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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.