Clay Felker, the pioneering editor who founded New York magazine and helped launch the New Journalism of the 1960s, with its novelistic techniques and strong point of view, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home at the age of 82. He had battled throat cancer in recent years.
By defining the form of the modern city magazine, and by encouraging writers to address modern life in a bold, vividly descriptive style, Felker was one of the most influential journalists of his time.
Felker, who was born in St. Louis in 1925, entered Duke University in 1942. Nine years later, after wartime service in and a stint as a statistician for the New York Giants baseball team, he graduated.
His first triumphs came in the mid-1960s, when he was editor of New York, originally the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. He gave writers such as Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin the freedom to roam the city and write as they pleased, making the colorful supplement “the hippest Sunday reading in town,” as Newsweek put it.
When the newspaper folded in 1967, Felker used his severance pay to buy the magazine's name and secured more than $1 million in financing to rebuild New York as a glossy weekly publication. When it debuted on April 8, 1968, it was not an immediate success, but Felker soon found an innovative formula that would inspire imitators around the world.
He combined in-depth articles on politics, crime and finance with lighter features on shopping, restaurants, reviews and listings that made New York, in Felker's words, “a guide on how to live in this city.” The magazine's lively design reflected Felker's view of New York – both the city and the magazine – as a bright and varied feast for the mind and the eye.
His complicated personality, which ranged from soothing encouragement to volcanic anger, left few people indifferent.
In the early years of the magazine, Felker assembled a staff of writers that included Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Richard Reeves, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, Aaron Latham, Mimi Sheraton and Gail Sheehy, who became Felker's third wife. He exhorted them to write in distinctively personal voices as they explored the city's trends, horrors and delights. An anthology of writing from New York will be published in the fall.
“It was a magazine that helped create the notion of the writer as star,” one of Felker's writers, Ken Auletta, said in 1977.
Yet, for all his success in defining an era, Felker was just as often derided for what could be called his feats of Clay. He once published a nude photo of Viva, an actress associated with Andy Warhol, and critics found some articles to be adolescent or needlessly provocative.
In 1977, after Felker was forced out of New York magazine, he became publisher and part-owner of Esquire, where he hoped to revitalize the ailing men's journal. Less than two years later, the magazine was sold out from under him, and he was adrift once more.
For several years, he was a consultant to Twentieth-Century Fox, which transformed several stories he had edited, most notably “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Urban Cowboy” (1980), into movies.