Barney! Biz! Bluebonnets!

And other signs that Texas Monthly's brain trust doesn't have a neuron left

About a week after Levy sent out his campaign letter, a letter to the editor appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the city's daily newspaper, informing readers that Levy's opinion "in no way reflected the opinions of the staff or management of Texas Monthly." The author of the letter was Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski.

"In fact," Patoski's letter continued, "some of us wish he'd quit and invest some of that $22 million he made from the sale of the magazine on land that he could donate to the city as a park, thereby memorializing him after he passes as something more than a mean-spirited rich boy who spends tens of thousands of dollars on letters opposing issues he doesn't agree with."

In May, Levy had sent voters a similar letter on Texas Monthly letterhead that opposed a different environment-related bond issue. Patoski and other staffers complained, and Levy's new bosses in Indianapolis suggested Levy not do that again. So in November, Levy refrained from using company letterhead. That did not pacify Patoski, who understood that the names Mike Levy and Texas Monthly are inextricably linked in Austin.

Eight days after Patoski's letter was published, the soap opera took a strange twist when a second letter from him appeared in the Statesman. In it, Patoski apologized for his first letter while transforming Levy from scoundrel to saint. "Austin readers should know Mike Levy is not 'a mean-spirited rich boy,' as I wrote," the second letter said. "... Levy is a tireless civic activist whose concerns for Austin's future and community involvement have made a tremendous difference in the city."

Well, Austinites got a good laugh from that one. John Kelso, the Statesman's humor columnist, wrote: "Apparently, Patoski has seen the light. My guess is that it's the bare bulb the Texas Monthly brass was shining in Patoski's eyes in the back room."

Patoski contends the second letter came about after he realized how severely his first letter had hurt Levy's feelings. He went to Levy and asked him how he could make amends. Levy recommended the follow-up letter to the newspaper and also a third letter directed specifically to Texas Monthly staffers.

Patoski, a self-described aging hipster whose politics lean left, says he regrets he resorted to name-calling in his first letter. But he does not regret challenging Levy. "Mike and I do not agree on environmental issues in Austin," he says. "I don't think we ever will. And if he raises the environment as a whipping boy again, I'll come back in and voice my opinion again."

Neither does he regret apologizing in print, even though he can't keep a straight face when asked if the words in the second letter were entirely his own.

"I'll say this," Patoski says with a grin. "I showed Mike the letter before I delivered it to the Statesman, and he made some suggestions and pointed some things out, which I responded to. Frankly, at that point, I just wanted it over with."

Levy saw no humor in any of it and was livid over the public humiliation he endured from the first letter. It became hot gossip at the following week's Texas Book Festival, a highbrow annual gathering of writers, booksellers and publishers in Austin that the magazine co-sponsored. The second letter was published during the festival.

Patoski takes his place in a long queue of people in Austin who've clashed publicly with Levy. It includes several members of the City Council and various city boards and commissions, heads of city departments, environmental activists, cable TV officials, a newspaper editor and, of course, Texas Monthly critics.

Those who've taken on Texas Monthly seem to prefer to surrender rather than fight. Several people contacted for this story who are critical of the magazine refused to be quoted because they didn't want to endure a backlash from Levy or editor Greg Curtis that they were certain would follow.

"Mike's a lunatic when he gets mad," says one person who has incurred Levy's wrath. And that unflattering description comes from someone who is fond of him.

A lot of people call Levy a lot of things.
"The basic take on me is the three A's: arrogant, abrasive and abrupt," Levy says, leaving out an obvious fourth. "And you know what? The people who call me those things are probably right."

Levy, frumpy and a tad clownish, isn't above poking fun at his own manic ways. He also can laugh it off when others gently rib him. But when the ribbing turns to criticism that hits close to home about things for which he cares deeply -- specifically, his magazine, his politics and himself -- Levy responds as if mortally wounded. His first reaction is denial, followed by anger.

"It's just magnificent to watch," Skip Hollandsworth says of Levy's legendary temper. "It's like being in Costa Rica and watching a volcano go off. There is something just rapturous about being in a tropical paradise watching this thing explode. But it doesn't last very long, and the lava eventually runs back inside the mountain."

Sometimes, though, the lava bubbles inside him as a grudge. Robert Draper, one of the two Texas Monthly writers who left during the same month in 1997, is persona non grata in Levy's world. Draper's comments in a January 1998 Dallas Morning News article about longtime editor Greg Curtis, written to coincide with the magazine's 25th anniversary, made Levy blow his cork.

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