Remembering Clay

Survivors: Every account I’ve read of Clay Felker’s passing has one date wrong. New York Magazine began as a Sunday supplement to the Herald Tribune in September, 1963, not 1964. I had an article in the first issue; it was called “This Way to the Abattoir” and it was about how hopeful young performers could get slaughtered by critics, press agents and the realities of the talent market on their way to a career. I could write it again.
James Bellows was the great mind at the Trib in those days, presiding over its glorious final years as the haven of the country’s most imaginative journalism, and its downfall in a land no longer willing to accept that quality . He saw to it that the paper’s masthead of stellar writers – Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Walter Kerr on theater, Judith Crist on film and I – were set free to work on this new magazine project;, with Peter Palazzo as designer, Sheldon Zalaznick as editor.  The more familiar names – Milton Glaser’s designs and Clay’s editorial vision – came aboard within a year, but the reports so far have been particularly deficient in not recognizing Bellows, whom I have been privileged to know and work for on both coasts, as the creative force behind New York.
      Something about having worked for Clay Felker creates a binding force; partly it’s the sense of having shared a vision – or several visions, since we all know that the attempt to clone New York as New West was his one great career mistake. Partly it’s just a memory of great partying and great journalism under pressure: Steinem and Sheehy bringing in sandwiches during the Harlem riot reporting. When I get to New York I always summon a gathering of survivors: Debbie Harkins, copy-editrix extraordinaire; Ellen Stern, “Best Bets”;Jack Nessel, managing ed; Tom Bentkowski, art director, bought my house in Grand View-on-Hudson; Shelly Zalaznick; Florence Fletcher, who did the concert llistings; Fred Allen, assistant ed…where are we now? We always talked about Clay; we always will.
Ficchi: The figs are out already, almost a month earlier than usual. Maybe it’s because of it’s being a leap year, maybe it’s because of a new watering system I installed last winter, but there they are: big, luscious, Black Mission beauties, ready to succumb to the depredations of the scrub jays…or mine. To an adoptive Californian, or just a visitor, the fig is the most remarkable of fruits, the one most different from the packaged product back east. Its anatomical resemblance was made much of in the lurid imagination of Ken Russell, in the fig-eating scene of Women in Love but it was, after all, handed to him in the D.H. Lawrence novel. Beyond all that, the fig – fresh-picked, just off the tree, plucked in warm California sunshine – tastes like nothing else on earth. Owning a fig tree bestows a deep sense of pride. I knew owners in New York, where fig trees do not easily surive, who buried their trees up to six feet every winter, just for the ego trip of handing off fresh-picked figs for a few days every summer. They’re all Italians, by the way; that figures. (oops!)
Yecch: Tony Palmer is in town, and I have a date to talk to him on Monday. I liked his nine-hour film on Wagner, especially when he got it down to five. Hail, Bop! is a dazzling John Adams documentary, and he’s here to promote his American pop documentary called All You Need Is Love, 17 hours’worth. But I’ve also been sent a DVD of his Puccini, which he directed from a script by Charles Wood, and I’m not sure I can face him. The film isn’t merely an utter falsehood on a misinterpreted episode in the composer’s life, it is so utterly false as to distort both the episode in the life and the music that came out of it. It revolves around the non-affair between Puccini and a slavey in their household, whom Mrs. Puccini drives to suicide over accusations of hanky-panky with the Mister. (Apparently she was the only gal in all Italy who didn’t.) All of this then boils down to the suicide of Liù in Turandot  which, folks, is why Puccini couldn’t complete the opera, which  he then set aside in guilt-ridden grief two years before his death.. 
    Setting aside the historical flimflam, with Mrs. Puccini standing in for Turandot, the town gossips for Ping, Pang & Pong, and the actor Robert Stephens in a Puccini impersonation that I wouldn’t entrust to compose Yes We Have No Bananas, this is a movie that insults every aspect of the musical existence that I hold dear.  Oh yes, there’s a pretty good high-powered rendition of “In questa reggia” by Linda Esther Gray, and the role of the Councilman Ping is sung, according to the back cover, by “Alan Okie.” Alan Opie should sue.

2 Comments

  1. Posted June 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alan…

    I am working on a book about Clay Felker.

    Would love to talk with you about your experiences with Clay and get any guidance you might provide to other key sources.

    John Brady
    Newburyport, MA 01950
    Tel. 978/463-2255

  2. Posted July 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Sure; any time. 310 475-5102