Thursday, July 10, 2008

704. Rest in peace, Clay S. Felker

The cover story in this week's New York is about the magazine's recently deceased founding editor, Clay S. Felker. New York magazine, oddly, was one of the longer-lasting and more stable presences in my childhood. We were a middle-class Queens family with no nightlife whatsoever; a typical Saturday evening consisted of sitting in front of the TV from the beginning of "All in the Family " straight through to "The Carol Burnett Show," capped off daringly by a dish of chocolate ice cream. Wild times involved window shopping at Alexander's on Main St. New York's world of "radical chic," and the best place to buy sushi or get a $600 haircut, or even a cheap, chic haircut, held only anthropological relevance to my mother and I—but the world in its pages was still our New York, even if we were mostly observers. The New Yorker, we silently agreed, was wordy and snooty; might as well just read a book. New York, on the other hand, although annoying and a little trashy in a high-class, aspirational sort of way, felt like the city I met on the subway. I snickered at the ludicrous self-involvement of everyone mentioned in its pages while also feeling simultaneously of, below, and above them, an odd mixture that kept me hooked.

We never actually bought the magazine. It came to us second-hand from my Uncle Ben and Aunt Estelle, my mother's brother and his wife, who used to hang out at Latin-inflected nightclubs and were now retired to a Forest Hills apartment filled with naked Delft cherubs and plastic-slipcovered, gold brocade sofas. But they were once the real thing. Ben, reserved and gravel-voiced, very unlike my other loud, garrulous uncles, made a lot of money as a whiskey importer (and, rumor had it, bootlegger), and personally knew the mayor of Dublin. On weekends my mother worked as his secretary and typed letters about labels and cartons, sandwiched between many sheets of carbon paper, on an old Underwood. Estelle had more wrinkles than any other person on Earth, wore too much lipstick, and regarded children as aliens from outer space—but I grudgingly decided I loved her when she had a piano shipped to me as a 6th birthday present. My mother was much like her eldest brother, quiet but harboring a daring side that mostly remained hidden, but not always. Maybe she read New York to be more like Ben.

The magazines accumulated on a aluminum tray table next to the refrigerator, to be read while eating dinner at the kitchen table. They held little interest for me until one day, at the age of 15, I noticed this headline staring up from the top of the pile:

The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening
by Tom Wolfe

Perhaps it was the bold (for its time) typography—in my first year at the High School of Music and Art, I was newly intoxicated by calligraphy and letterforms—or the funny photo of all those narcissists in T-shirts, or simply a concept I understood immediately, but had never labeled—but I remember the moment I saw that cover and a little spark lit in my brain, as if that instant nudged me closer to becoming a legitimate urban adult. I soon followed up with Andy Warhol, Philip K. Dick, and many others I didn't understand but had to explore just the same. I was still an un-cool teenager from Queens, but New York magazine opened a door. After Ben and Estelle died, my mother got her own subscription; after my mother died, I transferred it to my name, and remain a faithful reader. I still can't afford to eat at Per Se but, thanks to New York, feel like the voyeuristic but beloved cousin of those who do. Rest in peace, Clay S. Felker.


Regina said...

Wow, aa... I do so love the way you write.
I remember Saturday nights just like yours and mostly being blithely unawares of just how radical All in the Family was at the time... although I don't think we watched Carol Burnett because my mother didn't "like her"!
I am wracking my brain here to even remember what magazines we had in our house- and the only thing I can come up with is National Geographic! And then by the time something like that could have shaped my destiny in any way (although I always thought I would have made a great interpid explorer), I was reading the teenage girl magazines and... alas... this is where the story ends. ;)
Thanks for this wonderful peek into your childhood. I enjoyed it!

alto artist said...

Oh, thank you! And I, too, had no clue at the time that "All in the Family" was anything special--all I knew was that Archie Bunker (also from Queens) sounded like my neighbors and uncles, so he had to be a decent guy!


Sharon said...

I'm grateful for the way you write, too, aa. Such an evocative post, a bit removed from my childhood in the Bronx, but not by much.

And I hadn't heard about Clay's passing. I'll go read about it now, but I hope he rests in peace.

alto artist said...

Thank you, Sharon--and please continue to stop by.