Credited with inventing the modern city magazine, Felker’s encouragement of journalistic stars to produce vivid, detail-laden writing about the city’s power struggles changed American magazines.
“American journalism would not be what it is today without Clay Felker, and neither would New York City,” said New York’s current editor in chief, Adam Moss, in a statement. “Those of us lucky enough to work in the house that he built are reminded everyday of the depth of his genius. He created a kind of magazine that had never been seen before, told a kind of story that had never been told. Nobody I have ever met in this business was as passionate a champion of talent, as relentlessly curious or as successful in getting the world inside his head onto the magazine page. He changed the way we look at this city and, in that sense, the way we live in it. All of us who practice journalism today carry Clay’s legacy into everything we do, and we will never do it even half as well.”
Born in Missouri to two journalists — his father was managing editor of The Sporting News and his mother had worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — Felker graduated from Duke and spent three years in the Navy. After working for several years at Life and Sports Illustrated, he became features editor at Esquire as the magazine was entering its heyday. Upon losing the editorship of Esquire to Harold Hayes, he took a job as a consultant at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. When the Tribune folded in 1967, Felker used his own severance package and secured outside financing to buy the rights to the paper’s Sunday magazine and launch it as New York magazine.
“I was so surprised because he always said, ‘We can be the greatest magazine in the country,’” said Tom Wolfe, who honed his signature style under Felker in famous pieces such as “Radical Chic.” “We were just a little piece of a newsroom. He always felt convinced that he could do something no one else did, and he went ahead and did it.”