Clay Felker, Master of the Magazine

Legendary magazine editor Clay Felker, who died Tuesday at 82, taught this writer more than a few enduring truths about journalism.

7-01-08

Eleven years ago, long after the journalistic style he championed in the 1960s had become mainstream, even old-school, my teacher, the legendary magazine editor Clay Felker, asked me to prepare some photocopies of an old Tom Wolfe story about William Shawn and the New Yorker. I was a second-year graduate student in journalism at UC Berkeley; my student job, a plum, was as Clay’s research assistant. That meant, aside from the occasional stint at the school’s copier, that Clay and his wife, the writer Gail Sheehy, generously and often treated me to dinner at their beautiful home in the Oakland Hills and at many a jazz bar and sushi restaurant in the Bay Area.

Back then, Clay often wore beige or yellow suits made of light cloth – what I thought of as rich-man’s New York City lunch attire – and baseball caps to shelter his head. Sometimes he seemed a bit wobbly. Now and then, he would proclaim things that seemed, to my untested ears, a bit too simplistic, or just plain bad. What I saw as his celebrity fetish seemed boring. Once, he insisted I write, as my master’s thesis, a long story on Internet gambling, which he predicted would become a huge business. To my mind, the idea lacked the human scope I yearned to write about. Plus, I doubted his business acumen. Internet gambling? How lame. Years later, it’s obvious that I was wrong.

Even then, though, I had inklings of his genius to spot trends and spark careers. All year long, his classroom hosted a steady stream of talented and accomplished magazine editors and writers. Later the visiting luminary would repair to his home. As the evening darkened, the sparkling lights of Oakland glittering below, there would be stories about ambitious writers taking on legendary themes. The stories reeked of success. This is how they all seemed to end: Properly endowed with the right cover story, the magazine issue had leapt off the rack, and the lead story – perhaps a feature by Aaron Latham or Wolfe – had gone on to sell scads of books or was made into a blockbuster film. And in the process defined an era.

His students sometimes laughed privately about those almost-formulaic stories, but Clay remained on the fresh edge of journalism. He was often unsparing in his criticism. Smart, funny, arrogant, cynical or irreverent point-of-view journalism, Clay insisted, had its roots in painstakingly thorough reporting. The end product could dismiss a sacred cow with a rude quip, but only if its foundation involved heavy-duty reporting. It’s a humbling idea for a young journalist, that the real work involves introducing yourself on some doorstep, far from any newsroom, and haltingly asking questions and writing down the answers. It’s not rocket science, but it’s far from easy. It’s labor-intensive. If you’re going to write about a place, you need to go there. It’s the fundamentals of all good journalism, almost boring in its simplicity.

By the time I became his student, Clay had already been fighting throat cancer for years. One day, a blood vessel in his throat began to bleed, and it wouldn’t stop. He was rushed to a hospital in San Francisco. Later, I helped take him home. As we rode down the elevator, he asked about the status of a story on the animated feature “A Bug’s Life,” which was then in production at the Pixar campus.

I didn’t have much, though not for lack of trying. The place was buttoned down tight, its secrets closely kept, although I had talked to a few of the animators at a coffee shop there and looked at some drawings of the circus scene involving an old umbrella. I had nothing close to a fully reported story, but I didn’t want to admit as much to Clay, so I exaggerated what I had and told him the story would be great. Later, he asked for a draft. But I had been unable to get the reporting that I had told him I had, even though I had spent another day skulking around the shrubbery outside the Pixar buildings. I admitted to him that I didn’t have the story. He was irritated, disappointed, but, to my relief, not overly so. I understand now, I think, that he had seen his share of blowhard writers, and also that he understood that the maturation process isn’t always pretty, or easy. He moved past it, and in doing so helped teach me that in journalism you take your lumps and go on.

Frankly, it’s my experience that few journalists speak honestly about, much less take ownership of, the mistakes they’ve made. Clay did. He talked about bad edits he had made. That’s not to say that he didn’t defend himself or others from what he thought were unwarranted criticisms. And I’m not alluding to any grand errors on Clay’s part. It’s just that even minor errors seem significant to the journalist who commits them, but far less monumental to those who hear about them later. And it’s important that we deal with them with candor, even when the lessons are hard to define, more emotional than professional.

One story Clay told involved the Wolfe essay I had prepared for class, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead,” which ran in 1965 in the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald-Tribune (the predecessor to New York magazine, which Felker made famous). Clay had a pained look on his face as he told about those who still wouldn’t speak to him – who refused to shake his hand – even more than 30 years after he published that story, which skewered the New Yorker as a museum of mummified journalism and Shawn, its editor, as the museum’s dreary curator.

I’m as guilty as anyone of holding the New Yorker on a ridiculously high pedestal (even after my internship there as an undergraduate.) And, actually, the “Tiny Mummies” essay still seems trite to me today. And funny. Yet Clay’s recollections of the reactions to the essay – and the venomous writings of the magazine’s defenders – underscored the myths that journalists create about themselves, that we’re somehow untouchable in our seriousness, that some of us have reached a plane of infallibility. Bullshit. The truth is, as soon as we lose our humility, we begin to mummify ourselves.

In Clay’s class I began working on a story, which I’ve never sold, about a young Mexican man who worked as a dispatcher at a day-labor agency for janitors in San Francisco. He more or less lived in the agency’s offices, where he kept a sharp black suit and dance shoes. At nightclubs, he shed his slouching, grungy demeanor and danced salsa, beautifully, with his gorgeous and tall Chinese-American girlfriend from Berkeley. Other times, he performed as the lead singer in a raging, punk-ish metal band at tiny clubs in obscure San Francisco neighborhoods. Clay encouraged me to spend as much time as possible with both of them for a feature on youth culture. He was incredibly engaged in what young people cared about, possessing an almost impossibly youthful mind.

Sadly, Clay’s condition deteriorated during spring semester in 1998. Each time I heard his voice, made gravelly by the cancer and chemotherapy, I had a feeling it was the last time I would see him alive. He didn’t have much strength for editing or teaching. Left to my own devices, I lost the handle of that complicated story of salsa movements and incendiary rock lyrics. Later, Clay got his feet beneath him again and continued to teach for years.

Over the past decade, I exchanged a few brief emails with Clay. Then, about a year ago, as I began planning and editing a new regional magazine called The New West, I began to recall bits of his advice, and I realized he had always tried to prepare us, his students, for our shot at a magazine of our own.

Mine is an outgrowth of NewWest.Net, a 3-year-old online news site based in Missoula, Mont., founded by Courtney Lowery and Jonathan Weber. Jonathan always thought of Clay’s short-lived, California-based general interest magazine, New West, as a kind of great-uncle figure to our new incarnation, and sought him out a few years ago to ask his blessing. He gave it, along with some gruff but pertinent advice. It feels good to have that presence preceding this.

The last time I talked to Clay, it was about NewWest.Net. He was enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by online journalism. It’s been said, especially about his heyday as editor of New York and Esquire magazines, that Clay was obsessed with power, which seems to me a bit misleading. He seemed to be obsessed with what was going on, who was making it happen and what it all meant. He was fearless, although he didn’t shrink from acknowledging the attendant pain. As the news of his death in New York City at 82 sinks in, I sit at my desk in our alleyway office in Missoula. It seems almost too simple to mention: I wish I could be so fearless, so obsessed with the same thing.

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