Facebook > Email > More Pinterest Print Twitter Play

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.

By March 1999Comments

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 and just look up at the buildings and all the lights. But I didn’t come to New York to be a New Yorker. I came because of journalism. Either consciously or unconsciously, I was determined to be a Texan first.”

Last October Armstrong got a new job. As a senior vice president of Capital Publishing, the magazine group that puts out the personal-finance magazine Worth as well as the Library of Congress’ Civilization, Armstrong remains perfectly in sync with the interests and obsessions of his generation, a group whose enthusiasms over the decades have moved from Jim Morrison to designer gardening to high-level investment. “Personal finance is a huge concern to this generation,” Armstrong says. Last December Capital launched a new women’s-finance magazine called Equity, which will come out twice this year (in April and September) before going quarterly in the year 2000.

Armstrong has always been best at getting people to like him, connecting those people with other people who like him, and creating powerful business projects that essentially run on six degrees of Joe Armstrong. “Watching Joe work a cocktail party or a dinner party is a sight to behold,” says Armstrong’s new boss, Randall Jones, the CEO of Capital Publishing. “Joe has the same intelligence and the same ability to market, package, and create ideas that the best people in the New York publishing world have. The difference is he can twist your arm without you even knowing it and you actually like it. He’s just a wonderful person.”

Throughout his career, Armstrong has taken ailing publications such as Harper’s Bazaar and Travel and Leisure and developed lifesaving business strategies. He also worked with the chairman of Gannett Newspapers to launch and build USA Today. In his last job, as the publishing director and a senior partner of Meigher Communications, he assembled ad sales teams for Garden Design and the award-winning Saveur, two magazines whose survival hinged almost entirely on attracting the disposable-income set. Saveur also became the accidental source of good public relations for Armstrong back in his hometown of Abilene. “It had been kind of controversial among some of my parents’ friends that I’d published Rolling Stone,” he says. “So when I was at Saveur, a Sunday-school teacher my mother works with said to her, ‘We are so proud of Joe. We hear he’s become the publisher of Savior magazine.’ And I said, ‘Mother, did you correct her?’ And my mother said, ‘Joe, I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings.’”

Armstrong, who is single, is deeply attached to his family. His mother, Dorthadele, is the daughter of Joe Greathouse, a notoriously colorful Fort Worth attorney who served as a Texas legislator during the Great Depression and was one of the authors of the legislation that saved the homes of financially strapped Texans in the thirties. In 1942 Dorthadele married Emmett Gravitt, a World War II air-reconnaissance pilot whose mythic voyages ranged from flying with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to flying over Dorthadele’s house and dipping his wing to her. Joe was born in Fort Worth in 1943, and less than a year later, Gravitt was shot down and killed over Austria. In 1948 Dorthadele married Doyle Armstrong, a trucking entrepreneur who adopted Joe. The couple honeymooned in a nearby town for just one day before returning home, picking up five-year-old Joe, and taking him back with them.

Armstrong migrated with his parents and two younger sisters from Fort Worth to Dallas to San Angelo and, eventually, to Abilene, where as a teenager he spent summers working as a busboy at the Dixie Pig. “It’s a restaurant on the corner of Fourteenth and Butternut,” he says while munching on baby greens at the swank Four Seasons, his regular lunch spot these days. “It’s great. It’s all Texas food; they fry everything.” He spent a few years at St. Mark’s School in Dallas, returned to Abilene for high school, and then enrolled at Trinity University in San Antonio. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he went on to law school at the University of Texas, where he became famous for transforming the Texas Law Forum from a once-a-semester broadsheet into a multipage, multicolor magazine that came out twice a month.

“Joe did the best interview with me that anyone has done in my entire life,” says the venerable UT law professor Charles Alan Wright, who taught Armstrong constitutional law and now holds the Charles Alan Wright Chair in Federal Courts at the law school. Wright, who was considered unapproachable and somewhat terrifying by most students, still has three issues of Armstrong’s Texas Law Forum within arm’s reach of his office telephone. “He asked me questions like ‘Why do you rarely smile in class and rarely laugh?’” Wright says. “My answer was, ‘I disagree with the question. I never smile in class.’ I’ve been interviewed by a lot of people. And Joe wasn’t just throwing me softball questions. He was asking me things I actually had to think about.”

Joe Bill Watkins, a partner in the Austin office of Vinson and Elkins, met Armstrong in law school and is one of his oldest and closest friends. “You can imagine how he stood out among 1,500 law students who were taking themselves so damn seriously they should have been taken out and shot,” says Watkins. “It’s not so surprising that his career has taken him where it has. My perception of people up in the Big Apple is that they’re very suspicious and very hard. Joe is neither of those things.”

Since everything about Armstrong rapidly boils down to Texas, his role in New York is on some level as much about being a Texas ambassador as it is about being a publishing executive. When Ann Richards was chairing the 1992 Democratic convention in New York, Armstrong and Liz Smith took over the Russian Tea Room and threw a party in the governor’s honor. “I got the Texas flag hanging up there instead of the Russian flags, and I changed the signs and made it the ‘Texas Tea Room,’” he says. “We put yellow roses all over the restaurant. It was the hottest ticket in town. Everyone wanted to come. There was Katharine Graham [then the chairman of the board of the Washington Post Company] and Tina Brown [then the newly appointed editor of The New Yorker] and Harold Evans [then the publisher at Random House] and Peter Jennings, a lot of people who would never have known [Richards]. They were just eating out of her hand.” This anecdote is the one that appears to bring Armstrong—who has rounded up people like Robin Williams and Bette Midler to perform at multimillion-dollar benefits for children with AIDS—close to tears. “I just remember getting up to introduce her and saying something to the effect of ‘This is probably one of the greatest privileges of my life,’” he says. “‘Who would have ever thought that a former busboy at the Dixie Pig restaurant in Abilene, Texas, would be standing at a podium at the Russian Tea Room, now the Texas Tea Room, introducing the most popular governor in the history of the state of Texas?’”

Another story is recalled with a different sort of emotion. Armstrong and Smith used to celebrate Texas Independence Day by hosting chicken-fried-steak dinners for New Yorkers who didn’t know what chicken-fried steak was. “We would invite people and not tell them what we were serving,” he says. “One night I was sitting next to this witty writer from New York magazine and we asked her what chicken-fried steak tasted like to her and she said it tasted like a burnt nurse’s uniform. Well, we just dropped her like a hot potato. We would have nothing more to do with her. And I thought, ‘What kind of sick Yankee is she that she’s tasted a burnt nurse’s uniform?’”

For now, Armstrong is excited about his new job with Randall Jones, who comes from Georgia: “I’m finally working for a Southerner, so that’s progress.” Though he makes a point of distinguishing Texas from the South (“We’re Texan first, Southwestern second, and American third”), he does have a way of looking for the Texan in everyone. Leaving the Four Seasons one afternoon last fall, Armstrong stopped to chat with one of the restaurant’s owners and immediately noticed the man’s tie, which bore an abstract pattern of small, squiggly red shapes. “Well, that’s pretty neat,” Armstrong exclaimed. But after closer inspection, his face fell. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” he said. “I thought those were chile peppers.”

Meghan Daum lives in Manhattan and has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, and Self.

Related Content