The Legacy of Magazine Icon Clay Felker

Clay Felker, the editor who invented the modern city magazine, died July 1 at his home in Manhattan after a lengthy struggle with cancer. He was 83.

Most of the reverent obituaries mention his seminal work at Esquire — which led to his unleashing of such marquee-named writers as Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson.

But he fathered what’s come to be known as “the New Journalism” (Tom Wolfe’s “Tiny Mummies,” for starters) after Esquire, as editor of the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune in the mid-1960s, which led to his founding, with art director Milton Glaser, of New York magazine in 1968.

More than offering up a revised notion of the city magazine, what was revolutionary about New York was its look and tone: the marriage of hopped-up prose and equally important in-your-face graphics put the idea of “snark” on the map, before there was such a word, or for that matter, any cleverly iconic “map” to print it on.

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

Two of Adweek’s founders, Jack Thomas and Ken Fadner, had worked with Felker on the business side of New York. They left, as Felker did, with Rupert Murdoch’s hostile takeover.

Then Thomas, Fadner and Penn Tudor bought three regional advertising publications and created Adweek, designed as a hipper, more mainstream take on trade magazines. Walter Bernard, and Clay’s old partner, Glaser, designed Adweek, and its oversized, iconic red logo, to look clean and modern, and include the work of many of the same illustrators who were regularly seen in New York.

Meanwhile, Felker had launched the Daily News Tonight, a flashier edition of the newspaper, which proved unsuccessful. He moved over to Adweek.

I remember the hush in the newsroom on the day he strode in, wearing the same type of striped Turnbull & Asser shirt and tie, under a hand-made English suit, that had been his uniform since Esquire days. 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 publishing, and generating the kind of buzz that made writers “stars” as much as Clay Felker.

For several days, he sat in the open newsroom just poring over old issues. Then he started treating the content of this ad trade — 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 them to decipher the ideas and sources he’d scribbled on them, and turn them into story assignments.

But what I mainly remember from working with Clay was the sheer exhilaration of working with him 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 — but no one was better at concocting best/worst, in/out lists, which was a way to get pop and edge into the pages with humor.

As an editor, Clay could be 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.” (It means “thick” and after looking it up in the dictionary, I went into the ladies’ room and cried.)

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

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

I was a young reporter, going out and doing stories about account changes, which frankly, felt kind of rote. I wanted to write about women’s issues and take a broader look at pop culture. One day Clay read a story in the New York Times about a new type of study, popular in colleges, called “semiotics.” It focused on the study of signs and symbols. From then, almost everything I did had a semiotic bent, from the meaning of the Charlie Girl’s pantsuit to the crazed sex dreams of the Maidenform woman.

I loved it — there was no detail too small to analyze. Then at a meeting, Clay suggested that I use semiotics to “review” an ad, and the Adweek Critique was born.

My first critique 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 snickering at giving such a piece so much space in the magazine.

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

Much later, in the ’90s, Entertainment Weekly started reviewing ads regularly, and then of course, with the coming of the Internet, everybody became a critic.

Fadner, who later went on to found Mediapost.com, acknowledges that Felker “brought a lot of credibility and a much higher profile to Adweek.” But sounding like the business-side guy he is, added: “He tended to go overboard in what he was willing to spend to go after a writer he really wanted.”

“Actually,” he said, after a bit of reflection, “everything I know about 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 willingness to pay handsomely for it), Felker has inspired generations of media people who feel they can’t thank him enough. I’d love to convey just a tiny piece of my gratitude now. Thank you Clay. I’ll miss you.

This is an updated and expanded version of an appreciation that ran July 1.