Clay Felker’s National Monument

New York Stories:
Landmark Writing from Four Decades of
New York Magazine

Edited by Steve Fishman, John Homans, and Adam Moss
Random House, 573 pages, $17

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, cultural and economic vitality were oozing, often gushing, away from American cities into suburbia. A 1967 Time cover story, “Our Embattled Cities,” featured Daniel Patrick Moynihan, calling him an “urbanologist,” and extending the title to other thoughtful academics and city planners, including Edward J. Logue, whose New York State Urban Development Corporation would build Roosevelt Island.

In that time, another innovative “urbanologist” emerged from the galley proofs, green eyeshades, and ink-stained disrepute of American journalism. Just as Pat Moynihan became the best friend the American city ever had in the U.S. Senate, Clay Schuette Felker restored and enriched urban values in the largest, liveliest, gaudiest and most embattled American metropolis.

When Felker died on July 1, at 82, eulogists noted his influence on magazine journalism. New York, which he founded in 1968, spawned more imitators than any magazine in the 20th century. Proliferating “city magazines” thought The Passionate Shopper and The Underground Gourmet were shortcuts to sophistication. They borrowed the graphics-and-demographics veneer while missing the essence of Clay Felker: old-fashioned straight reporting, abundantly present in New York Stories: Landmark Writing From Four Decades of New York Magazine.

 

IN 1913, LOUIS BRANDEIS described journalism’s mission: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” From Pete Hamill to Michael Daly, from Gael Greene to Joe Klein, from Stephen Sondheim to Kurt Andersen, New York’s writers covered and uncovered the city and its place in the world. In national politics, New York assigned the right writer to each subject: Gloria Steinem on Richard Nixon, David Halberstam on Spiro Agnew, Dick Reeves on Gerald Ford, and Garry Wills on George Wallace. This vintage stuff still illuminates, its clear-eyed tradition continuing in Jennifer Senior’s concise take on Barack Obama’s generational appeal: “There’s something to be said for a politician who didn’t come of age wearing sideburns and listening to Simon and Garfunkel.” The tradition descends from Horace Greeley and James Gordon Bennett and their New York Herald Tribune. In the 1960s, the Trib was the Camelot of city rooms, a romantic vision of a reporter’s paper. It was an editor’s paper, too. Jim Bellows and Dick Wald led an all-star troupe, two of whom would adorn the new Sunday supplement, New York: Jimmy Breslin, Balzac of the outer boroughs, and Tom Wolfe, the Evelyn Waugh-spish scourge of haute Manhattan. They were the most talented reporters of their time. In addition to their daily duties, they were staff writers for Clay Felker’s New York. Both, along with Pete Hamill, have since found success writing novels.

“Breslin—that cop! That precinct station genius!,” Philip Roth’s Portnoy complained. Louder gripes came from The New Yorker in 1965 when Wolfe called it, among more lethal things, “the most successful suburban women’s magazine in the country.” Unlike today’s New Yorker, the magazine of Harold Ross had indeed drifted into a suburban sensibility. Although it first printed Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a Talk of the Town comment bemoaned the banning of autumn bonfires in suburbia.

New York consistently challenged institutions; long after Felker left, his successors honored his no-sacred-cows imperative. In 1995, Saturday Night Live had become notoriously unfunny. For weeks, Chris Smith inhaled the toxic fumes of SNL’s “deep spiritual funk,” documenting rampant smugness and arrogance. “Watching the current incarnation of the show,” he wrote, “is like watching late-period Elvis—embarrassing and poignant.”

 

CLAY FELKER, A SON of St. Louis, was a lifelong baseball fan. How more urban a moment could there be than the 1951 playoff game showdown between Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson? In the radio booth at the Polo Grounds, helping with statistics, sat Felker, a Duke undergraduate. Years later, I asked him how many times broadcaster Russ Hodges shouted, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” Clay replied, “Eleven.”

I freelanced for him from Washington in the Watergate era, writing about the rise of Hugh Carey in Congress; a survival guide to Albany; a profile of Tip O’Neill. Clay accepted or rejected ideas quickly because, as Tom Wolfe notes in this volume’s forward, “he was his own best reporter.” He thought like one, too. He was clear about when and what he wanted; the line-by-line editing of Shelly Zalaznick was crisp; payment was appropriate and prompt.

“Light in the Frightening Corners” was another Time headline in 1967. Felker’s curiosity, as New York Stories documents, shone everywhere. The Mafia? “Wiseguy” offers this arresting lead by Nick Pileggi: “On Tuesday, May 22, 1980, a man named Henry Hill did what seemed to him the only sensible thing to do: He decided to cease to exist.” The light shone in less frightening places in George Plimpton’s 1983 guide through “the Siberian reaches” of Elaine’s back room with the then-unpublished Jerry Spinelli. Or the hilariously Stygian gloom of Jimmy Breslin’s black-Irish reverie in 1969, when Norman Mailer ran for mayor and Breslin ran for city council president.

Confessing that politics “got to be a drug,” Breslin soon asks himself, “‘Why is Mailer on the top of the ticket?’ … He has a Harvard diploma. On ability, I should be mayor.”

Women writers, grudgingly accepted elsewhere, flourished at New York, as the roster in this volume suggests. Ms. magazine made its debut as an insert in New York. The editors’ omission of “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” by Jane O’Reilly deprives readers of a major feminist manifesto.

This volume may help historians of American cities understand Clay Felker and his era. His imitators have obscured his originality and his genius, just as banal and brutal glass boxes have obscured Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building.

Nora Ephron summed it up best: “There are many reasons why the quality of life in New York is so much better than it was in 1968, but one of the main ones is Clay.”

Martin F. Nolan is a former editor and reporter for The Boston Globe. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

Clay Felker’s National Monument