After Clay Felker passed away Tuesday morning in Manhattan, The Observer spoke to some who knew him well.
The first time I ever screamed “fuck” in front of a room full of women was when I got mad at Clay at the Esquire offices. We were having this argument that went up and down the hall and I reached my wits end; I just said, “You fuck!” It came out of my mouth before I knew what I had said. Clay could drive you crazy, but you never stopped caring for him.
We were once in Paris. We had been called to redesign Paris Match. The guy who owned it asked me to do it for him in two days—absurd. Anyhow, the crew at Paris Match was resentful that two guys from New York had come in to meddle with their legacy. It was late in the afternoon and we asked them to direct us to dinner. They guided us to the most expensive restaurant, and it looked very seedy. The first thing Clay did was order a cup of black coffee. The waiter got so confused because he didn’t know if we finished the meal or started it. And then he was told Clay always drank black coffee before dinner, especially in France. And the bill was for $80 and Clay said that wasn’t bad. I looked at it again, and it was $800.
Clay was a Midwestern kid who was looking at the glamorous life behind the window. He had this incredible curiosity with what the artists were doing and what the rich were doing, and I think it was because he was on the outside of it. Paradoxically, he became so important to our city and the art scene and so on that he was a part of it.
It was a great, great relationship. We had terrible fights at the office. It was like the kids who used to look away when we were screaming at each other. He taught me to argue and fight—there was no residue of bad feeling. You just got it all out.
We were always arguing about the stupidest things—what color should something be, what the headlines look like. He had this egalitarian idea—such as to make every color brighter and every headline bigger.
Clay had a nose for what was emerging in the city. He had an extraordinary sense of the moment. You don’t want to be too ahead, or too behind. What you could say defined New York magazine was the combination of high and low. We wanted to know both spectrums. The rich people and how they were hustling, and how the ordinary people were concerned with buying underwear cheaply.
After Martin Luther King was murdered, I was in my living room walking around, feeling like a part of the world had come to an end. Clay called me up and said, “You call yourself a reporter! Get up to Harlem and report!” He always had his mind on the story. Clay accumulated writers; writers would follow Clay anywhere.
At Esquire, Clay and Harold Hayes were up for the top job and Harold won. Clay left, and as managing editor I was offered the choice of his office or an office with a window. I chose the office he chose. He left stuff behind, and I had to send all of it to his apartment. I had an image of him as a kind of playboy; he wasn’t the dutiful bourgeois that I was. He had tap shoes in there. I was like, who was this guy?
Felker was the first editor that I knew who had a lot of parties in his apartment. His parties seemed to be made up of cover-story people. The first time I went to a party was after I wrote my first piece for Esquire—he invited young writers over to his house. It seemed to me that every person at his house was a celebrity. It was long before the Graydon Carters were having parties at Oscar time. He had good-looking women and recognizable faces, a full room of them. He cultivated powerful and famous people at night. Who were the famous people then? Sammy Davis Jr., Jake Javits—all the time he was there—and cover girls. He had a very public sense of who he was. Within the walls of his East 50s apartment, you didn’t need to be introduced.
Clay and I met at the New York Herald Tribune in the late spring or early summer of 1963. [To start New York magazine], Clay was rounding up money the hard way, by calling on investment bankers, well-heeled lovers of the arts, to buy the name “New York” as a magazine name. And maybe along with the deal came a chair and a desk and not a hell of a lot more. He rounded up the initial capital and the initial people in the spring of 1968, when the first issue of New York as a freestanding magazine came out not folded into a newspaper.