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Friday, July 11, 2008

Life and death of an American editing legend

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — An over-used cliche in the American language is that some man or woman is or was "larger than life." As with most cliches, this one can render a measure of value by capturing the aura of an unusual individual.

That certainly is the case with the legendary American magazine editor Clay Felker, who was born in the American South and lived the best part of his life in the American Northeast — in throbbing Manhattan and the chic Hamptons on Long Island.

A graduate of Duke University in North Carolina, he landed a neat job at Sports Illustrated, came into possession of a deeply disrespectful scouting report on the then-aging Yankee Joe Dimaggio that effectively compelled the superstar to retire, married the gorgeous actress Pamela Tiffin (lasted seven years), edited various high-profile, upmarket American magazines, married the brilliant journalist Gail Sheehy and, last week, died after a lengthy struggle with throat cancer.

He was most famous for his re-launching of New York Magazine, once a Sunday newspaper insert magazine. From the late 1960s to the late '70s, the span of his editorship, the Manhattan- based weekly was undeniably one of the most watched editorial products in America. As an editor then in his 40s, Felker was a magician who could package a cover story on incompetent or corrupt judges with a feature on the best summer beaches, and who was as concerned with the look of the magazine as with the words.

Felker taught his editors to give more effort to polishing article titles and picture captions (on the grounds that most readers don't read all the articles but many do take in headlines and captions), to sharpen the "angle" of the stories (on the grounds that the magazine would go out of business if it became as "boring" as The New York Times, which in those days was mostly boring), and to cultivate the gifted writer as if your life depended on it.

Indeed, the magazine was much of Felker's life. Much is made of the closeness to Tom Wolfe, perhaps the most stylish American magazine writer of his generation. Felker became one giant magnet for journalistic talent of all kinds.

Reviewing the magazine staff listing in 1972 — one of the glory years — reveals an incredible roster of then famous or soon-to-be famous talent, including Milton Glaser, Pete Hamill, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap, Gael Greene, Michael Kramer, Nicholas Pileggi, Alan Rich, Gail Sheehy, Aaron Latham (my best friend in college) and of course Wolfe.

Also on the staff list was myself, today by far the least famous and least rich of anyone else there at the time. Felker in one sense was the least talented on the team. He was not the best writer, by his own admission, nor even the best thinker; he was not exceptionally intellectual nor deeply thoughtful. He was, by far, the magical conjurer, the intuitive orchestrator, the journalistic Jackson Pollack splasher of colors and lines that somehow, at their inspired best, made riveting, thrilling, even original impressions.

Like the famously intense Pollack, in fact, Felker was a precariously expressive editor who seemed to make his best decisions while shouting at the top of his formidable lungs. At CBS years later, I was once asked by an editor I was trying to hire if I was "a shouter." I replied no, that's not my way: Why would you ask that? "Well," she said, "you used to work for Clay, right?"

Shouting may have been not only Felker's style of direct communication but also a way to develop a clear and strong voice, for the staff as well as for the magazine, that could rise above the ferociously hysterical din of the average day on the streets of Manhattan.

At a wonderful "Celebration of Clay" more than a decade ago at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, written tributes were collected and framed in a memorabilia booklet. Mine went like this: "Clay made working at the magazine fun. That's why it was so much fun for the readers. But Clay could also drive you crazy. I think I am still recovering."

That's probably still the case, but the experience was well worth the trauma — every over-the-top minute of it. It was, well, larger than life.

Syndicated columnist and career journalist Tom Plate is the author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." Chapter 3 of the book is about the original New York Magazine. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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