Clay Felker, the founding editor of New York magazine, died today at the age of 80 after an extended illness. The Missouri native got his start in journalism as a magazine writer for titles like LIFE, Time, and Esquire, but he will go down in history as the man who codified a method for chronicling the elite of New York, while providing a platform for the city's best writers. He's responsible for creating the only real glossy city magazine that is also a good magazine on its own merits—unapologetically elitist, but not blinkered. And slick enough to justify it all.
Felker started New York in 1968 as a "new journalism" window into the workings of the city's power structure—but one that defined the power structure broadly, and explored how the city's different spheres collided with each other:
Thirty years ago, not long before his fellow owners and Rupert Murdoch squeezed him out of the magazine he had founded, Felker defined New York very simply as a guide to "how the power game is played, and who are the winners." And Wolfe, his early superstar, has said that "Clay's real interest, although I'm not sure he ever thought it out conceptually, was status and how it operates in New York. ... In New York Magazine, Clay really wrote an enormous novel about the city. ... It was his vision, his plot—a huge novel called The City of Ambition."
Designed as a sort of urban-centric antidote to the New Yorker's more eclectic musings, the magazine fostered a ton of talent, including Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, and Gail Sheehy, Felker's future wife. He lost the magazine to Rupert Murdoch in a hostile takeover in 1976. He would go on to hold a series of editorial jobs at a kaleidoscope of titles, including Esquire, the Daily News, the Village Voice, and US News & World Report. But none would approach the legacy that he left with New York.
Kurt Andersen says that Felker, the middle American emigre to the big city, simply took his mental playbook of how New York worked "literally, and published it in weekly serial form." And look around: that's what everyone—including us—is doing today. For that, we must all acknowledge that Felker's mark will never disappear, as long as this city stays full of smart people with a burning ambition to talk.