Tribute to a Titan [Louisville Magazine]

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This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
 

During many of the years that she edited this magazine, Betty Lou Amster wrote a monthly column signed “Bla.” But blah could not have been further from the truth about Betty Lou. She was a Tennessee Williams character. Though not a natural beauty, she nevertheless made a significant physical impact. She wore hats long after doing so was fashionable, not only on the street, but at her desk, frequently stopping while out of the office to buy another. She smoked cigarettes — sometimes cigarillos — through a long silver cigarette holder. Her big corner office was always dark; she preferred to keep the lights off except for one dim lamp, and presided over editorial meetings in that office at an antique steamboat captain’s table. Smoke swirled. So did the conversation. 

In the ’70s the now-defunct Old House restaurant was her luncheon habitat, where she dined and drank with the city’s businessmen. (By the late ’80s it had been replaced by the Galt House.) None of those guys likely downed more martinis than she did. 

As if all of that weren’t enough, one of her eyes didn’t track (there were rumors that it was glass), and this otherwise fearless woman had a magnificent fear of thunderstorms. She knew when one was coming long before it arrived and, fast as a flash of lightning, was on her way home — in a taxi; Betty Lou never drove. She never had a license. 

Her husband Junie taught psychology at the University of Louisville. He also was straight out of a Tennessee Williams play — a beatnik with a goatee who wore sandals and was as laid-back as Betty Lou was intense. They were married for 60 years. When I knew them best, they lived in a huge apartment in the Mayflower on Ormsby Avenue, where dinner parties were as colorful as the hosts were. Betty Lou loved to entertain, and the guest list was always diverse — her French dressmaker, Junie’s university colleagues, East End grandees, Old Louisville bohemians.

When hired as editorial associate in 1980, I was told by my predecessor, Stewart Trisler, that I wouldn’t be coddled. I was in so over my head, professionally, that I quaked over everything. A sideways glance from the boss was the worst. When I fessed up to that, Betty Lou purred, “Why I’m just a little pussycat.” This was in the Landmark Building at Third and Liberty, which had once housed the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. Earlier in her career she’d worked the crime beat for that paper, the first woman ever to do so. 

Betty Lou left the C-J to work in advertising, and from advertising joined Louisville, then published by the Chamber of Commerce. She was the magazine’s second editor, a classic of the genre, imperiously rejecting stories or designs from the art department with little more than a wave of her hand. She had good taste in writing and graphics, knew what she wanted, and usually got it. She also knew talent and how to woo it — freelancers like historian George Yater and former Courier writer Bill Woolsey (whom she ingeniously commissioned to write a monthly cooking column), along with photographers Bill Strode (who for most of her years as editor shot the covers) and John Nation (the backbone of the magazine for the last 30-plus years). It’s also worth noting that since she retired, two of her protégés have served as editor, most recently Bruce Allar, and that the current senior editor, Jack Welch, began his work at the magazine during her reign. Not a bad recruiting record.

In the years since her retirement we wrote one another from time to time, had lunch occasionally, and then lost touch almost entirely (in part because an ocean separated us). This past New Year’s Day I called to let her know I was thinking of her. She broke the news that Junie had died a few weeks previously. Conversation was stilted. There were things I would have liked to have told her, thanks I would have liked to have given. But she was not a sentimentalist.

Betty Lou died at 86 on April 24 of this year. This magazine is her legacy.