Vary messy business

For nearly a year, Dallas graphic designer Steve Cox tried to collect what he was owed for helping produce Vary, a fat and glossy--though very short-lived--magazine featuring high-fashion photo spreads, interviews with supermodels and famous chefs, and slick writing on raves, body piercing, and all manner of pop culture trends.

Cox, owner of Graphic Detail Inc., and his business partner, Susan Engles, kept meticulous records on the design and layout they did in 1995 for the first three (and only) issues of Vary. The magazine was founded by Dallas dilettante Ceslie Armstrong and chef Mica England.

"Everyone who worked for the magazine was led to believe the deal was well-funded," Cox says. "And the magazines that came out would lead you to believe that everything was going great. Lots of ads, lots of color. The paper was 60-pound stock. My business put in about 80 hours of work on each issue."

Nevertheless, in August 1995 the bimonthly magazine folded. It was less than a year after Armstrong and England had picked out Deep Ellum office space and traveled numerous times to New York and Miami--ostensibly to open "bureaus" in the cities.

The closing left a slew of Dallas writers, photographers, and other vendors--like Cox--in the lurch. Most, including Dallas interior designer Brent Gaither, who wrote for the three issues, never received a single paycheck. "It's all behind me now and I'd rather not discuss it," Gaither says. "But no, I never saw a penny that was owed to me."

Cox, however, chose not to go so peacefully. He got mad--and he got even. On August 16, 1995, shortly after Vary died a quiet death, he sued Armstrong and England in Dallas County Court at Law No. 1, for $36,588.

The suit also sought $3,700 in attorney fees. And for the next 11 months, Cox's lawyer tried to find the two women, in order to serve them with the proper papers.

"They were just gone," Cox says. "We'd hear that Ceslie was at some bar or restaurant, but when the constable would go there, she couldn't be found. We left message after message for her. She wouldn't call back. Or the phone would end up disconnected. It became very clear they had no intention of ever making good on their debt with us."

Finally, on July 16, Cox says he received a tip that Armstrong was hosting a party at Deep Ellum's Art Bar. Earlier that day, visiting Judge Leonard E. Hoffman Jr. had issued a judgment by default against Armstrong--meaning she automatically lost the case because she failed to respond to good-faith efforts to summon her to court.

When he heard that his quarry had been spotted at the Art Bar, Cox called his attorney, who contacted the county constable. The constable hustled to the bar, walked in, and handed Armstrong the default judgment in front of her entourage.

That was sweet, but even that wasn't enough for Cox. Vengeance is a powerful motive, and the man wanted his pound of flesh. Cox and Engles hurriedly made some picket signs, recruited a handful of friends, and drove to the Art Bar themselves. They paraded up and down the sidewalk in front of the business, chiding Armstrong for her failure to pay her debts.

"It was great for my soul," a very pleased Cox muses. "We just marched up and down, calling her names and embarrassing her, I hope, in front of her friends."

For her part, Armstrong says the stunt "hurt Steve Cox much more than it hurt me. I was hosting an event for a New Orleans artist and some very important arts people were there. There was just so much negative response. People were saying, 'Who is this horrible negative person? Doesn't he have anything better to do with his time?' I mean, really, instead of walking up and down the sidewalk at the Art Bar, he should be walking the halls of Parkland with dying AIDS patients."

Cox, who is gay, laughs and says, "Please. This is the '90s. I've done more work for my friends with AIDS in the past decade than she'll ever come close to."

England, who now lives in Miami, could not be reached for comment about the magazine's debts. She is perhaps best known to Dallasites for her long battle in the early '90s with the Dallas Police Department, which refused to hire England because she admitted on a job application to being a lesbian. Departmental policy at the time banned the hiring of known homosexuals. She sued the city, and after a protracted legal fight, settled the suit for $73,000, nearly half of which went to her lawyers. Ultimately, England's case caused the Texas Supreme Court in 1993 to strike down the state's sodomy law--a ruling hailed nationwide by gay and lesbian activists.

While England left town after the collapse of Vary, Armstrong remained, as did the dead magazine's financial carnage, which Armstrong says was enough to drive her to desperation.

Armstrong doesn't deny owing Cox the money. She explains that a "charlatan investor" who promised her and England more than $1 million in capital to front the magazine never came through with the cash. "The whole thing about this disputed bill comes down to this: Steve Cox could afford to hire an attorney, and I could not," Armstrong says. "I've drained every penny of my personal money to pay whatever debts I could for the magazine. I've sold my car. I've moved into a much smaller apartment. I even hocked my grandmother's jewelry.

"You know," she continues, "I have a very good name in this city. I'm not the type of person to leave bills unpaid. I just don't believe in that."

Cox says he isn't totally without sympathy for the financially strapped ex-publisher. At one point, he even offered to forgive $3,482 if Armstrong would pay the rest. "I was so sick of fighting her, I told her I'd come down on my hourly rate and I wouldn't fight her on some of the complaints she said she had about my work. But she did get the work out of us, and we expected to be paid."

Cox says he well knows the old adage: "There's no getting blood out of a turnip." He never expects to collect a dime of the judgment he has against the women.

"But you know what," he says, "I'm going to keep after [Armstrong] with my picket signs. And I'll get $40,000 worth of entertainment humiliating her every time she turns around.

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