Clay Felker and the Golden Age of the Glossy Magazine

Anyone interested in the media ought to check out Tom Wolfe’s reminiscences of New York Magazine’s founding editior, Clay Felker. The magazine, Wolfe remembered, started as an attempt to juice up the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune, with just two writers, both of them part time. They just happened to be Jimmy Breslin and Wolfe himself. He also recounts the great feud with the New Yorker that exploded when the magazine published a profile of the reclusive New Yorker editor, William Shawn.

I was struck by Wolfe’s account of the events that gave rise to his influential essay, Radical Chic. It turns out Wolfe learned of the fundraising event that Leonard Bernstein was holding for the Black Panthers by snooping around David Halberstam’s office at Harpers. Wolfe found the invitation lying on Halberstam’s desk. After reading the invite, Wolfe called the RSVP line. “I called it, using David Halberstam’s telephone, and said, ‘This is Tom Wolfe, and I accept.’ ”

Wolfe claims that he identified himself to Bernstein during the party. “I kept my National Brand shorthand pad and ballpoint pen in plain view,” Wolfe writes. “I mention that because afterward I can’t tell you how many people accused me of perfidiously turning on my hosts.”

Radical Chic, is, no doubt, one of the great social essays of the second half of the 20th Century. But even so, to me, Wolfe pulled a sneaky move. This, in turn, raises another question: Is it possible to write a great essay about an event once the p.r. people get involved? I’ve been on both sides of this divide and have always found it agonizing. I can say this, however. I bet if Wolfe had had been a regular beat reporter and needed to go back and interview Bernstein in subsequent days and weeks, he never would have written the piece.

Even so, Wolfe was lucky that he had an editor with the imagination to turn Breslin and him loose. That time represented the apogee of the glossy magazine. The period belongs to history now.

On the subject of today’s glossies, I subscribe to GQ as well as a number of other publications. The current issue of GQ has a beautiful photo of the stunning Gisele Bundchen. The unusual thing is that every time I look at her photo, my stomach begins to ache, and not longingly. I get queasy.

Why should such a gorgeous woman cause me to feel nauseous? Her q & a provides a clue:

Q: “AFTER THE PATRIOTS LOST THE SUPER BOWL — AND THEIR CHANCE AT AN UNDEFEATED SEASON — YOU AND BRADY WENT ON A LENGTHY TOUR OF LATIN AMERICA AND EUROPE. WAS HE DISTRAUGHT ABOUT THE LOSS?

All I have to say about that is that I was really proud of him. Winning eighteen games in a season, I think it’s amazing. I mean, I’m talking for myself. I can’t talk for him, okay?”

I’m still not sure I understand this strange dynamic. Where’s my Celtics hat?

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One Response to “Clay Felker and the Golden Age of the Glossy Magazine”

  1. Andy Tarsy Says:

    Seth
    I think this is my favorite non food piece yet on gitell.com and it prompts me to go read the radical chic essay which I will. What a great story.
    It is also interesting that this post resulted in the creation of a full on category on gitell.com for giselle. I look forward to your further work in this particular subject category.

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