I sent my piece to 12 magazines simultaneously (I was 23; I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that) and got rejected by them all.
Weeks later, New York Magazine called – I had forgotten about that one – I must have sent it to 13 – and had me fly down from Cambridge to have my picture taken for the cover.
And that, in the fall of 1970, is how I met Clay Felker.
He was old (to a 23-year-old, 45 is old), but erupting – always – with energy and enthusiasm and urgency.
He was a spectacular advocate for his writers, always putting them front and center and reveling in their success.
And, for whatever reason, he had decided to make me one of them.
My piece was about a company I’d worked for called National Student Marketing. Its stock went from 6 to 140 in 18 months – DLJ bought some, Harvard’s Endowment Fund bought some – but the ‘creative accounting’ the company had been practicing, it turned out, could really only be fairly termed ‘fraudulent accounting.’ The CEO went to jail – as did a guy from Peat Marwick, the auditor – and I went off to business school.
One thing led to another, and MBA in hand, I found myself in the employ of Clay Felker.
Here are the things I remember best about Clay:
He was passionate about everything, but especially people and power. He would meet someone at a cocktail party – real estate developer Sam Lefrak or music mogul Ahmet Ertegun or British financier Sir James Goldsmith – and the next day he would have me calling to profile them for New York.
(‘It’s not hard to make fun of a billion-dollar builder who can’t pronounce the word ‘condominium,” the Lefrak piece began, ‘ – he pronounces it ‘condominimum.’ But Samuel J. Lefrak . . .’)
He was irreverent – the more outrageous, at least within the limits of an upstanding Missouri native, the better. He had me write a piece about OPEC – should we just go into the Middle East and TAKE the now outrageously-priced $12-a-barrel oil? The thrust of the piece was, ‘no,’ but it landed me on an assassination list anyway, because he had illustrated the cover Action Comic style, with Ford and Kissinger storming the desert with machine guns.
He knew how to sell magazines. He let me do a piece on solar energy, circa 1974, and I was amazed to find that he not only had made room for it — he had made it the cover. The cover? Well, it was February, so used a shot of a gorgeous model on a pool float, all but topless, soaking in the rays.
He allowed his writers tremendous latitude. He once let me do a piece called, ‘How Tall Is Robert Redford Really?’ – the Times had said he was 6’2′, others had told me he was 5’7′, and I just thought this was one question, in a complex subjective world, we ought to be able to answer definitely. (‘About five-nine.’) And the next week he would let me do a piece about ‘Bank Capital Adequacy.’
He supported writers every way he could. He helped Gloria Steinem launch Ms. He helped Judy Daniels launch Savvy. He helped Steve Brill launch American Lawyer. He ran the Aaron Latham piece that became John Travolta’s ‘Urban Cowboy.’ He persuaded George J. W. Goodman to adopt the penname ‘Adam Smith,’ which led to the #1 best-seller, The Money Game, and the long-running, award-winning ‘Adam Smith’s Money World’ on PBS.
He was not great with money. Personally, he was always asking me (and others, let’s hope) for financial advice. Professionally, how could he stint on the editorial package? The stories and graphics and writing meant far more to him than profits.
And so it was he once met a terrific young Australian publishing tycoon – ‘you’ve got to go meet this guy,’ he told me, sending me over to visit Rupert Murdoch – who soon joined the New York Magazine board and then, to Clay’s consternation, grabbed it out from under him.
But in even the few years he had it, Clay made an enormous impact, not least on us, his writers. I can’t imagine how different, and less interesting, and less blessed, my life would have been if he hadn’t.
Clay died Tuesday morning, at 82, in the loving care of another of his writers, his wife, Gail Sheehy.
‘A visionary editor who was widely credited with inventing the formula for the modern magazine,’ the Times obit begins.
A great talent – and, not incidentally on this July 4th eve, a great American – is gone.
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History is a vast early warning system.~Norman Cousins
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