July, 2008

 By Katharine Blossom Lowrie

Grief that transcends politics

felker-life-2.jpgTwo partings in July: Tony Snow (above) and Clay Felker (left).  Of different generations, the two had little in common, other than journalism and cancer. Tony Snow, former press secretary to George W. Bush, died of colon cancer on July 12. He was 53.

Felker, the visionary editor whose New York magazine spawned New Journalism in the 1960s, died in his sleep on July 1, according to his wife, author Gail Sheehy.  He was 82 and had suffered from throat cancer for some time.

With the death of Tim Russert in June, one mourns the loss of this distinguished cluster of journalists, a grief that transcends politics. For those of us who go about our daily lives attached to a morphine drip of news – whether TV, newspapers, Internet or radio – such passings affect us deeply. Even with Felker, whose New Journalism heyday had long since been eclipsed by the New Media, his impact on reporting and writing hoists him into the legendary category.

An incestuous family, loners who thrive best in packs of our peers

For journalists the pain of these losses cannot be minimized. We are an odd bunch, something of an incestuous family of loners who thrive best in packs of our peers. Our kinship springs from all sorts of common experiences, everything from the hell of writer’s block to the sublime satisfaction of writing/reporting a good story. Losing one of us, especially one of the greats, is like losing kin. God knows when I will ever be able to tune into Meet The Press without a lump in my throat.

Back to the subjects at hand, Clay Felker and Tony Snow.

1955 to 2008

snow-2.jpgFirst Snow, who accomplished the unthinkable: got me to watch White House Press Briefings on CNN and MSNBC after he replaced Scott McClellan as George Bush’s press secretary in April 2006. Not that Snow changed my mind all that much re the content of the briefings. It was still the world according to Bush/Cheney. But as press secretary his quick wit, sharp intellect and ballsy manner made for some terrific debates. True, he rolled his eyes a lot, but he never came off as mean or condescending. One sensed genuine character in the man, a trait glimpsed off and on (or so I’m told) during his long stint at Fox News, during which he occasionally lambasted Bush. (Photo: Fox News)

Vowed never to write a book

And he was oh so photogenic, a real showman, with elegant gestures, a long, handsome, consistently smiling face and thick gray hair, which chemo ultimately thinned but never quite eliminated. Only a couple of times did White House reporters like NBC’s indomitable David Gregory drive Snow to rant and raise his voice. For the most part, the engaging press secretary bantered with humor and the kind of fast-draw responses most of us think of three hours after the fact. After the bland briefings given by McClellan (whose after-the-fact rise from the mediocrity of forced retirement to boss-bashing author surprised everyone), Snow was always brash, scrappy, a first-class act. He also vowed never to write a book. How we would have loved it if he had.

“It’s like Mick Jagger at a rock concert,” Karl Rove, the president’s former political strategist, once said of Snow’s appeal. George Bush – not your most eloquent speaker – must have been elated to have Snow implanted as his press mouthpiece.

“The most exciting, intellectually aerobic job I’m ever going to have”

The high regard with which Snow was held by the White House Press Corp, as well as journalists across the country who have commented en masse since his demise, may have begun when he talked candidly about his colon cancer the first day on the job, a yellow Lance Armstrong bracelet proudly displayed on his wrist. It made it all the more tragic when he announced a recurrence in 2007, and then his decision to leave government just 17 months into what he called “the most exciting, intellectually aerobic job I’m ever going to have.” And when he departed the White House for the last time in September, staff, press and legislators alike packed the sidewalks and parking lot to say goodbye.

He never shied away from talking about his illness, how his mother had died of the same disease when he was only 17, how he felt “stalked” by colon cancer. Snow, so unlike the secretive bunch hovering protectively around Bush, even allowed NBC’s David Gregory to interview him during a chemotherapy session, his voice breaking when he talked about his children, how he planned to be around to bounce his grandchildren on his knee. Snow’s closeness to his family – his wife, Jill, and their three children, Kendall, Robbie and Kristi – impacted everyone who knew him.

“We learned a lot from him”

Current press secretary Dana Perino said Snow inspired her to always take her husband’s telephone calls, no matter how busy she was at work. “We learned a lot from him – most importantly how we should love our families and treat one another,” she told the New York Times. “The White House has lost a great friend.”

Born in Berea, KY, on June 1, 1955, Robert Anthony Snow grew up in Cincinnati. After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1977, he worked in print journalism, eventually becoming the editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He left newspapers in 1991 to work as a speechwriter for the first President Bush, then became a syndicated columnist for The Detroit News and USA Today. Before becoming the chief spokesman for President George W. Bush, Snow was a commentator for Fox News and host of the network’s Sunday public affairs program “Fox News Sunday.”

