First Interview: Joe Armstrong
Joe Armstrong grew up in Texas where he did a law degree before entering the media world on the east coast. He was a magazine publisher in the later part of the twentieth century. He worked on such titles as ROLLING STONE, NEW YORK and SAVEUR. Joe Hagan's recent biography of ROLLING STONE'S founder, Jann Wenner, STICKY FINGERS, names Armstrong as one of the transformational forces in ROLLING STONE'S business history. Armstrong and Wenner went separate ways after the magazine moved from San Francisco to New York. He now sits on the advisory board of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. He also contributes to a broad variety of philanthropic causes. His bio at the Ransom Center is here: Joe Armstrong
Meeting with Joe Armstrong
P. J. Clarke's, New York
Monday, March 21st, 2011
In the spring of 2010 Joe Armstrong mentioned to Nan Talese, my editor at Doubleday, that he was surprised and upset I hadn't interviewed him yet for READING JACKIE. He was one of only a handful who approached me first and asked to be included in the book. He also told Nan about some papers that had just become available relevant to Jackie at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas. She passed all this on to me. Though I did follow up on the manuscripts, I explained to Joe that it was a combination of diffidence and haste that prevented my interviewing him before the hardback of READING JACKIE came out in December 2010. We kept in touch and I said I would still like to talk to him, as there was the possibility that Doubleday would allow me to add some new material for the paperback edition.
We met at the bar of P. J. Clarke's. He'd just been to a dentist's appointment nearby.
He was older than a picture in the NEW YORK TIMES of 2008 accompanying an article on him. He gave me the impression of being young.
He dropped a lot of names. E.g. He had once gone to a dinner given by the New York mayor, Ed Koch. The dinner was in a horrible white brick building with low ceilings and the air conditioning gave out on a hot night. Jackie was also present. Armstrong's date was Barbara Walters. He said no one else was there but city officials. "They looked like homeless people." Koch made everyone introduce themselves at the table, including Jackie.
Joe and Jackie had first met via Claudia Porges Holland, Joe's one-time assistant when he was publisher of ROLLING STONE. Claudia was illustrating a children's book with Jackie. She told a story about a day at the office when Joe had opened the windows and played "Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life" via stereo speakers on to the street. He recalled that this was because of some small business reverse. He was trying to improve morale in the office. When told the story, Jackie thought it was hilarious. She arranged to meet and have lunch with Joe. This was the beginning of a five-year friendship toward the end of her life.
(I recalled Claudia telling me on the telephone that Jackie "was very curious about Joe Armstrong and wanted to know more about him.")
They first went to lunch at the Four Seasons. Joe was looking for a place where it would be quiet and they wouldn't be bothered. He'd taken along some index cards to hold in his lap in case the conversation fell into a lull, but he never looked at them. She was charming, curious and willing to talk about all subjects. She surprised him by telling him right away that hiring William Manchester to write DEATH OF A PRESIDENT was "a mistake." This had been a significant controversy so Joe was amazed she was willing to talk about it with him right away.
She told him she'd memorized all the lyrics to "Drop Kick Me Jesus" and had impressed a party on Martha's Vineyard by being able to recite the line, "I've got the will, Lord, if you've got the toe."
Over the years they went to different places for lunch. She liked to go to ordinary hamburger places, so they'd sometimes gone to P. J. Clarke's or to J. G. Melon's another hamburger place further north on Third Ave. Sometimes perfect strangers would come up to their table and say "Hi Jackie." Once someone came up to their table, said hello, and chatted with them briefly. When the person left, Jackie asked "Was that a woman or a man?" Joe said, "Well, he had an adam's apple. Women don't have them. I think it was a man." Jackie thought that was funny and said she didn't know that was one way to tell the difference.
Once he asked her to choose the place for lunch. She chose Top of the Sixes, a restaurant on top of the building where Doubleday then was, at 666 Fifth Avenue. She said she'd asked around and had been warned that they served "airport food." They went anyway, and that was an apt description of the menu.
They became friends and she invited him to stay with her on Martha's Vineyard. Maurice Tempelsman had to be away and they were on their own. Joe recalled that some perfect stranger came up to her on the street and said to her, "My father died the same day as your husband," meaning JFK. Joe was shocked, but Jackie said calmly "Give my love to your mother." Often people called out to her as they passed "Hi Jackie," but she would keep walking.
Around that same time, they went into a shop in Martha's Vineyard. She picked up a magazine and was distressed to find a long article on JFK, Jr. She said with dismay, "They're going to do the same thing to him that they did to me."
Joe helped Jackie raise money for the American Ballet Theatre. The company was low on funds and he recalled Jackie saying "What can we do to save the ABT?" They went around town and called on various people who they thought might be willing to contribute. Jackie had the idea that it would be wonderful if they could get Princess Diana to come to opening night at the ballet. This would have been in 1992 or 1993. Jackie got together with Joe and they wrote Diana a letter asking her to come. The reply from Diana was addressed to "Mrs. Kennedy-Onassis," and said that although she would have liked to come, she had a longstanding engagement that prevented her being in New York that night.
Jackie asked Joe to speak to JFK Jr when he wanted to leave the New York District Attorney's office. He wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do next. He had some offers to go down and work in Washington, but he didn't want to do what people expected him to do. He had begun talks with Joe about starting a magazine and as Joe had a lot of experience in this field, he was a good person to consult. Joe met and respected JFK Jr's business partner, Michael J. Berman. Jackie heard of all this and said to Joe "Make sure he pays you for your consulting," but Joe said he was doing it just to help out JFK Jr and because he was friends with her.
Joe was surprised to see Jann Wenner listed as "a friend" in READING JACKIE. He said Jackie ended by distrusting Wenner. She explained to Joe that when she first met Wenner "I was a sad widow." She thought having young people like Wenner to her annual Christmas party would interest her children. Toward the end, Joe believed Wenner had even tried to sabotage JFK Jr's efforts to raise capital for his magazine, GEORGE.
Joe encouraged Jackie to write her memoirs, but she told him she didn't want to look back. She was very forward-looking and thought going over the past would be a waste of her time.
In looking back, he was surprised that people were so intimidated by her. She was like an eighth-grade girl, free, lovely and charming. He'd mentioned this to Bill Moyers, a good friend whom he'd known since the days when Moyers ran the Peace Corps. Moyers had replied that it was Jackie's place in history, her having held the nation together for the four days after JFK died, that made people hold her in awe.
I had two beers. He had two rum and diet cokes. I cut it off at six pm. He would have liked to go on. We stood on the corner outside extending our goodbye. We shook hands two or three times. I asked him whether in the morning he didn't sometimes feel seized with regrets, as I did. He said "Don't look down!"