We live in a consumer society, and its roots lie in World War II. The origins of our times get clouded over the years, as memories fade; it’s tempting to think of the war as an end instead of a beginning, as the last good ideological fight. So it’s good to have some reminding from time to time, which is what John Morton Blum’s V Was for Victory does splendidly. is subtitled Politics and American Culture During World War II, and its most striking sections are devoted to clearing up various myths about the war. Blum shows that a fight for democracy, while perhaps what Franklin Roosevelt had in mind, was not what sold the war to the American people; instead, it was a destroy-or-be-destroyed battle against specific, personified enemies, Hitler and the Japanese.

Because of that simple formulation of our goals, and because of the fear and misery soldiers and their families had to endure, nothing seemed more important than winning, getting it over with, and returning to an America not substantively different from the one the soldiers left. Consequently, the war ended in a sort of weary moral vacuum: the cause having been Hitler, and Hitler having been defeated, neither an enduring particular cause nor any stomach for causes generally lived on into the postwar years.

Soldiers’ explanations of what it was all about had a curiously empty quality, as if the pain and single-mindedness of the struggle had done away with all else. In a government-produced radio drama, the best way an enlistee could explain the war to his sweetheart was to say it was “about love and gettin’ hitched, and havin’ a home and some kids, and breathin’ fresh air out in the suburbs…” What sporadic attempts there were to keep mass idealism alive in the late 40s—the American Veterans Committee, the United World Federalists—got nowhere.

That was the mood: people were disposed to fight no further battles, except perhaps on their own behalf. In itself, that would not have been enough to shape America today; but it was accompanied by the advent of a new, affluent, meritocratic class structure that let veterans carry out their postwar mood to its logical conclusion.

The Most Reliable Means

The chief agent of the class shake-up was the G.I. Bill of Rights, which was designed to guarantee a life of relative prosperity to the average foot-soldier—a novel concept in itself. This was accomplished mainly through the most reliable means of upward mobility, education. Given the chance for years of schooling at the government’s expense, a great many of the working-class boys who went off to Italy or the Pacific returned to a whole new world—college, often professional school, and, as the fifties wore on, on to genuine financial comfort. The number of college graduates in America was 13 million higher in 1950 than it had been in 1940, and by 1960 it was 12 million higher again. While the percentage of the population that had graduated from college actually dropped during the 30s, between 1940 and 1970 it nearly tripled. If the veterans had no desire to change the basic order of America, they did want a bigger slice of the pie for themselves, and they studied earnestly to get it.

Of course college in itself could not have guaranteed mass financial prosperity. An economic boom was needed, and the war provided that too. As Blum shows, between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day, the gross national product nearly doubled. Personal liquid assets nearly tripled. In Washington, D.C., an especially prosperous wartime city, average family income went up from $2,227 to $5,316. For the first time in more than a decade, consumption rose to a decent, if not affluent, level. The good times continued after the war was over, and because of the G.I. Bill their largesse was dispensed in new, democratic patterns.

The war had created America’s first genuine moneyed, meritocratic class and had destroyed that class’ members’ political idealism. So what followed was a period of intense upward mobility tempered by no particular set of beliefs. Getting and spending became ends in themselves, and their volume and quality were sources of endless fascination. Millions of people eagerly took their first European vacation; millions were captivated by the play “My Fair Lady,” an upward-mobility fairy tale. The New Yorker grew thick with travel and clothing ads. As the sense of personal worth and identity got more tied up with buying things, the art of buying became ever more complicated and refined.

One of the early organizations to catch on to this was Time Inc., which a few years after the war put a lot of money into a national survey by the Politz organization, designed to predict the shape of postwar America. The survey’s conclusion was that the greatest impact of the war on American life would be the huge increase it caused in discretionary income—that is, money that Americans would have left over after paying for essentials. America was now going to have an affluent middle class, and Time took heed of it; a special planning team used the Politz results to lay the groundwork for Sports Illustrated, a magazine aimed at the new class and its money.

One member of that planning team was Clay Felker, then in his early days at Time. A lot of water is under the bridge since then, but Felker has always heeded the survey’s lessons well; if anything has shaped his life since then, it’s been the mood the war created. He has understood it all along, and figured out, better than anyone else, how to speak to the society it created. In the process he has brought a widely influential form of journalism into being and through that, in the manner of master politician, has by sensing and speaking to part of the public mood also crystallized and defined that mood.

