Between the Lines: September-October 2008

October 1, 2008

How could you not be awestruck by Clay Felker? I was when I first met him, twenty-five years ago, in his Upper East Side apartment. Visitors would descend into a sunken living room that was lined with beautifully printed art books, inhabited by messy piles of periodicals, and filled with his gravelly voice—surely the voice of authority. Our conversation that day was purposeful; the idea was to recruit him to chair an advisory board for the university's newly conceived alumni magazine.

He readily agreed. Of course, he assumed the magazine would be broad in its purview, substantive in its writing—reflecting the qualities of a great university. And reflecting, too, the restless curiosity of Felker '51. From student days spent absorbed in the library's collection of Civil War newspapers, he had gone on to found New York magazine—a powerful lens on the city and the social tumult being played out there—and to spark innumerable careers in journalism. Felker famously could find a story idea anywhere; like a latter-day Balzac, he was fascinated by the interactions between character and place.     

From that memorable meeting until his death this summer, Felker chaired the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. In that role he stressed the need for magazines to develop a distinct identity by showing off a point of view, by which he meant a robust attitude toward the world. Every story—and it was always a magazine "story," not a pedestrian-seeming "article"—should flow from a question. Reader and writer, then, would embark on a shared adventure of intellectual exploration.

A university magazine in particular, he insisted, shouldn't insult an educated audience by being self-satisfied and self-celebrating. Rather, it should be true to a university community, which invents, argues about, and disseminates ideas.

After I had known him for many years, I was walking some New York blocks with Felker. Rather jarringly, he called a halt to our progress. We had come upon a construction site. It was hardly a remarkable New York scene, but it fascinated Felker—the grinding, but determined, work of building the city. We spent ten or fifteen minutes simply watching the shaping of urban form from formlessness. Banal to most New Yorkers, but astonishing to Felker as a perpetual student of the city.

On one of my last visits, I joined Felker and his wife, author Gail Sheehy, at a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. The play is a study of loves and losses, rebounds and regrets; it's smart, savvy, and spirited, just like the city it celebrates. Afterward, I lingered over a particular strand of dialogue. Marta, one of the characters, says to Bobby, around whom much of the action revolves: "You wanna know why I came to New York? I came because New York is the center of the world, and that's where I want to be."

That's a line that might have been spoken by Clay Felker. And, as it happened, the endlessly ambitious, endlessly inquisitive Clay Felker—who very much wanted to be there—would go on not just to inhabit the center of the world, but to help define it as well.