Clay Felker: Made New York Into A Magazine

Ken Auletta

The city fiscal crisis hit in ’76-’77. I had done a series of investigative reports for The Voice about how the city was hiding money, claiming revenues they didn’t have, it was unbelievable what tricks the accountants and mayors and governors were complicit in. So I walked in and said, “Clay, what we really should do is an investigative report: Let’s take a look at the law, see if laws were violated.” I was talking about Abe Beame, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay and the union leaders. So then I carefully looked at the laws and I wrote a piece and said, “Clay, there’s really some evidence here.” He read the piece and he was happy. And I said, “There’s some evidence that they might have violated the law and they might be legally liable.” He looked at it and Milton Glaser came in, who was the genius art director, and Clay said, “No, it’s too complicated and too convoluted. Let’s make it simple: Should these people go to jail? That should be the headline.” Milton does a sketch literally right there—behind bars is John Lindsay, Abe Beame, Nelson Rockefeller, some bankers, some union leaders. It was just brilliant! That was the whole cover! I remembers sitting there thinking, Oh my God! I could have done something academic, and they just crystallized it. Instead of the reader entering this sea of facts and not knowing where the destination is, Clay’s telling you where the destination is right at the start. He was always pushing writers to tell the story.

Clay was one of the first in the magazine business where he had a desk in the middle and would work in the open—he could see anyone and they could see him. It was like a newspaper, not a magazine. He sat in the open. By sitting there, you could hear him yelling. And he yelled! I was amazed at how he yelled at people. That was his way of managing people. He yelled and mixed it with a pat on the back. People feared him. But they also had deep affection for him because then he would put his arm around you when you were in your lowest state and he’d pick you up.

 

Tom Wolfe

Clay was the greatest idea man of any editor I’ve ever known. He went everywhere he could and as soon as he would hear anything that might be the germ of an idea for a story, he would just write it down, no matter where he was. In the middle of dinner, it didn’t matter. And so I can’t tell you how many stories I did and for which I was duly praised, which were really Clay’s ideas. Like Tiny Tim. Tiny Tim was this real freak, no matter how you want to define freak. He was very tall, he was 6 foot 4, the worst-put-together guy you’d every seen in your life. He wasn’t fat but his hips were much wider than his shoulders, he had this long bulbous nose like a clown. And hair, at that time, really long hair on a man was still really unusual, so he had this long, straggly, black hair that came practically to his shoulder blades and he played the ukulele and sang in falsetto. They publish [my piece] and the advertisers were really shocked. “What is this magazine becoming?! This guy’s obviously sexually twisted!”

A year later, Tiny Tim got married on the Johnny Carson show. It drew the biggest audience any regularly scheduled show had ever drawn. Like 40 percent of all the United States. I remember Clay just shook his head and said, “Well, there’s no use being more than 10 minutes ahead of time.”

Clay was always telling writers, “You work for me and I’ll make you a star.” I never heard him use that actual expression, but he made all of us feel, one way or another, that if we did, we’d be stars. And if you did well, he would really play you up; he wasn’t at all shy about awarding the credit. And as a result, everybody wanted to do well for Clay. He was very
—he had a very deep voice and he would get very excited. He wouldn’t apply pressure in an ordinary sense. It was like, he had this standard and he expected you to live up to it. It wasn’t even that, it was just, he was so excited by what he was doing … and he did have a commanding presence. He was the kind of person that when he comes around, you stop what you’re doing, and you want to find out what’s on his mind.

I’ll never forget being in the studio of Jacques Lowe, a photographer, and John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated and everyone is stunned, particularly Jacques Lowe, who had spent so much time with the Kennedys; he wasn’t officially the White House photographer, but he might as well had been, they allowed him entry to everything. And so everyone was either stunned or mourning or wondering, “God, can we go on,” and next thing I hear is “clump-clump-clump-clump-clump-clump-clump” up the stairs. It was about a three-story walk-up, and it’s Clay saying, “Jacques, Jacques, where are the pictures, where are the pictures?” Clay knew that Jacques Lowe had taken the only pictures of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy talking to Lyndon Johnson, trying to persuade him to run as vice president. So Clay’s already thinking ahead to Johnson’s administration. He’s not ringing his hands over Jack Kennedy. The news, suddenly, is really Lyndon Johnson, because he’s going to be the new president.

jkoblin@observer.com, smorgan@observer.com