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Mess with Texas Monthly
There are four things one must
do upon moving to Texas: learn to love chicken-fried steak, buy a pair of cowboy
boots and a matching cowboy hat, and subscribe to Texas Monthly magazine.
Texas Monthly, which Columbia
Journalism Review recently cited as one of the U.S.s best magazines,
was founded by Michael R. Levy W68. Levy sold the magazine two years ago
to an Indiana company for a reported $37 million, but he remains the publisher.
|Lone Star Standout:
Michael Levy '68
won top award for magazine he created.
influence of Levys life workhe founded the magazine 27 years agogoes
far beyond the states 267,000 square miles. Texas Monthly has won
more National Magazine Awards (eight) than any magazine save Atlantic, Esquire,
Harpers, Life and The New Yorker, each of which has been around
a lot longer.
January, Levy received the American magazine industrys highest honor.
At a black-tie dinner at New Yorks Waldorf-Astoria, the Magazine Publishers
of America presented him with its lifetime-achievement award. The Henry Johnson
Fisher Award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary
leadership, skill and understanding in helping the industry thrive or, through
their editorial policies, addressed social, political, economic or lifestyle
joins a pantheon of the magazine-worlds elite that include previous winners
Henry R. Luce of Time Inc., Arnold Gingrich of Esquire, Malcolm Forbes
of Forbes, Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan and fellow Wharton
alumnus the Honorable Walter H. Annenberg W31 Hon66, former chairman
of Triangle Publications.
bad for someone who was fired from WXPN in his freshman year for reading the
news on the air, something he was under strict orders not to do.
Sunday morning, the guy who was supposed to do the news didnt show up,
Levy recalls. I said, ëIll do it.
had not been approved for on-air broadcasting. When station officials found
out, they lit into him.
Mitchell [CW67, now chief foreign-affairs correspondent for NBC News and
a Penn trustee] went nuts, he says. She basically fired me. She
kicked me out of the station. It was a violation of station rules. But I did
a fine job. I ripped and read. I wasnt supposed to do it, but we would
have had dead air.
wasnt exactly an earth-shattering experience, he says of his firing.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, ëWell, they dont want me here.
a resume that lacked meaningful journalism credentialsaside from his brief
WXPN experience, Levy had created a high-school literary magazine at St. Marks,
the elite all-boys private school in Dallas, where he grew upLevy was
hired as a student stringer for the Philadelphia bureau of United Press International.
When he wasnt in his Wharton classes, he covered city crimes and 1960s
protest-demonstrations for the bureau.
high-school literary magazine, however, was a better indication of what his
future held. He created something from scratch, something that had no peer,
and found talented young writers to fill his pages.
One such writer was schoolmate
Tommy Lee Jones, who went on to fame as a movie actor.)
graduating from Wharton, Levy realized that he had developed an addiction
to media, so he took a job selling advertising for Philadelphia magazine.
He could have remained at the magazine, but instead he borrowed the idea of
a regional magazine and returned to the Lone Star State to create one.
though, he decided to complete his formal education by enrolling at the University
of Texas School of Law because he believed that a law degree was excellent training
for a young entrepreneur. I was starting a business, and law teaches you
how to manage relationships, he says. He graduated in 1972, passed the
Texas bar and immediately set out to find funding for his magazine.
were successful city magazines, but a state magazine was a harder sell, especially
in a state as large as Texas. To me, Texas was one large city, and the
neighborhoods were Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, he says. All
too often, that pitch fell on deaf ears. It was obvious that it was like
Mickey Rooney and Judy
Garland saying, ëHey kids, lets start a magazine! he says.
We didnt know what we were doing.
finally secured startup capital from his mother, Florence, and his father, Harry,
a plumber. My mom and dad were big savers, but it was a huge amount of
money for them, the son recalls.
was our security, Florence Levy says. But we felt he was so determined
that he had to succeed.
he needed to find an editor-in-chief. Once again, the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland
factor played itself out. Nobody would take me seriously, he says.
visited a respected former art critic from the Houston Post whose hiring
would have brought the publication instant respectability. Levy gave her a two-hour
pitch, and the woman said she would think about it. He left her apartment, walked
outside into a torrential downpour and, in the confusion, stepped right into
a swimming pool. In his three-piece suit and carrying a heavy briefcase with
presentation materials, Levy sank to the bottom of the 10-foot-deep pool. He
climbed out, returned to the womans apartment and asked if he could come
inside to dry. For some strange reason, he says, she pulled
herself out of contention.
first issue of Texas Monthly hit the streetsand ranches, pastures
and prairiesof Texas in February 1973 with a cover story on Dallas Cowboys
quarterback Dandy Don Meredith. Circulation was 20,000. There were eight pages
of advertising in the first issue, half that in the second. The Austin offices
were dingy. There was one electric typewriter which everyone shared. The staff
was young and raw.
were scared, Levy said. I tell people that those who remember the
good old days have bad memories. Every day we were close to closing. We were
a shoestring operation for the first year. But we worked hard. From day one,
I surrounded myself with people far brighter, more capable and nicer than me.
his idea worked. Partly, Texas Monthly was a success because there was
nothing else to compare it to. Partly, the magazine worked because it had humor,
attitude, great writing and a state rich with stories worth telling.
Levy ran her own marketing efforts back home in Dallas. She checked newsstands
and supermarkets, constantly complaining about the magazines placement
on the display racks. She had an investment and a sons dreamto
protect. Shed call her son with periodic updates to tell him how many
copies the local supermarket had sold. Often, she rearranged the magazines on
the shelves. The distributor called Mike and pleaded with him to get his mother
to leave the displays alone. No apologies, though, from Florence Levy: All
mothers want to see their children succeed, she says.
that first years debut issues won the magazines first National Magazine
Award. It was like winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the
the years since then, Texas Monthly has never ceased to surprise. Issue
covers are art-pieces unto themselves, ensuring the magazine a place on the
coffee tables of 300,000 buyers (todays circulation). Talked-about stories
on sports, literature, lifestyle, arts and politics have made the magazine something
of a cultural icon.
often reflected an image that we maybe didnt like or werent particularly
comfortable with, but that helped make it a groundbreaking publication,
says Mike Blackman, former editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In
the end, it elevated the level of Texas letters.
youthful 53, Levy shows no sign of wearing down. He feels good about the future
of magazines, too.
think people ultimately care most about whats going on in their own backyards,
he says. City magazines will always have a niche. The question is quality.
They have to be competitive for peoples time.
makes Texas Monthly competitive is the passion of its founder, described
by one magazine staffer as the kind of leader who likes to jump up and
down inside the elevator to test its worthiness and instill fear in the other
occupants riding with him.
on-the-edge enthusiasm has lasted half his lifetimelong enough for Mike
Levy to be honored as one of the great magazine creators of all time.
Dave Lieber C79
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