Back in the early fifties, the affluence the war brought on was very good news to someone like Clay Felker, intelligent and sophisticated and just starting out in the magazine world. It meant that magazines could survive by aiming their editorial content exclusively at the well-to-do, since there were now enough of them to support quite a few magazines. Besides being fortuitous in that way, the postwar affluence came just in time: television was beginning its slow process of killing off mass-market magazine journalism. Advertisers had little reason to buy space in Colliers and reach perhaps ten million average Americans when they could buy time on TV and reach 50 million; but for products like Scotch or foreign travel, which were beyond the average American’s reach, TV was a waste of money. Magazines survived by offering the Scotch audience to advertisers more efficiently than anyone else could offer it. To be cynical, this is the major reason why there are a lot of magazines in America today: they are the best way for advertisers to reach affluent people exclusively.

A Badge of One’s Place

The war made it possible for magazines to move “upscale,” as it’s called in the trade, and TV made it necessary. They began to appeal more and more to specialized audiences—eaters (Gourmet) or travelers (Holiday), for instance—or barring that, to a more general group of readers interested in quality writing, sophistication, and high-level consumer goods. Keeping up with social and intellectual styles was becoming important to a rapidly growing part of the population, since knowing those styles was a badge of one’s place in the class structure. Magazines served that need—through their articles and through their ads, each of which skirted around one side of the delicate status question.

Felker, as the fifties ended, was bouncing around in this world. He left Esquire after the magazine’s editorship passed from Arnold Gingrich to Harold T. P. Hayes instead of to Felker himself, and became editor of the Sunday supplement of the old New York Herald Tribune. The Tribune, a victim of various demographic forces, quickly folded, and Felker and his supplement were absorbed into the new World Journal Tribune, which folded itself in 1967. Felker’s supplement was by that time quite popular; it featured heavy cultural coverage and long articles by people like Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, and Pete Hamill. He decided to launch it independently, under its old name, New York.

New York was aiming at the same kind (and size) of audience that read The New Yorker, and it was strongly pitched toward residents of New York City. Felker saw that while in the first half of this century there was a large common package of information that people all over America were interested in getting from magazines, now TV was so strong and the country so big and dispersed that readers wanted something more specialized. The existing big national magazines were putting a lot of money into special regional editions, and city magazines—often started by Chambers of Commerce as local status symbols, but now breaking away—were multiplying and starting to boom.

The demand for these magazines is easy to understand. Since the war daily newspapers had become less numerous and were leaving a lot uncovered. Also, mass upward mobility had created a group of people accustomed to moving economically and geographically and not familiar with the basic information (who’s in power, where to get a good meal) that in the past had come just from growing to maturity in a particular neighborhood. It was this gap in information that the city magazines were starting to fill. Felker jumped into the breach with New York—not all at once, because the magazine took time to develop and succeed, but within a few years he had become the maestro of the postwar, urban, moneyed middle class. He gave the new class what it wanted. It danced to his tune.

Providing a guide to the vagaries of status and money in New York was New York’s central driving force all along, but it became more explicit with the passing years. The magazine’s first issue hit the stands on April 1, 1968, not yet fully defined. It was vaguely left-wing—there were stories on Ho Chi Minh by Gloria Steinem and on rich commuters riding through Harlem by Jimmy Breslin. At the same time, there was a gossip column, lengthy entertainment listings, a fashion article called “The New Nude Look.” Over the first few months New York showed a fascination with New York and with the tides of fashion, but also with life in the ghetto, which led to a strangely schizophrenic editorial mood. There was a special issue for Martin Luther King’s death and a special issue called “Blueprint for Revolution” (with a huge fist on the cover)—but all this ran alongside stories on Nelson Rockefeller’s townhouse, on New York’s most expensive apartments, on how it was possible to go broke on $80,000 a year.

`Money, Blood, Intelligence, Drive’

With time, unsurprisingly, the ghetto-revolution side of the magazine faded, to be replaced by straight political coverage. The name writers wrote infrequently. Leafing through early back issues, what sticks in the mind is the magazine’s innovative and engaging graphics by Milton Glaser—cartoons, blown-up quotes, flashy headlines, even comic strips, anything to get you to read it—and articles like these: “Wall Street’s New Way to Make Money”; “The Power Game: The Only Game in Town”; “How The New York Times Covers the Beautiful People” (this with a cover shot of a naked girl wrapped in a Times); “Playing the Celebrity Lunch Game”; and most status-anxious of all, “How Not to Be Humiliated ‘ in Snob Restaurants.” Perhaps the archetypal piece was a gushy profile of Carter and Amanda Burden (tragic irony, in light of the events of this year), by Julie Baumgold, which said Carter Burden was blessed with “a kind of fabulous side order of style, piled on the money, blood, intelligence, decency, and drive.” This was not undying stuff—the magazine published very little that was undying, perhaps only Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic”—but it was the status news of the moment, presented in nakeder form than could be found in any comparable magazine. Circulation, which began at 100,000, was up to 232,000 by the end of two years, and above 300,000 after four.

