R.I.P. Clay Felker (1925-2008)


With the news of his death, Clay Felker is being lionized by New York publications today, which the former editor and publisher richly deserves. Felker will be remembered for founding New York magazine and influencing so many other glossies like it.

In 1974, Felker also gained control of the Village Voice, and Nat Hentoff well remembers Felker’s first introduction to the staff.

“Goldstein punched him in the stomach,” Hentoff says of longtime writer and former Voice editor Richard Goldstein.

Despite Felker’s success with New York, he proved to be an unpopular editor of the Voice. When Kevin McCauliffe, in 1978, published The Great American Newspaper: The Rise and Fall of the Village Voice, it was Felker’s tenure as editor and publisher that he referred to as the paper’s “fall.”

“Felker did found New York magazine, and he had some great writers there,” Hentoff says. “He had one of the most distinguished staffs in magazine history. He started that vogue for weekly city magazines around the country. But his tenure at the Voice was very unpleasant—because he tried to turn it into New York magazine.”

“He almost fired me,” Hentoff adds. “He was changing the paper so much . . . that I did a column on what Felker was doing. If it wasn’t for [Jack] Newfield and some others who talked him out of it, Felker would have gotten rid of me.”

Staff theater critic Michael Feingold has his own memory of Felker’s dismissive attitude: “Not long after he took over the paper, he was at his puppet editor-in-chief’s desk laying out the front page. I was at Ross Wetzsteon’s desk having my theater piece edited. I said to Ross, ‘That’s Clay Felker, isn’t it? I’ve never met him. I think I should know the man I’m working for.’ Ross said, ‘As soon as we’re finished, I’ll walk you over and introduce you.’

“We finished the edit, Ross deposited the copy, and we strolled over. ‘Clay,’ Ross said, ‘I don’t think you’ve met Michael Feingold. He’s one of our theater critics.’ Without looking up, Felker said, ‘Oh. Tell him to write shorter.’ And went back to his work.”

Felker lost control of the Voice in 1977 to Rupert Murdoch, an owner even more reviled by the Voice staff. But ironically, the era of Murdoch’s ownership—1977 to 1985—turned out to be one of the paper’s best.

[Related: From the Archives: Richard Goldstein on the Genius of Clay Felker]