own distinctive and representative look that both aped and shaped the rival television.
When the Trib folded in 1968, the Felker-Glaser salvaged the Sunday supplement and made New York a stand-alone weekly magazine.
In June 1970, Mr. Felker gave over most of the magazine’s well to Tom Wolfe’s twenty thousand word dissection of what he so famously termed “Radical Chic”. In December 1971, Mr. Felker inserted a 40-page take-out previewing Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine (which he had encouraged and in which he had invested).
Of course, Richard Nixon didn’t exactly fit in with New York’s distinctive new sensibility. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a sitting duck for the magazine’s newly-liberated snarky writers.
Take, for example, Gloria Steinem’s article “In Your Heart You Know He’s Nixon” printed in New York’s 28 October 1968 issue. Ms. Steinem was, above all, a superb writer, so the piece is compellingly readable. She was an assiduous reporter, and the diary format describes how she went about her work. She was also an honest observer, and, even across the years, most of her observations ring absolutely true. And she was a passionate participant, so her heart was never far from being clearly visible on her sleeve.
That was the Felker formula: readable, researched, accurate, passionate. It was soon applied to TV reporting; and, more latterly, to blog writing. When it was done well it was the very best; when it was less than well done it could lead to convincing inaccuracies, gross unfairness, and very stylish snow jobs.
Like Someone Else, if Clay Felker hadn’t exited he would have to have been invented. The development of television combined with the temper of the times demanded a new direction for America’s media, and Clay Felker was there —ready, willing, and able— to supply it.
By the time the Watergate arrived, the influence of the New Journalism in newspapers, magazines, and on TV was well established. The delicious details the scandal served up, and the irresistible central figure of RN, led to an entirely new kind of news coverage: intense, intimate, irreverent, and committed.
When I was named editor of Saturday Review in 1984, there were two people I wanted to meet and debrief regarding my surprising new assignment: Norman Cousins and Clay Felker. Both were agreeable and both were incredibly gracious. I came away from a lingering lunch with Mr. Felker completely charmed and totally inspired. His knowledge about magazines and media was equaled by his passion for them, and he was free in sharing both, even with such an unlikely tyro.
Still under the now-iconic Glaser logo, and still trying to apply the Felker gold standard, New York magazine continues to survive, and, at least occasionally, even to flourish. But his legacy extends far beyond its pages into many of the most important aspects of our lives. If you want to experience Clay Felker’s legacy, open a newspaper, read a magazine, turn on your TV, or surf the web. His legacy is all around us in America.