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.)