In the meantime, New York was developing another side. In that first summer, 1968, New York’s managing editor, Jack Nessel, was looking for a new apartment. He found the process sufficiently difficult and interesting to merit an article—”The Great Apartment Grope,” by Nicholas Pileggi. “The result,” Felker wrote later, “was overwhelming. It hit the readers right where they lived. Suddenly it became apparent to all of us that writing about the day-to-day life of our readers was the way we could most usefully serve them.” New York started a Passionate Shopper column, an Urban Strategist column, and a Sales and Bargains column, which joined two existing restaurant columns and a miscellaneous-consumption column called Best Bets. In its third year, New York started to print pull-out handbooks—consumer guides on skiing, summer houses, private schools, gardening, all the things the new middle class now had the money to think about. It was telling its readers, in great and explicit detail, how to spend their money on consumer luxuries (some expensive, some cheap, all hip), and it was clear, given the rest of the magazine’s contents, that this information was related to the issues of class and status.

It was just as the consumer side of the magazine was reaching full flower that Richard Reeves joined New York as its chief political writer. In the fall of 1971 Reeves was working for The New York Times but was dissatisfied with daily journalism; Felker had made him several offers, but he had held off. Then one day he looked out his window and saw a huge crowd gathered around a sleepy neighborhood restaurant across the street called The Front Porch. People were lined up around the block to get in. Reeves couldn’t figure out what was going on, until he saw that week’s New York—The Front Porch had been recommended in The Underground Gourmet. “I wrote him a note,” Reeves says. “I said, ‘You’ve ruined my goddamn neighborhood.’ We had lunch.”

Reeves began to be part of the planning process of the magazine, which he describes like this: “Clay would do two things. What he’d personally do is, he loved to entertain, to socialize, to be out all the time. He doesn’t like being alone. He listens a lot. Then on Mondays, we’d all go to lunch and have an editorial conference. People would sit around—Clay would be writing on a yellow legal pad—and talk about what was going on. They’d fight and scream and laugh a lot. Out of that would come a group of ideas.

“The only people we worried about were the Times and the weeklies. We could figure out what they’d do, and then think, ‘How do we get out ahead?’ One time somebody came in and said men were going to be wearing high-heel shoes. Somebody had been in Rome and seen it. I thought it was insane, but I’ll be goddamned if six months later men weren’t wearing high heels.”

`What Do You Know?’

This was Felker’s quest—to find out what was absolutely new, and write about it. It was an instinctual, undefined process, but very important. Last March, when Reeves called Felker from Florida and told him Jimmy Carter was going to be President, Felker ripped up an issue to make room for the story. All the time, he’d call Reeves long-distance in the middle of the night, asking nervously, “What’s happening down there, what do you hear, what’s going on?” Felker’s celebrated East Side-Hamptons-screenings lifestyle was carried on, Reeves says, out of fear of missing anything: “The Hamptons? Shit, Clay Felker doesn’t know from beauty. Private screenings? It’s all for stories. He’s afraid he’ll miss another ‘Rocky.’ I went with him to the screening of `Rocky,’ and when it was over I said to him, ‘What did you think of the movie?’ ‘This guy’s really going places,’ he said.”

New York certainly didn’t miss much that was happening—over the years it caught on to hundreds of clothing trends, neighborhood trends, political trends, decorating trends, financial trends. Felker had a particular genius for this that enabled him, to choose one example, to figure out that Edward C. Banfield’s The Unheavenly City was a hot book; to buy the rights; to overcome the book’s academic dryness with jazzy graphics and an introduction about how it was all anybody at Harvard talked about; and not to worry about printing Banfield’s right-wing theories side by side with all the blueprints for revolution. (Similarly, it was in the nature of New York that it published more articles about feminism and more scantily clad models on the cover than any magazine of its kind.)

A lot of the trends were psychological things, hard to write about, in which case Felker and his writers just winged it. Articles would proclaim that psychiatrists were sleeping with female patients, that working-class lovers were In on the East Side, that adultery could save your marriage, and would then go on to make their staggeringly thin cases with three or four anonymous case histories—most likely, one imagined, of the writer and his friends. Nonetheless, this was what was happening, and so, in the Felker formulation, it had to be written about. “We had to make a decision,” he says, “between going to our readers and getting officially accepted.” Needless to say, they gave up on being officially accepted, and with good reason, they weren’t.

Which is not to say they weren’t imitated. Virtually all of the more than 70 city magazines in America became to some degree copies of New York. Column ideas, graphics, even specific stories (like the one listing people’s salaries) were stolen. The Washingtonian, for instance, ran on its cover in October 1967, before New York, a photograph of two storks to go with an ode to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In April 1975, after New York, The Washingtonian’s cover had a photograph of Sally Quinn’s cleavage, over which was superimposed this headline: “The New Society: Power and Media Are In; Money and Manners Are Out.”

