Clay Felker: Made New York Into A Magazine

Clay was the soul of the magazine. Nothing happened without his approving it.

I remember a couple of times editing a story and Clay got it and just killed it—that’s not easy to take in an editorial environment. You’ve really got to be someone adroit—I don’t mean sly, I mean commanding—and gifted to manage powerful people and not have people say go fuck yourself if you push them.

I don’t know anybody who understood the city better. Really. He always understood this was a city that could change your life. I don’t know anyone with a finer appreciation of that terribly important function of the city.

 

Andrew Tobias

He took a nobody like me … I was either going to a consulting firm or taking an offer from Fortune or New York. It was not a lot of money, and Clay said he couldn’t pay me, but he said, “Trust me, this will be good for you.” I was a Harvard Business School graduate and I thought I’d do a business career, but boy he gave me a voice. He gave me a voice. He totally changed the course of my life.

One time we were going to have lunch with the mayor of New York. Some of the editors and the reporters and Clay. I was a kid and said, “Oh my God, the mayor of New York!” I was there 10 minutes early. It was a private room of a restaurant—every few weeks Clay would take us to lunch with some interesting person, and it would be a nice reward for us, and a smart, good thing to do. I show up 10 minutes early and there was one of his assistants, and the writers came in at noon. And at noon, promptly, the mayor and one of his aides arrived. But where was Clay! We wound up starting the lunch, and around 12:40 he came in and apologized for being late, and it was no big deal to anybody. I was astounded. Something unbelievably dramatic must have happened! I asked his assistant afterwards. And she said no, he was just home reading.

It wasn’t out of arrogance. Abe Beame was the mayor, but he wasn’t all that big of deal. Clay was one of a kind. There had always been mayors, but never a Clay.

 

Steve Brill

Clay would come in at New York magazine at 10:30 a.m. after a long breakfast, and he’d have four ideas and three of them you’d have to talk him down from the ceiling on. And one of them was great. One morning, he says to Aaron Latham, “I just heard about this nightclub in Brooklyn; they dance and they compete so that they can make it big in Manhattan.” Aaron says, “I don’t want to do some story i
n Brooklyn.” Some other guy there who just started was Nik Cohn, and he says, “I’ll do it.” And that became Saturday Night Fever. Cut to two years later: Clay comes in from breakfast again and says, “I just heard this story about a weird place in Texas where they get on this electric bronco.” And Aaron says, “I’ll do that!” And that became Urban Cowboy. Clay comes in from another breakfast, it had been with Kay Graham right after Patty Hearst got kidnapped, and he says, “Rich people are all afraid and buying kidnapping insurance. Brill, you write that.” I spent six weeks reporting about the “wave” of kidnappings, and it turns out that this year, 1974, when Hearst was kidnapped, there had never been fewer kidnappings. The trend was a straight line down. And only 10 people had bought kidnapping insurance, I guess the Grahams were one of them. I wrote this long stupid article about how there isn’t much of a kidnapping problem. Clay reads this and said, “If this wasn’t a story, you should tell me that.”

He helped me get the American Lawyer started because he introduced me to all the investors that financed it. It took me 45 minutes to get it started. He is responsible for the American Lawyer, and Court TV grew from that. He’s basically responsible for all the stuff I ever did.

 

Amanda Urban

After Murdoch bought New York magazine, Clay worked out of his apartment on East 57th Street. Clay already had people interested to underwrite him to buy Esquire.

The apartment was on 57th Street, opposite the entrance to the bridge. The living rooms were so high, bedrooms were in the back, and there were balconies. He loved silver and English furniture. He would be late for meetings because he had to stop at James Robinson to buy a fabulous platter or a silver pitcher or a silver urn. Something he had to have! The apartment was very beautiful and had all this Clay stuff in it. It was a fun place to work!

I learned a tremendous amount for him. I was relatively new to New York, and I was amazed at how many people knew him. Everyone walked through the door of that magazine. At what point in your life have you developed this world of people around you? We made these bonding friendships. Somehow the tentacles went from there. It was the first time I saw anyone traffic in the world of people that he did.

Clay had this thing: He wanted the reader to read through to the end. He didn’t want a knockout headline to give away the essence of the piece. Years later, I’d go to Jim Stewart’s journalism class at Columbia. Everyone is talking about a nut graf. I raised my hand and I said, “What the hell is a nut graf?” He says, “Does anyone here want to tell Binky what a nut graf is?” And someone said, “It’s like the second or third graf and tells you what the piece is about.” Clay would have fired you for that! No one wonder I don’t read past paragraph two or three with most stories.

It was Clay who suggested I become an agent. When we were leaving Esquire, I said, “Clay, now what?” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you become an agent? You have a business head, an editorial head, and you love writers and you love ideas.” It would never have been apparent to me in million years to become an agent. Needless to say, I’m deeply grateful for that.

He loved to see a situation. He always said, “People love to know two things: Why things are the way they are; and how things work.” And those are two great questions still. Figuring out the world was his favorite thing.

And he was a magnet for people. I’m trying to think of someone who in New York you would cross the street to talk to now. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t think of anyone who is that compelling. Who would that be?