Saturday, July 12th, 2008
If you dream of space travel, meeting Neil Armstrong would be ideal. If you’re more of a down-to-earth creature with a craze for magazines, Clay Felker’s your guy. Back in 2003, I was running around like a lunatic with a prototype and dream to start a reader-generated, editor-curated web-print magazine—a dream I espoused to anyone who would listen. My friend Rachel Lehmann-Haupt had an idea: want to meet Clay Felker? Felker, the magazine luminary who founded New York Magazine, was Rachel’s prof at Berkeley J-school; they were pals, she could make an introduction. And so it was that I called upon the most influential person in my profession. His health problems had begun (which made talking difficult), but no matter, he invited a stranger who shared his passion into his Berkeley hills living room. I arrived wide-eyed and hoping for a few cordial comments and a crumb of encouragement. What happened was not quite what I was planning: Clay Felker devoured my pages, sharing precise thoughts on point size and headlines and story topics and asking questions and letting me ramble on and nodding and making mental notes and volleying suggestions. He was kind and encouraging. And he said, in no uncertain terms, what I had before him would be a better magazine if I moved away from the influences of what any fine Felker could tell was newish Esquire and old New York. “Go younger, have more fun,” he said. “Be true to your world, not someone else’s.” I talked to many people in the years that followed, but few hours had such impact. That evening was my trip to the moon.
Appropriately enough, I was at an ESPN The Magazine conference on storytelling on July 1, talking about the making of SMITH, when one of the best friends I’ve made in journalism or anywhere, Michael Callahan, emailed me the sad news: Clay Felker had died at the age of 82. I’m guessing many SMITH readers aren’t very familiar with Felker, but I hope anyone who’s interested in why we love making magazines will read some of the recent stories about a man whose passion for the form infuses so much of what we read today. In New York, Tom Wolfe unfurls a rollicking essay on Felker and New York magazine’s mythic beginnings. Felker’s life is told in oral history form with his wife Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, Richard Reeves, and others. And Kurt Anderson nails why nobody did it better in a column called Felkerism. Clay Felker reminds us why we do what we do, offering us a height to reach.