Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pondering the Clay Tablet

For about a week or so -- well, ok, maybe a little bit longer -- I've been carrying around the New York magazine tribute to Clay Felker, the legendary creator and editor of the magazine. I was at work when I learned that Felker died and I gasped though I knew he hadn't been well. The truth is, not many editors are household names, even across the provinces of American journalism, where the canonizing of a leader is the final and greatest possible achievement. Tina Brown, sure. (Sorry, folks, she came to mind first. If that offends, stop reading now.) Abe Rosenthal at the Times, naturally. David Remnick -- when The New Yorker publishes a clever cover that inflames political passions -- but not always otherwise. Remnick's long-ago precedessors at The New Yorker, Harold Ross and William Shawn. Oh, yes, both those titanic totems in their totality. Ben Bradlee, clearly. Graydon Carter, alas. Henry Luce, goose. You get the idea.

I should note that it isn't necessarily the writing in the central piece, Tom Wolfe's essay "A City Built of Clay," that got me thinking. But it's worth noting that it's very jazzy:

Clay handed me an article entitled “La Dolce Viva,” by Barbara Goldsmith, the very one who had lent him $6,500 to buy the name New York from Jock Whitney in the first place. With it was a photograph.

I was standing up when I started reading—and found I was unwilling to interrupt myself long enough to sit down. What I had in my hands was dynamite. Tout le monde knew about the famous Andy Warhol and his famous Factory full of helpers and hangers-on. But Barbara Goldsmith’s was the first story to capture the campy creepy K-Y vaseline-y queasiness of it … the Warhol style of life—a classic example, incidentally, of what Weber meant by a status group generating a style of life … (Not only that, for an even 40 years now St. Andy’s has remained the dominant style of the lives of the artists in New York.) I looked at the photograph. I had never seen anything like it. It was a portrait of one of Warhol’s “superstars,” as he called the unknown actresses in his high-camp movies. She went by one name, Viva, the same way real celebrities such as a Liz (Taylor), Jackie (O.), and Andy did. In the photograph, Viva was reclining nude upon a ratty version of a RĂ©camier sofa. This vision was not what one would call arousing. She looked like a hairless rabbit. You could see her entire rib cage beneath her skin except where a pair of tiny shrunken breasts were in the way. Seems she was a sometime model. She had rolled her eyes up under her skull, as if she were stoned, as being high on drugs was called at that time. Somehow the defining touch was an empty milk carton on the coffee table in the foreground. Not a syringe, not a stubbed-out reefer, not even an empty liquor bottle—but an empty milk carton. Somehow that milk carton was the perfect objective correlative, as the literary critics of the 1950s and 1960s used to say, of the
mental rubbish the picture captured. The photographer’s name was Diane Arbus.

Quite frankly, I very nearly pasted in a totally different graph in which Wolfe uses ellipses about 14 times. I mean, what I wouldn't write for a magazine...that celebrates...ellipses. I also nearly elected to write a series of posts, each dealing with a different aspect of New York's coverage: the as-told-to from Felker himself; the typically shoot-for-the-moon, settle-for-overreaching Kurt Andersen piece; the selection of cheeky covers, including those up above. (Speaking of Andersen, you can see Spy magazine in embryo, don't you think? Or maybe 7 Days? Yeah, no, maybe not 7 Days.)

Anyway, what's been burrowing itself like a Cole Porter-esque needle under my skin is more than that, all that, more than the swinging-on-the-clapper-of-a-belfry-bell style that is uniquely and most gloriously Wolfe's. Sure, it's a highly enviable style, even beyond his perpetual putzing around for puns and perceived and proclaimed perditions. (Wolfe always avoids alliteration.) It's even more Felker himself -- the image of the man as a purely self-made creation. Even though I know to open this can of worms in the blogosphere, on the Internet, where Warhol's 15-minutes-of-fame idea has basically come to pass, is basically ridiculous, it's this: In this pitch-black hole of history called America, 2008, will we ever really have mavericks like Clay Felker in our midst again? I'm not sure we will.

Something about New York's articles and their tone, with their fond and lavish remembrances, their high tide of warm feelings, their overdue forgiveness for odd personality quirks and stress-inducing idiosyncracies, left me terribly sad not only for Felker's death, but more broadly for the void his death signifies. It's a void, if you ask me, that has likely been under our noses for years.

How horrid for Felker, nearing the end of his life, no longer the shaker of social salt he once was, to watch the beginning of the cataclysmic end of media, of newspapers, of magazines, of holding the printed page in our hands the way we used to. Or at least that's what people are saying, and I think they're probably right. It's dying. Or so many of us fear.

There are excellent editors out there; there is one in particular who I greatly respect and who I think is maybe one of the few out there who, given the tools and resources of yesterday, could reinvent the magazine genre just as Felker did. But I fear it's all well past the sell date on that score. Newsroom cuts are everywhere. And in a world in which news is unyielding and analyses are on hyper-warp speed, the notion of a weekly, a monthly, God, even a daily, is apparently all but outmoded. Every day I read about ad sales falling the floor and editorial jobs that will never be replaced. Journalism, ladies and gentlemen, is dragging its heels on the Bataan Death March.

So I sit at home and read about Clay Felker, or I carry New York magazine in my bag for a week or more, re-reading about Clay Felker, and if nothing else I give him the tip of my hat for great timing, for exquisite timing. What I wouldn't give to have been born when the likes of him were around. Perhaps someday the same shall be said about me or about those I admire. Something in my gut, though, tells me that the end of the story won't have such an O. Henry twist, that it'll be more like a straightforward line you, the reader, sensed was coming and almost inevitable all along.

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