Clay Felker, the magazine mogul who revolutionized the city magazine genre as founding editor of New York, died Tuesday. He was 82.
Felker died Tuesday morning at his New York City home after a battle with throat cancer, a magazine spokeswoman said.
New York magazine, filled with gossip on the city’s social scene, inside knowledge of its business and politics, and endless “best of” lists, was relentlessly imitated following its creation in 1968.
Editors across the country adopted Felker’s formula — co-founder Milton Glaser’s bold layout designs and the equally non-traditional “new journalism” writing style of contributors like Tom Wolfe.
“I used to compare it to what the conversation is at a round dinner table or a dinner party that well-informed people talk about,” Felker told The New York Times in 1995. “That talk about real estate, that talk about business, that talk about personal gossip, you know, what new play or movie, culture, you know, this potpourri.”
Felker’s editing at New York fostered the careers of such influential writers as Ken Auletta, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem and Gael Greene.
Among New York’s most influential features were Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” on the Black Panthers benefit party thrown by conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970, and Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which served as the basis for the film “Saturday Night Fever.”
Steinem, whose first issue of Ms. magazine was sandwiched inside the pages of New York thanks to Felker, once said of her former boss, “I can think of no other editor who inspires the same combination of creativity, loyalty, and excitement in writers.”
Felker published, edited and wrote for dozens of publications including Life, Time, Esquire, the Village Voice, Adweek, Daily News Today, Manhattan Inc. and U.S. News and World Report.
In 1995 the University of California at Berkeley named its magazine journalism program after Felker, and he and his wife, Gail Sheehy, moved west.
Felker and Sheehy, a regular contributor to New York in its early days, married in 1984. The couple shared adoption rights of a Cambodian girl, Mohm Pat, whom Sheehy met at a refugee camp in Thailand. Sheehy also has a biological daughter named Maura Elizabeth Sheehy.
Felker had two previous wives: his college sweetheart Leslie Blatt and actress Pamela Tiffin.
Felker was born in Webster Groves, Mo., Oct. 2, 1928. He graduated from Duke University in 1951, where he edited the student newspaper.
His first journalism job out of college was as a sports writer at Life magazine, where he got the scoop on a Brooklyn Dodgers scouting report of the New York Yankees that highlighted Joe DiMaggio’s ailing arm.
“Felker always had the insatiable curiosity of a very young man,” said Ken Auletta in a Berkeley alumni magazine tribute to Felker. “Before each of us went out on a story, he instructed us to be sure to answer two questions: Why are things the way they are? How do things work?”
New York magazine began as a Sunday magazine supplement in the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. In 1968, Felker and Glaser molded it into a standalone weekly glossy.
Felker bought the Village Voice in 1974 and created New West magazine in 1977 — a westernized version of his original creation, based in California. Both publications met the same fate as New York magazine, landing in the hands of Murdoch.
Felker’s New York is credited with helping invent the “new journalism,” a style that blended literary technique with factual accuracy, widely recognized in the writing of Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson.
Glaser called Felker “the best guy ever with writers.”
“He really had a nose for talent,” Glaser said. “He wasn’t overly intellectual. But he could just smell a good writer. He was terrific that way. And he taught people how to write clearly. His mind was not a subtle mind. He liked things to be clear and without too much cleverness.”
After reluctantly leaving his magazine, Felker served as editor and publisher of Esquire from 1978-1981, but none of his later publications had as much impact as New York.
Felker described the city he would faithfully serve for years to come in a 1972 op-ed piece in The New York Times.
“The race is swifter than it ever has been, and the pressures are on,” he wrote. “It may be accompanied by laughter, but the game is in earnest and eventually all those drop-outs from the savage problems of the city are going to be clobbered.”