Magazine Icon Clay Felker Dead at 82

Iconic magazine editor Clay Felker died today at his home in Manhattan after a lengthy struggle with cancer. He was 82.

Most of the reverent obituaries mention his seminal work at Esquire — which led to his unleashing of writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson and the rise of “the New Journalism.”

Much of the famous work in that genre (like Wolfe’s “Tiny Mummies”) was done under his editorship of the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune in the mid-1960s, which in turn led to his founding, with art director Milton Glaser, of New York magazine in 1968.

Much more than the first “city” magazine, New York‘s marriage of hopped-up prose and in-your-face graphics put the idea of  “snark” on the map, before there was such a word, or for that matter, any modern day hyper-graphic “map” to print it on.

A good deal less, however, has been written about his time, in the late 1980s, as editor of Adweek.

Yes, Adweek. Two of Adweek’s founders, John C. Thomas and Ken Fadner, had worked with Felker on the business side at New York, starting in 1975. They left, as Felker did, with Rupert Murdoch’s hostile takeover.

Then Thomas, Fadner and Penn Tudor took over three regional trade publications and created Adweek, designed as a hipper, more mainstream take on trade magazines. Walter Bernard and Clay’s old partner, Glaser, designed Adweek.

Meanwhile, Felker had attempted to launch the Daily News Tonight, a flashy, upmarket, evening edition of the newspaper that was unsuccessful (and, as with many things that Felker did, way ahead of its time.) After leaving the Daily News, Felker moved over to Adweek.

I remember the hush in the newsroom on his first day as he walked in, wearing his green felt hat and one of his snazzy, 1960s-style, striped English shirts with the big collars and cuffs, and perhaps a button or two popping open. I guess he was in his late 50s at the time, but I’d never seen anyone dig in with such vigor. The energy was palpable — there was never a guy who loved ideas, and generating the kind of buzz that made writers “stars” — as much as Clay Felker.

He sat right there in the open, and for several days pored over old issues. Then, he started treating the editorial of this ad trade magazine — which published five different regional editions at the time — in the same way he did all of his other consumer successes. He’d come back to the office from a lunch or an evening cocktail, pulling little scraps of paper from his pockets, and then fishing through the collection to decipher the ideas and source names that he’d scribbled down, and turn them into story assignments.

What I mainly remember about working with Clay was the feeling of sheer exhilaration when a piece really clicked. Time froze and the future felt golden.

He’d read a story, for example, and a couple of paragraphs in, say, “There’s your lead.” And changing it indeed made all the difference.

Some of his reductivism used to annoy me — no one was better at concocting lists of best and worst this, in and out that — but it generated journalism that really popped.
As an editor, he also could by flighty and volatile. He had a terrible temper and I remember being the target when he yelled, in his booming voice, across the newsroom, that I was being “obtuse.” (I had to look it up in the dictionary — it meant thick, and I cried in the bathroom.)

But really, as Clay would say, I’m burying the lead.

This is really the story of how Clay Felker invented advertising criticism.

I was a young reporter, going out and doing stories on agency account changes, which frankly, were pretty dull. I wanted to write about women’s issues and pop culture, and one day Clay read an item in The New York Times about a new strain of study, popular in colleges, called “semiotics” – which focused on signs and symbols. From there, almost everything I did had a semiotic bent, from the meaning of the Charlie Girl’s pantsuit, to the crazy sex dreams of the Maidenform woman.

I loved it — as there was no detail too small to analyze. One day, at a meeting, he suggested that I “review” an ad, just like a book critic or a movie critic.

My first review was of a Ralph Lauren print series during the winter. (“You want to wear your best $300 sweater while walking your husky,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing.)
Clay gave it a whole page — the inside cover. I heard that the competition was literally laughing at giving an ad review so much space in the magazine.

But before we knew it, our chief competitor had hired a writer to do the same thing.

Much later, in the ’90s, Entertainment Weekly regularly reviewed ads, and then of course, with the coming of the Internet, everybody became a critic. Now there are hundreds of blogs that analyze and criticize advertising.

Fadner, who later went on to start, acknowledges that Felker “brought a lot of credibility and a much higher profile to Adweek,” but added that “he would go overboard on what he was willing to spend to go after a writer or art director who he really wanted. He tended to pay writers an enormous amount per word when they really weren’t contributing that much,” which is obviously the addendum of a true business-side guy.

But then he added, “Actually, everything I know about magazine publishing I learned from Clay. Conventional mythology was that Clay was a great editor and knew nothing about publishing. But that’s not true. What Clay taught me was that all publishing comes down to a great editorial product. And the rest just falls into line. Anybody who tells you differently doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Indeed, with his genuine excitement about the work (and sometimes overpayment for the pleasure), Felker has inspired generations of media people who feel that they can’t thank him enough. I’d love to convey just a tiny bit of that gratitude right now. Thank you, Clay. I’ll miss you.