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Clay Felker's New York

Matt Schudel

If you're too young to remember the '70s, well, you missed a decade of showmanship, grandiloquent excess, great movies and spirited journalism unlike anything we've seen since. There was more than enough decadence to go around, but it was also a time when great reporting was seen as a way to save the world. (It was the decade of "All the President's Men" and Hunter S. Thompson, remember.)

For about nine madcap years in New York, the undisputed emcee of magazine journalism was Clay Felker, who was one of the pre-eminent journalists of his age. Felker died July 1 at age 82, and his obituary appears in today's (July 2) paper.

There was no one like Felker, who first made his name ...

at Esquire in the 1950s, then edited the great Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune in the '60s, when his writers included Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. Felker didn't invent New Journalism, which used novelistic scene-setting and the writer's point of view to make stories more vivid, but he may have been its first great editor. (Harold Hayes at Esquire also deserves some credit.)

In 1967, when the Trib folded, Felker bought the name of the Sunday mag -- New York -- and started a standalone publication the following year. It was the first modern city magazine, with a lively mix of investigative journalism, trend stories, reviews, shopping tips and events listings. His formula has been copied in practically every city in the country and around the globe, but no one did it better or with more verve than the mercurial Felker.

When I was working at the Post last Saturday, I heard that Felker was ailing, so I began to assemble some background information, between answering the phones and writing the shorter obits that are the bulk of our work. I took my notes and background material home and worked on the Felker obit Saturday night and for much of the day on Sunday. When he died on Tuesday, we were more or less ready to go.

Early that morning, when I was waking up, I had seen Felker's wife, Gail Sheehy, discussing the presidential campaign on the Today Show. When I reached her by phone in the afternoon, I told her she seemed amazingly composed, given the circumstances. She said she was trying to put on a brave face for television and got back to her New York apartment only 10 minutes before her husband died.

I also managed to speak with Tom Wolfe, the paragon of New Journalism (and former Washington Post obituary writer, by the way). Wolfe spoke of Felker's gift for story ideas -- "Many stories I wrote for New York were Clay's ideas" -- and his penchant for being in on the beginning of trends. Felker was among the first of New York's literati, for instance, to hang out Elaine's. "I don't think it would have occurred to anybody else that Elaine's restaurant would make a good story," Wolfe told me. "The next thing you knew, the world was coming to Elaine's."

On a personal note, during my conversation with Wolfe, I finally had the chance to say something I've always hoped I could tell him. Years ago, Wolfe was invited to speak at the University of Nebraska, where I was an undergraduate. I had been reading hiw journalism for a course I was taking on "expository writing," and my teacher recommended that the class go hear Wolfe at the student union. I was spellbound by Wolfe's fluency with words and his amazing descriptive powers. I remember standing next to a university chaplain who was there with his bearded son; they kept turning to each other, practically chanting, "Concrete detail, concrete detail!"

Wolfe, wearing his customary white suit, spoke from memory for well over an hour, quoting long passages from his books. (This was before he turned to fiction.) I was so impressed that I made my way backstage and found a room where he was being interviewed by a young woman from the student newspaper. I just walked in and sat down -- only the three of us were there -- and asked Wolfe some questions of my own. It was the first time I had ever met or spoken to an actual, living writer, and the world didn't look the same to me after that.

The very next day, I changed my major to English. So, all these years later, it was gratifying to have the chance to thank Tom Wolfe for changing my life.

By Matt Schudel  |  July 2, 2008; 11:33 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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