Non-city magazines are copying Felker, too. So is TV. So are newspapers. The New York Times, which once panned a play by saying that only the kind of people who read New York would like it, has for financial reasons started two new sections, “Weekend” and “Living.” Both are almost meticulous copies of the Felker formula, written in part by former Felker writers. Times circulation zooms on the days they are published. Felker has invented a formula that appears to guarantee magazines and newspapers financial success, and thus to make possible a broadened forum for good writing and reporting (as well, as is often the case, as a broadened forum for junk).

Slightly Out of Reach

At the heart of the formula is money, and Felker’s central inspiration was figuring out that subscribers to general interest magazines (where the typical article of yore, he says, was “Whither France?”) want to read about it, not be shielded from it. Power, too: a good summary of New York’s content was this line, which appeared on the table of contents page as a description of the New York Intellige,ncer column: “This week’s compendium of things that the people in power are talking about.” 

Both are related, in a way, because both are slightly farther out of the reach of New York readers than the readers would like them to be. The median household income of New York readers is $19,791, which, for the 25-49 age group of which New York is the absolute king, is hardly enough to pay for the endless array of summer houses, brass beds, private schools, and wine cellars that parade through New York’s pages. On the other hand, nobody can afford everything that’s advertised in The New Yorker either; all Felker did was transfer the ad content of The New Yorker onto his own editorial pages. By having done that, New York may provide its readers with a useful service, but it also makes them feel corresponding pangs of insecurity at being confronted every week with pictures of apartments better-looking than their own and by nuances in chic they haven’t yet caught on to.

New York’s relationship with that insecurity is a curious blend of sympathy and exacerbation. It certainly understands that its readers are confused; that in their leisure time they don’t want to escape money, but to spend it; and that there’s never enough. These concerns are pervasive enough, in fact, to blot out the rest of the world completely; from reading New York magazine one gets the impression that the postwar meritocratic elite is so worried about its own strivings for status that it thinks about little else.

Before the war, the world of chic was remote enough to be the object only of fascination. One could listen to Walter Winchell describing the scene at the Stork Club without ever imagining that one could be part of that scene oneself. Once that became possible, one had to confront a whole new set of worries: what food to order once inside the Stork Club (or, in modern times, Elaine’s), what wine to drink, what to talk about. Chic became an object of neurosis, an all-consuming end in itself, measurable largely in terms of patterns of owning and spending. Thus can Felker say, in all seriousness, “When we wrote about going broke on $80,000 a year, people thought we were kidding. But that dramatized the dilemma of modern urban society. It’s a very serious problem: the modern middle-class parent has so many demands, he can’t make it on $80,000. The symbols of affluence suddenly became necessities. People talk about a revolution of rising expectations—well, that’s not just going on in the Third World. It’s here, too, and just as explosive.”

`The Best Out of Life’

Felker’s and, presumably, his readers’ belief that these are the real dilemmas a magazine should confront has garnered New York and its imitators plenty of criticism. Jimmy Breslin quit New York, calling it “boutique journalism.” Nora Ephron quit New York, and said city magazines “have taken food and home furnishings and plant care and surrounded them with just enough political and sociological reporting to give readers an excuse to buy them.” When The Washingtonian sent out a subscription appeal saying, “Admittedly, The Washingtonian isn’t for everyone…. This magazine is written for intelligent people… individuals who want and get the best out of life whether it’s a walk along the Canal or a Mercedes,” William Raspberry, a black columnist for The Washington Post, wrote an acerbic I-cancel-my-subscription column, causing The Washingtonian’s wounded editor to go off on a two-month leave of absence to lick his wounds.

It’s all true enough: Felker journalism has no great concern (any more, at least) for the problems of anyone but its readers. In that respect, it’s a reflection of the mood of the veterans coming back from World War II—the same lack of causes persists, shaped and fueled over the years by the money that the economy and the G.I. Bill brought. That money, existing as it did in an ideological vacuum, came to assume a disproportionate importance. It became a cause in itself and a measure of how successfully one had negotiated one’s period of upward mobility.

Thirty years later, the veterans and their children are living in the world that city magazines have captured, where there’s never enough money, where one is surrounded by a bewildering array of new, incomprehensible products and fashions, where apartments are always too shabby and salaries always too low. The only consolation—their precarious perch, at least, on the breaking wave of style—threatens to evaporate if next week’s New York doesn’t come or if a new trend is missed. They are the not particularly happy society the war created, a society that fought Hitler and came back weary and victorious, and that now—as the twig bends—is left with no sustaining guidepost as strong as consumption.

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Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.