Clifford Pugh’s long-time love affair with all things Houston is brought to the fore with CultureMap.com
by Donalevan Maines
“I’m always interested in turning points,” says Clifford Pugh, sharing a secret that’s helped make him one of Houston’s most popular print journalists for the past 30 years.
“Turning points” abound in Pugh’s own life and career, from the way an article he wrote in old London town landed him in Space City to how his layoff last year as style critic at the Houston Chronicle propelled him into gigs as both a weekly columnist for local Examiner newspapers and the editor-in-chief of Houston’s new go-to website CultureMap Houston (www.culturemap.com).
Pugh’s newspaper column, “Cliff Notes,” he probably could write in his sleep, but managing 24/7 web coverage of Houston’s wide-open cultural scene is an exhilarating task that he compares to “flying an airplane that never lands.”
Like the never-ending construction at West Alabama and Kirby, he says, “CultureMap is a work in progress. We’re still wide open, experimenting to come up with a magic formula.
“The way I define what we do is we report on high culture, pop culture, whatever ‘culture’ is in Houston,” he explains. “The things people are talking about—it could be the opening of a new play, it could be University of Texas football. We want to engage people in intelligent, lively conversation.”
Pugh moved here in August 1980, when Houston was a big, booming cuss of a town.
“I hated it,” he confesses. “There were more Michigan license plates than Texas [plates]. I had never lived in a city this big. I thought I would stay a year and leave.”
The “Luv ya Blue” city was too far a cry from Pugh’s hometown of Osceola, Arkansas, a suburb of Memphis in the neighboring state of Tennessee, and “home of 8,000 friendly people.”
“It was an ideal small town, and I was perfectly happy. It was the center of my universe,” he says. However, he didn’t acknowledge his sexuality there, nor would he until he moved to Houston.
It took him several turning points to get here. First, Pugh would earn a bachelor of arts degree in economics at Rhodes College in an historic neighborhood near downtown Memphis.
Next, he landed a job as a claims authorizer for the U.S. Social Security Administration, which required him to move to Birmingham, Alabama. Pugh liked it there so much that last month he rooted for the University of Alabama against UT Longhorns in the BCS football national championship. (He also bragged that his mother once dated legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, when he played for the Crimson Tide.)
In Birmingham, Pugh took a “Leisure Learning-type” class in journalism, and his writing talent so impressed his professor, the managing editor of the local newspaper, that he encouraged Pugh to pursue journalism as a career. Soon, it was off to the Show-Me State for Pugh to get a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri (aka Mizzou).
As part of that course work, Pugh accepted an economics/business writing fellowship in London, where his article about oil company expatriates got picked up by the Houston Post, which hired him as a features writer.
“When I first moved here, someone suggested that I read Blood and Money,” he says. The late Tommy Thompson’s book is a master class in nonfiction writing that tells in fly-on-the-wall detail how River Oaks heiress Joan Robinson Hill suffered a mysterious death and how her oil-rich father, Ash Robinson, might have orchestrated the murder of her husband, Dr. John Hill, on the steps of their home on Kirby. (Farrah Fawcett, Andy Griffith, and Sam Elliott starred in a made-for-TV movie about the case.)
Blood and Money also showed how, in the 1950s, the insular frontier town cleverly transformed itself into a major international city, showcasing cultural organizations that only money could buy.
Pugh found himself warming up to Houston. He was an instant hit with readers of the Post, and his small-town Southern manner endeared him to the people he interviewed.
“I was getting paid for learning,” he says. “Journalism gives us a license to ask anything we want, and stupid questions sometimes get the best answers. I was able to learn a little about a lot of things.”
Because the Post was owned by the William P. Hobby family (as in Hobby Airport), Pugh says, “Mrs. Hobby had [writers] over for tea.”
Then in an instant, a Canadian company bought the Post in 1983, pouring money into the city’s No. 2 paper, lavishing editions with lots of color and garish layouts, working to make it a scrappy competitor to the Chronicle.
“That was a fun time,” Pugh remembers.
He also navigated turning points in his personal life. “I came out here. I came out very slowly. Very gradually,” he says, but apparently in due time, as Pugh met and fell in love with another “late bloomer,” John Dascoulias, a massage therapist who also works at Neiman-Marcus in stationery, gifts, and books. They’ve been a couple since 1994, and now live in a quiet cluster of eight single-family homes near The Menil Collection with a pair of Greyhounds “and two cats that adopted us,” says Pugh.
At the Post, Pugh’s burgeoning gay sensibilities kept him ahead of the curve in terms of what was “in” one day and “out” the next. Pugh was the queer eye for straight readers, and a second set of eyes for gay fans.
