News & Politics

From the Archives: Richard Goldstein on the Genius of Clay Felker

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From The Village Voice January 17, 1977, Richard Goldstein on the editorial genius of Clay Felker:

About Clay Felker

When I was a young writer subsisting on tuna casseroles on the Upper West Side, I received an invitation to lunch from the World Journal Tribune‘s Sunday magazine, which was called New York. We met The Player’s club off Gramercy Park, took in an auction at the Parke Bernet, and ended up shopping for furniture at a store called Fabulous Fakes. He was a tall, sanguine man. I had trouble keeping up with his walk, not to mention his ideas. He wanted me to write about the pop culture of Saigon, to report on the songs the troops were playing in the fields. I had just convinced the army to exclude me from those hostilities, so I turned the assignment down. But I had learned something about Clay Felker that afternoon: He had the power to convince you there was nothing dangerous or absurd about a story on the 10 most powerful headhunters, and the drive to put you on a plane for New Guinea before you could think of way out.

When the paper folded, he vowed to start New York up on its own. I figured he’d have it out within a month, but it took him two years. In the thick of it, he lived in a sauna of uncertainty. When he came to dinner, I thought I’d impress him by lighting incense and turning up the stereo. But my wife sat him in our only comfortable chair and rubbed his neck until he relaxed. Starting a weekly magazine is pretty hard in any case (otherwise the newsstands would be groaning under the weight of the egos), but in those days there were no such thing as a city magazine. New York was the first and best and Clay Felker is the reason why.

People say he loved power and celebrity, and that is true enough; and people say he couched his instincts in demographics, and that is also true. But he was a great editor; he could spot a lead like bear pawing water for trout, and he could cut copy with the dispatch of a butcher trimming flank. He never told me what to write or how to write it, and he published my copy when his face turned beet red at the sight of it. Anyone who has written for what can be called the “corporate press” will appreciate my preference for Clay Felker’s impulses—even when they were censorious—over the assassination-by-committee which is custom at the slicks.

To say his staff occasionally parted company with those impulses would be an understatement. The quarrels between Clay and the rest of the us at The Voice were legion during the two years he acted as publisher and editor-in-chief. More than once I thought we would end up slugging it out, but he never threatened me with more than apoplexy, as he never fired anyone who spoke out against him. In fact, he understood the value of his severest critics to be precisely their disloyalty.

He left the Voice a stronger, more unified newspaper than it was when he arrived. He left it with a sense of its own integrity which must be seen in part as a consequence of his restraint. I hope that doesn’t sound too eulogistic, because I suspect that Clay Felker is out there raising money again. To which I offer the traditional salutation to people from Missouri who chose to make New York their home: Mazel tov. —Richard Goldstein

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