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OBITUARIES : Clay Felker, 1925 - 2008

Innovative editor of New York magazine

July 02, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Clay Felker, the innovative founding editor of New York magazine who was widely considered one of the great post-World War II magazine editors in the U.S. and a key figure in the emergence of New Journalism in the 1960s, died Tuesday. He was 82.

Felker, who had been married to bestselling author Gail Sheehy since 1984, died at his home in Manhattan after a long battle with throat cancer, said a spokeswoman for New York magazine.

"American journalism would not be what it is today without Clay Felker," Adam Moss, the magazine's current editor-in-chief, said in a statement. "He created a kind of magazine that had never been seen before, told a kind of story that had never been told."

As an editor, Felker was known for having what Newsweek magazine once described as "a Gatsbyesque drive, a zest for power and an uncanny knack for riding the trendy currents of Manhattan chic."

"He ranks with Henry Luce of Time, Harold Ross of the New Yorker and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone in that these are all people that brought out magazines that had a new take on life in America," writer Tom Wolfe, a New York magazine alumnus, told The Times on Tuesday.

Describing Felker, Wolfe said, "He at first seemed very bluff and even could be gruff, but he created an atmosphere in which everybody wanted to do their very best for Clay.

"Everybody said he'd tell a writer he liked, 'I'm going to make you a star.' I never heard him say that, but that was the atmosphere he created in your mind."

Felker began his rise in the magazine industry as the enterprising features editor at Esquire, beginning in 1957, after several years as a writer and reporter for Life magazine.

"Clay was always widely enthusiastic about writers and ideas," John Berendt, a former editor at Esquire, told Marc Weingarten, author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight," a 2006 book about the New Journalism revolution -- journalism whose practitioners used literary techniques to produce factually accurate stories that read like fiction.

Felker, Berendt said, "could sniff out a developing story before anyone else. He was always out, going to parties, schmoozing, trying to match the right writers to the right stories. He had his finger on the pulse of things, just an amazing sixth sense about trends."

After seeing singer Sammy Davis Jr. perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1959, for example, Felker suggested that writer Thomas B. Morgan spend time hanging out with the entertainer for what became an insightful profile, "What Makes Sammy Jr. Run?"

Felker also tapped novelist Norman Mailer -- and gave him free rein -- to cover the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, at which John F. Kennedy was nominated for president and Mailer produced a lengthy, thought-provoking piece of literary journalism, "Superman Comes to the Supermart."

And Felker gave Gloria Steinem, then a little-known freelancer, what she calls her "first serious assignment" as a writer: a report on the then-new contraceptive pill.

After researching and writing her story, Steinem recalled in a 2005 piece on Felker in California magazine, a publication for UC Berkeley alumni, "Clay blue-penciled my pages on the history of the pill, told me I had left people out, and made the memorable comment: 'You've performed the incredible feat of making sex dull.' "

Felker, Steinem wrote, then "sent me out to do interviews and a total rewrite. That was why I produced in 1962 an article on sexual politics and new science that prefigured the women's movement. I had a great editor."

After losing a battle for the editorship of Esquire to Harold Hayes, Felker left the magazine in 1962.

The next year, he was hired as a consultant at the New York Herald Tribune, where he helped remake Today's Living, the magazine supplement of the newspaper's Sunday edition.

Renamed New York -- and with Felker taking over as editor -- the revamped Sunday supplement became a weekly showcase for the talents of Wolfe and his Herald Tribune colleague, columnist Jimmy Breslin.

Within two years, the city-oriented New York was considered the hottest Sunday read in town.

Helping fuel New York's reputation were stories such as Wolfe's controversial 1965 send-up of the staid, in-house culture of the New Yorker magazine and the idiosyncrasies of the 40-year-old literary institution's low-profile editor, William Shawn: a two-part, more than 10,000-word piece written in what Wolfe has described as a "hyperbolic style."

The first installment ran under a blaring, tabloid-style headline, "TINY MUMMIES! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!" and featured an illustration of Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker's monocle-wearing Victorian dandy icon, wrapped up like a mummy.

In a 1997 interview, Felker described Wolfe's "incredible piece of reporting" as "the making of New York magazine."

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