“I take, like, 30 [cutting-edge] magazines,” he laughs. They range from Vogue (“In fashion, it is always the bible,” he says), Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, to the next tier of style periodicals—GQ, Details (“It skews younger”) and Esquire—to Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, and The Advocate.
In head-to-head competition with the Chronicle’s lifestyle section, Pugh seemed invaluable to the Post. Then came April 18, 1995, and the Post was no more. Its subscribers woke up to find Chronicles in their front yards. Most Post employees were sent packing, but the Chronicle kept Pugh as a features writer.
His promotion to style editor sent him traipsing the globe to fashion shows in New York, Milan, and Paris, to inaugurations at the White House, to an Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. On the red carpet, he met Nicole Kidman. In Robert del Grande’s kitchen, he interviewed Julia Child. At a Marc Jacobs show, he rubbed elbows with Heath Ledger. He became fast friends with such designers as Diane von Furstenberg and Zac Posen.
But last March, the jet-setting skidded to a screeching halt, and Pugh’s axing left a gaping hole in coverage of Houston’s social scene.
CultureMap’s president, Nic Phillips (“he’s a genius,” Pugh purrs), hopes to fill that void with the site he calls a “mapazine” because it pinpoints articles according to where they occur within the city limits.
Pugh explains, “The top of the home page has nine photos surrounding a map of Houston. Each photo refers to a place on the map. Click on it and a bubble will appear with links to a feature story, an event listing, or a map listing—or all three.”
The site also promises to sort through Information Age clutter to get the inside scoop on “the latest, the newest, the greatest” in arts/entertainment, city life, fashion/style, food/drink, real estate, and social scene.
After 30 years, Pugh says, “I thought I knew a lot about Houston. But I’m finding out a lot more about the city.”
You know you’re gay when you watch Project Runway. You know you’re really gay when you know that last season’s winning model was Kalyn Hemphill (and that she’s from Lake Jackson).
Then again, you could simply be a metrosexual who reads the PR scoop at CultureMap.com. You don’t have to be gay to be a member of this culture club. Straight people get addicted, too, to the new website for news that matters to tony Houstonians.
It’s all there for the clicking, including editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh’s inside peek at Mayor Annise Parker’s private swearing-in on Jan. 2.
“About 25 family members and close friends gathered [at City Hall] in the ceremonial office on the third floor next to the mayor’s office,” Pugh posted that day. “The atmosphere was jubilant but
casual.” Parker wore a gray pantsuit, Pugh reported, as her longtime friend, gay state District Judge Steven Kirkland, administered the oath of office.
Now that CultureMap is your new favorite Bookmark, then surely you’re a fan of Steve Thomson’s “Trendysomething in SoMo” reports. He’s our town’s Stanford Blatch, who credits being gay to his parents “playing R.E.M., Streisand duets, and the Miss Saigon cassette in the minivan, and a strict Monday night viewing of The Nanny.”
In an early post, Thomson told of the “do’s and don’t’s” of dating a college student. (One “do” is to introduce your new college friend to the glamorous post-grad life at underground haunts like Notsuoh or Sedition; a definite “don’t” is allowing your friends to call you a cougar. “They are jealous,” Thomson explained.)
“Culture may not be king [in Houston],” says Thomson, “but it may at least be a prince—the kind who makes a mean organic chili and gossips with an ever-so-slight Texas twang at gallery openings. This prince might just be me, living in the southerly parts of Montrose, or SoMo.”
You didn’t have to be gay last Halloween to wonder who those straight men were, dressed in drag, in the parking lot of the old Walgreen’s on Montrose Boulevard (which I suppose qualifies as “SoMo”). The answer was posted on CultureMap. It was a “hash,” and you can still read about it in the site’s archives. Or I can tell you.
What’s a hash? CultureMap’s guide to “The Great Outdoors” explained it like this: “A hash is what would happen if you printed out the directions to a scavenger hunt, a pub crawl, and a 5k, got them mixed up and did all three at the same time.”
Half of Pugh’s staff are in their 20s, and he says, “It’s fun for me to see [life] through their eyes. It’s a whole different perspective.”
Well, sometimes. Although last month when CultureMap reported that University of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy popped the question to his girlfriend, reporter Rachel Glandorf certainly read my mind.
She wrote, “No word on how [McCoy’s best friend, roommate, and preferred receiver] Jordan Shipley is dealing with the news.”
Donalevan Maines also profiles Brad Fraser in this issue of OutSmart magazine.