In memoriam: The paradoxical publicist Bill Armstrong

by | Culture

He devoted his career to promoting others, but he could have been the story himself


Bill Armstrong, the bon vivant publicist and advertising agent who succumbed to heart failure in October at the untimely age of 62, lived fully in every way.

Brilliant, well-read and an extraordinary networker, Armstrong told stories of his fascinating life in a matter-of-fact way that belied the incredible subjects. He hobnobbed with Cher, Halston, Madonna and Elton John and David Furnish as comfortably as he dished turkey and dressing at Union Gospel Mission’s Thanksgiving dinner. “You never knew what was around the next corner with Bill,” says longtime friend Jeffrey Cober. Armstrong became so close to client Eartha Kitt that he wrote her biography, working from stories she had written on a stack of index cards expressly for him. To confidantes, he revealed some of the household names she had bedded and the respected actor who raped her, rueing that the book was so scan-dalous it couldn’t be published until everyone in it had departed. He adored his flamboyant grandmother, gleefully recounting how she once startled a lover by secreting a violinist into the bedroom to serenade their tryst. Only when he described Sean Penn’s performance in Milk as eerily accurate did I learn that he had worked on Harvey Milk’s historic campaigns for public office in San Francisco.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, George William Armstrong carried the suffix “Jr.” but was actually somewhere around the 20th, says his brother, Tim Armstrong, who has traced the family name to 16th-century northern England. Their father ran Storz Broadcasting, a media empire credited with launching Top 40 radio. Storz gave Bill his entrée to advertising, when he began performing in radio ads at age 8 or 9, Tim says. The eldest of seven, Bill was educated by Jesuits at the prestigious Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha and earned a degree in theater from the University of San Francisco.

According to coverage in the Dallas Voice, Armstrong said he felt “condemned to hell” when a radio job landed him in Dallas in the late 1970s, but he found the community to be “one of the most progressive gay cities.” He worked for the Mutual Broadcasting Network from 1976 to 1984, as a regional vice president for marketing and promotion, where his projects included the Dick Clark National Music Survey, the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network and the Southwest Conference Football Network. He started his namesake publicity and advertising company in 1984, promoting entertainers, socialites, high-end retailers, hotels, restaurants and developers. His clients included the St. Germain and Stoneleigh hotels, the Walt Garrison Rodeo, the Cattle Baron’s Ball, Best Buddies Texas and DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS). But he was much more than a mouthpiece. Behind the scenes, he advised those clients on everything from strategy to decor. Take the landmark Statler Hilton Hotel & Residences renovation underway downtown. “He was instrumental not only in getting the group to back it and purchase it, but in the design and step-by-step process,” Cober says.

Bill was a paradox: a publicist who didn’t hold his tongue; a gay-rights advocate and a quietly devout Catholic; a keeper of confidences and a gossip. He was a raging liberal who held staunch Republicans among his closest friends; a progressive thinker yet a stickler for manners and tradition. He was also a diabetic who didn’t hesitate to indulge in steak and French fries, followed by crème brûlée. Most importantly, though, as sorrowful comrades noted repeatedly during and after his memorial service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Armstrong was a generous, true and loyal friend, sibling and uncle, a mentor who genuinely cared about and helped many people. “He taught me not to close doors, but to leave them open and to forgive quickly,” says friend Will Kolb. “I also learned, ‘Don’t just talk — try to entertain.’ And he taught me, ‘If you don’t like somebody, there’s nothing wrong with wishing and hoping the best for them.’”

“He was,” says his brother, Tim, “bigger than life.”

HOLLY HABER is a Dallas freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to FD. She is the philanthropy columnist for The Dallas Morning News and the former Dallas bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily.