Urban Cowboy

Abilene’s Joe Armstrong has made it to the top of New York publishing, hobnobbing with the glitterati and wearing Justin boots every day.

ONE MORNING IN 1972, four years after leaving Texas for what he had told himself would be a short stint in New York, Joe Armstrong woke up in his tiny ground-floor Manhattan apartment and got dressed. He put on his three-piece suit, and then he put on a pair of black lizard Justin boots—and decided that he would wear cowboy boots every single day for the rest of his life. That day was also when he realized he was staying in New York for good. “I wanted the first thing I did every morning to remind me that I was a Texan,” Armstrong says. “When I let go of the notion that I was going back, that’s when I rededicated my vows to Texas.”

Even if you’ve never heard of Joe Armstrong, there’s a good chance he’s left his fingerprints on your coffee-table reading at some point over the past 28 years. One of the best-liked figures in the publishing business, the 55-year-old Texan has wooed the advertisers that supported some of the most influential print journalism of the past few decades. He got his first job in publishing, as the assistant publisher of Family Weekly (now USA Weekend, the Sunday supplement of USA Today and other newspapers), in 1971 after answering an ad in the Wall Street Journal. But things really took off a year and a half later, when Armstrong rescued a tiny underground magazine called Rolling Stone from obscurity and near bankruptcy. “You can imagine how hard it was convincing advertisers that there was actually an audience for this magazine,” says Armstrong, who, in the early seventies, faced the task of getting fifties-era advertising executives to see the marketability of writers like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe and photographers like Annie Leibovitz. “It was really the first magazine written for our generation by our generation. I knew it had huge potential. And during those years, circulation went up to something like seven hundred thousand readers.”

In 1977, with Rolling Stone safely on the road to becoming a phenomenon, Armstrong was hired by Rupert Murdoch to be the publisher and editor-in-chief of New York magazine and its California offshoot, New West. It was during this period that he met most of his friends, a circle of journalist types (many of them fellow Texans) like Liz Smith, Bill Moyers, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Barbara Walters that also included, during the last years of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “He has caught the fancy of very sophisticated people in New York,” says gossip columnist Smith, a Texan. “He’s very ambitious and accomplished and they love to take him out.”

We go to events together and laugh if they’re deadly,” says Walters, a frequent Armstrong companion who says she’s known him for so long she has no idea how they met. “Joe is the most loyal and considerate friend. And it doesn’t have to do with charm. Charm can sound a little fake, and Joe is totally natural.”

All of this, though impressive, might be a fairly standard big-city success story except that Armstrong’s professional achievements and New York social connections are almost incidental to his persona. Onassis befriended Armstrong after she heard about his famous affinity for a song called “Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life).” “At Rolling Stone, when morale was low at the office, I used to put that song on a loudspeaker and put the speaker out the window onto Park Avenue,” Armstrong says. “Jackie heard about this from a friend of mine, and she broke into laughter so hard that she cried and said, ‘Get me Joe Armstrong’s phone number.’ And a friendship of about five years began at that point. She wanted the record, and the only place I could find it was an antique-record dealer in Dallas. And Jackie memorized all the words to that song.”

He once hung a four- by six-foot Texas flag outside his office window on Madison Avenue. “The people who ran the building kept telling me they were getting complaints from people who thought it was a Viet Cong flag,” says Armstrong, whose office memorabilia is now confined to a ceramic Hereford bull, an oil painting of a Longhorn, and a significantly smaller Lone Star banner. “I said, ‘This is the Texas flag,’ and I kept flying it and they went and got a cease and desist order from the court.” During his tenure at New York magazine Armstrong would drive his red Jeep through the streets at night and blast country and western music. “I’d go out real late at night with the top off and drive over the bridges

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