Word out today is that Mike Levy, the founder and publisher of Texas Monthly is stepping down. As a favor to a small magazine, I interviewed Levy a few years ago. It wasn't easy (but not nearly as bad as interviewing Richard Linklater! But that's another story...)). They offered me 15 minutes by phone. I said I wanted to do it in person and they promised 10 minutes only. When I got there he was pretty much of a jerk. He raced back to his office with me trying to keep up. Then he was curt, until I found my way into the story I was writing. His walls were covered with airplane stuff. He started to loosen up, some, and maybe gave me 15 minutes. This is what I wrote for the magazine, which promptly folded. I ended up giving it to another magazine, which printed it and promptly folded. Makes you realize how tough the magazine publishing game is. Here's the story I wrote about Levy:
Texas Monthly’s Mike Levy keeps his airplane motor running
BY JOE O’CONNELL
Mike Levy’s engine doesn’t run on idle. He jets down the aisles of Texas Monthly, the award-winning magazine he founded in 1973, leaving those begging his attention practically running to keep the pace.
When he rests—momentarily—in his office, it is clear that, if the Dallas native has a role model, it is the jet airplane. The walls are lined with photos of him gleefully boarding jets. The tables covered with airplane models.
“I move fast and crash and burn at the end of the day,” Levy says before grabbing a phone call and making plans for, you guessed it, an out-of-town flight. Moments later his attention is back, if only for a short while, and he explains the allure of the metallic birds of the sky.
“We’ve been flying for 100 years,” he says and his eyes widen in delight. “We’ve gone from flying a few yards to going 15,000 miles precisely. They should fall from the sky like a toolbox. That’s testimony to the ingenuity of man.”
The son of a plumber, Levy borrowed money from his parents to create his own toolbox in the sky: a statewide magazine that has beaten the horrible odds (most magazines fall off the radar, crash and burn quickly) to earn nine National Magazine Awards, putting it in a class with Life, The New Yorker, Esquire and Harper’s.
The flight path from the kid who used to venture to Love Field to watch the airplanes rise into the sky to Texas Monthly publisher has been an interesting one. In the interim, Levy drove a taxi, worked as a jailer at the Dallas County Jail and was a student stringer for United Press International in Philadelphia while studying business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he sold advertising for Philadelphia Magazine, and set his sights on creating his own magazine back in Texas.
“If I’d have known then what I know now,” he admits, “I would have never tried it.”
But try he did and does. And he’s not content to rest on his laurels. In fact, Levy is known around Austin for his volunteer efforts on the committee that oversees Emergency Medical Services—to the point of obsession, some who receive his legendary mass mailings on city issues might contend.
For answer to the “why” of this jet airplane of a man, one need only look to the people he considers mentors, starting with his father.
“He taught me by example that if you want anything, you have to work for it—hard.”
Also on his short list is rabbi and scholar Levi Olan, a Ukrainian immigrant who went on to lead Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest Jewish congregations in the nation. More important, Olan through his regular radio broadcasts, was outspoken on issues of race and the Vietnam War. Some even called him the “conscience of Dallas.”
“His core message was, ‘If you have the ability to make a difference, and you don’t, it’s wrong, even a sin,’ ” Levy says. “He taught me not to be reluctant to say something for fear of what other people would say.”
The last mentor is a teacher at the elite St. Mark’s School (Levy’s parents scrimped and saved to send their boy there), one in the “Dead Poets Society” vein who inspired Levy to dream. He also inspired to found and edit the prep school’s literary journal. Incidentally, the literary magazine’s next editor was a fellow by the name of Tommy Lee Jones who went on to do a little acting.
So how does a guy like Levy, who sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door when he was 12 and who went on to earn a law degree from the University of Texas, lead as his mentors did?
“A leader has a vision, values he can share with his colleagues and the ability to live by those values as an example,” Levy says. “You have to have a dedication and commitment to the enterprise. You have to be willing to recognize the important contributions and say ‘I’m grateful.’ And you have to have a sense of humanity.”
Don’t worry about Levy’s sense of humanity; his three daughters (two are in the writing biz and the third is a vice president in charge of music at Miramax) keep him humble. “My daughters keep an ongoing list of my character defects and flaws,” Levy says. “They have wisdom and I listen to them.”
His other “children” are issue after issue of Texas Monthly. His goal is to keep them consistently excellent. He is just as adamant about staying out of the editorial side of the publication and concentrating on the business behind the magazine.
“I never expect my staff to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” Levy says. “I expect them to be committed to each other and the enterprise.”
And perhaps another prerequisite is a jet engine burning in their bellies. A sense that the time to slow down is when the job is done, when the wrong is righted. Feel free to ask Air Levy as it zooms on toward another challenge. Be ready to move quickly.