It is, to steal a notion from the heyday of Clay S. Felker, a happening-a be-there be-in. Hundreds of people crowded in here, editors and publishers, business types and creatives. In every group, conversations are peppered with the same phrases: "He gave me my first job"; "He changed my life"; "He loved me and left me, but I forgave him"; "Can you believe how many of us came out of that one place?" And then, of course, the Biggest and the Best Line of all: "He said, `Look, I'll make you a star!"'
"He actually said that to me!" blurts writer Bernice Kanner, relishing the recollection. And he did! Bernice and Pete Hamill and Andrew Tobias. And Julie Baumgold, the great restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, Nora Ephron, Marie Brenner and Gloria Steinem herself.
Hey, there's writer Roy Blount Jr.! "Clay was daring, even for those times. I was writing a column about someone getting glued to someone in the dry cleaner. The New Yorker wouldn't print it. Mr. Shawn was bothered by that, and the idea of how she would go to the bathroom. Mr. Felker [then at Esquire] was not bothered."
Thanks Roy. Whoops, there's the Times' venerable A.M. Rosenthal: "I didn't so much meet him as steal from him. He gave me the idea of giving readers information to enjoy-service reporting. That's when we added enjoyment to The New York Times."
Adds Elizabeth Crow, now editor in chief at Mademoiselle (all those ladies; ah yes, there were always so many of them around Clay .*.*. given high ground by the maestro of New Journalism): "His life was lived right in front of all of us. He was the ultimate New York City striver and we were all mini-strivers .*.*. After working with him and Milton Glaser for a few years, you left with a virtual make-your-own magazine kit."
Sorry Elizabeth, but we must not miss a shot at Anthony Haden-Guest. "Clay had the attention span of a gnat. But he had something that only a few editors have. He could spot a good story even on topics that he was completely ignorant about. He knew the building blocks, the power and the conflicts."
Now it's time for dinner in the Grand Ballroom, sweeping along with Liz Tilberis, Graydon Carter, Frank and Carole Lalli, Lesley Stahl, Kimba Wood, Fred Drasner, Betty Friedan, and Pete and Fukiko Hamill.
"He wasn't a great word editor," says Mr. Hamill. "He was a great concept editor."
"At Esquire in the '60s, Clay one day proclaimed the next big phenomenon was going to be discotheques," adds screen writer David Neuman. "And it was."
Recalls Paul Hale, now at Veronis, Suhler & Associates: "Clay and I were threading our way through a particularly seedy part of SoHo when we were at Esquire. I was like most New Yorkers, just looking straight ahead, when he stopped and said, `Would you look at that!' pointing to the architectural work high up on the facade of a building. Like the best journalists, Clay is a sponge. He listens and observes and takes in information like no one else."
In the corner of one crowded room, Field & Stream Editor Terry McDonell is asking everyone for a cigarette. Kurt Vonnegut steps into the circle and the search is over. Terry introduces Vonnegut as "a moderately gifted writer," and Vonnegut replies, "In New York, that's all it takes. I'm a hack."
"No," Terry answers, "I'm a hack and you are a distinguished man of letters."
"Listen," says Vonnegut, "for the right amount of money, I'm a hack."
"Who said, `No man but a fool ever wrote except for money?'*" Terry wonders.
"Samuel Johnson," answers Vonnegut. Pausing, he says, "Blockhead. He said Blockhead."
And so the repartee swirls on. George Trescher Associates, Steve Brill and Time political correspondent Michael Kramer have done their fund-raising job well-there've got to be nearly a thousand people here, all paying tribute to Clay and tithing for what will one day be the Felker Magazine Center at the University of California, Berkeley (at 67, Felker is a lecturer at the Berkeley campus journalism school).
The tempo picks up as the time comes for final volleys.
Dan Brewster, CEO of AmEx Publishing, recalls a younger day when he was a driver for Mr. Felker in L.A. "He's electric. He's a conduit for ideas. There's an intensity to Clay and it stirs up everything." Publisher Mort Zuckerman fires off: "He dumped all over everything I did. He's a genius." Photographer Jill Krementz: "Clay didn't make it tough being the only female .... and today so many editors are worried about their bottom line and giving away awards. All Clay ever looked for was a good story and the rest fell in place."
But is anybody surprised that The Last Word on the night, the clay tablets, come from Felker himself? "It's a kind of tribal gathering in the magazine world," he says. "Magazine people like each other, and they don't have that many occasions to get together. Even if I wasn't the honoree, I'd still want to be here."
Written by Steve Yahn, with contributions from Jackie Anderson, Jennifer DeCoursey, Scott Donaton, Keith J. Kelly, James G. Kimball, Pat Sloan and Michael Wilke.