At lunch with Joe Armstrong, the talk is about great editorial

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It was my first day at New York Magazine. A newly minted editorial assistant, two weeks out of college, eager and anxious, I had been given the assignment to fact-check a piece on the best ice cream in New York City.

I called Sedutto's -- the Big Apple's optimum scoop, according to the article -- and started querying someone about the butterfat content of its goods.

Before I could get very far, she switched me to Tony Sedutto, and before I could get very far with him, the company president insisted on sending me a case of his stuff. "No, please, no," I demurred; this being the age of Woodward and Bernstein, I feared my researcher's scruples would be compromised. But he persisted. I put him on hold.

"The owner of an ice cream company I'm fact-checking wants to send me a case," I shouted nervously. "What should I do?"

"What kind is it?" asked Laurie Jones, then the managing editor.

"Sedutto," I cried.

A jubilant voice came from the back of the office. "Tell him to send it on in!" Joe Armstrong, the publisher, yelled.

That was my inaugural encounter with Joe -- the first time I confronted both his joie de vivre and -- if I can be forgiven this long metaphorical stretch -- his love of content.

We were dining at Michael's when the memory came flooding back to me. I was goading Joe into telling his life story and he, ever the Texan, was obliging by turning the tough stuff into the tall tale with the happy ending.

He'd recently returned from a visit to his ailing Dad -- actually, his stepfather, for his "first Dad," an aerial recon photographer in World War II, was killed in action when Joe was an infant. But instead of worrying, all Joe could do was bless the time the illness was giving him with the only father he'd ever known.

Joe can lay as much claim as any one person to creating the modern magazine business. Immigrating to New York City at roughly the same time as Rolling Stone, he took command of the magazine's sales staff and began its march from the fringe to the center.

"You see over there?" he said, cocking his head five tables down, where Don Welsh, who recently sold Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine to Newsweek, was lunching. "I can't tell you how hard it was to sell Rolling Stone to Madison Avenue," Joe recalled. "Don was one of these four folks I brought on who dressed in suits and were able to make it seem legitimate."

Although he told other wonderful sales tales -- Joe actually managed to sell Al Neuharth several pages in a parody version of USA Today -- over and over, he kept returning to stories about stories.

There was the time a mobster threw a brick through his East Side window -- a warning over a New York Magazine piece (also fact-checked by yours truly) about an up-and-coming Mafia boss named Fungi Tieri.

There was the run-in with Rupert Murdoch over an investigative piece about Firestone tires Joe insisted on publishing. There was the time a plane he was on was hijacked by a member of the Jonestown cult (the subject of a piece in New West, which he also published) who didn't commit suicide in Guyana.

He went on about his relationship with Dorothy Kalins; when she was editing Metropolitan Home, she recruited Joe to help organize a remarkable -- and for the magazine industry, unprecedented -- AIDS show-house benefit. Later, of course, they teamed again to launch Saveur.

"Joe," I said, after a string of reminiscences about Nick Pileggi (writer), David Hirshey (editor) and other ink-stained types, "you talk more about the insides than any publisher I've ever known."

"It's the editorial that turns me on," he responded. "That's what I'm selling, Randy."

These days, Joe is turned on about Jerri Neilsen, the doctor stranded at the South Pole with breast cancer who had to treat herself.

Her memoir, "Ice Bound," is a much-anticipated title on the fall list for Talk Miramax Books. Joe is working with Tina Brown and Ron Galotti to market the line, plus their other properties. They could not have chosen a better counselor; once dubbed "Mr. Fixit" by Liz Smith, Joe has a Rolodex as big as his heart.

As we were finishing up, Don Welsh came by and pointed at Joe.

"This guy hired me for my first real job," Mr. Welsh said. "If it weren't for him, I'd still be selling newspaper classifieds."

"Shucks," said Joe. And he meant it.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com.

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