1925 to 2008

felker-2.jpgClay Felker, an entirely different kettle of fish (who would have despised the use of any fishy cliché), represented a time and movement that revolutionized reporting. Although I, like countless writers, was first introduced to New Journalism (defined as non-fiction reporting written with the language and structure of literature) in Truman Capote’s landmark book In Cold Blood (1966), Clay Felker had already embraced the genre as an editor for the New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine, which he converted to New York magazine in 1968. It was (and some say still is) a sleek, sophisticated, unapologetically elitist publication that celebrates Manhattan and all but ignores the other four boroughs.(Photo by Paul Hosefros/The New York Times.)


“You pick writers you believe in”

Felker’s philosophy, he told the Washington Post in 1993, was to “have faith in the writer’s point of view. You pick writers you believe in and give them their freedom. As opposed to most editors who want to mold the writers into what they want, make them a tool of the editors.”

I had left New York by the time New York magazine came into its own in 1970, childish hopes to write for Broadway buried in changing diapers and West Coast sorties into trying my hand at novels and newspapers. By the time the latter took hold, I had crammed unmercifully on New Journalism stars: Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson, Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Joe Eszterhas, Terry Southern and too many others to mention. Most wrote for New York.

Creative non-fiction

Tom Wolfe’s 1965 debut book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, is a collection of magazine articles displaying the “creative non-fiction” techniques he used to explore customized cars, the Twist, bouffant hairdos, stock-car racing, rock concerts and Las Vegas casinos – all the fads of the ’60s. His editor was Clay Felker. Here’s an except.

“He had been rolling up and down the incredible electric-sign gauntlet of Las Vegas Strip, U.S. Route 91, where the neon and the par lamps-bubbling, spiraling, rocketing, and exploding in sunbursts ten stories high out in the middle of the desert-celebrate one-story casinos. He had been gambling and drinking and eating now and again at the buffet tables the casinos keep heaped with food day and night, but mostly hopping himself up with good old amphetamine, cooling himself down with meprobamate, then hooking down more alcohol, until now, after sixty hours, he was slipping into the symptoms of toxic schizophrenia.”

“Fiction masquerading as reportage”

And that’s how New Journalists wrote when they started writing that stuff, first in the Herald Tribune, then in Felker’s New York, and finally in Rolling Stone and many other publications. To those of us who devoured such prose, it was, in those days, the equivalent of Free Love – loose behavior that had once seemed scandalous we could read and indulge in conscience free. Not everyone cheered. Critics considered the form “fiction masquerading as reportage,” journalist Deirdre Carmody wrote in a New York Times obit in July. Others found NY magazine “excessively slick and too often frivolous.”

Felker, a huge proponent of women’s rights, also helped Gloria Steinem launch Ms. Magazine. He acquired The Village Voice and started what he hoped would be another New York magazine in California, New West. It lasted only a few years.

clay-felker.jpgGail Sheehy, Felker’s third wife and author of Passages, first wrote for Felker as an unknown freelancer in the 1960s. They married 1984, long after his tenure at New York had crash-landed in a hostile takeover by Rupert Murdoch in 1977. Although Felker held a number of prestigious positions, including editor and publisher of Esquire and consultant at 20th Century Fox (where he brought several stories he had edited to the screen, most notably “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Urban Cowboy” (1980)), things were never quite the same. Feeling utterly betrayed by Murdoch, he “seemed to have lost more than just his magazine,” Washington Post reporter Matt Schudel wrote in a final tribute to the editor. He would “spend the rest of his life trying to regain his magic touch, though seldom with the same success.”

Newspapers were in his blood

A descendant of German immigrants, Clay Schuette Felker was born Oct. 2, 1925, in St. Louis. Newspapers were in his blood; his father was managing editor of the Sporting News, and Felker is said to have launched his first newspaper, The Greeley Street News, when he was 8. After graduating from Duke University in 1942 (college interrupted by service in the Navy), he moved to New York and wrote about sports and politics for Life magazine. Thus, his lifelong infatuation with New York – primarily Manhattan – grabbed hold and never let go.

In a 1977 Time magazine article, friends and associates alike variously described Felker as “autocratic, devious, dishonest, rapacious, egotistic, power-mad, paranoid, a bully and a boor.” Almost in the same breath, the same people called him “a genius.” Tom Wolfe, agreeing with the latter, said his one-time editor was “the greatest idea man that ever existed.”

1 Comment

  1. Bonnie Daybell

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