A Lifetime of Firsts

Elizabeth Margaritis Butson

Elizabeth Margaritis Butson
June 28, 2012

“It’s important to know where you come from, but it’s more important to know where you’re going.”

This is the advice that Elizabeth Margaritis Butson—long-time supporter of BMCC and respected newspaper publisher—gave to graduates at the 2012 Commencement in the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.

At that ceremony, Butson was awarded the Presidential Medal for her hard work on behalf of BMCC, serving as President of the BMCC Foundation Board, and chairing the college’s annual fundraising Gala year after year. She has also underwritten many scholarships—including one in the name of her mother, Katy Halepli.

“In my career, opening doors for women has been very important,” Butson says. In fact, she has opened doors for both men and women.

At Philip Morris, where she worked 27 years and was the company’s first woman Vice President, “twice a week, from five to seven, I had an open-door policy,” she says.

“I would stay at my office and people came and would ask me questions—and it was open not just for young executives. You could have been a maintenance person; you could have been anyone. It was very important for me to give back, to do that.”

The impact of one student’s story

In the late nineties, Elizabeth Butson first attended BMCC’s annual fundraising Gala, and felt inspired as student speakers shared their stories.

One young man in particular, moved her to take action in support of the college.

“He was from one of the Caribbean Islands and had come here to get his associate degree, but didn’t get along with his stepfather,” she remembers, adding that when the student lost his place to live, “he found a little crawl space in the roof of a building, and that is where he lived until he finished, and was one of the top graduating students.”

After that, Butson—who owned two Lower Manhattan newspapers, Downtown Express and The Villager with her husband, the late Tom Butson—was invited to join the BMCC board, and her long friendship with the college began.

Breaking the glass ceiling: Why not?

For Elizabeth Butson, stories of students who leave their home country to make it in America hit a personal chord.

Born in Istanbul, Turkey, to parents of Greek heritage, she realized early on that she would have to leave the city of her birth, in order, she says, to “fly.”

Her mother, who had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in the 1920s at the American College for Girls in Bosphorus, Turkey, was in full support of her daughter’s pursuit of higher education.

“I found Istanbul a magical city, but with very circumscribed horizons,” Butson says. “And of course at that time, being a minority in a Muslim country was a very difficult situation, from a career point of view.”

After moving to New York at age 18, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Boston University’s School of Public Communication, where she majored in photojournalism. After graduating, she freelanced for a while, then began her career at Philip Morris—a corporate environment she had never envisioned for herself, but ultimately thrived in.

“When they hired me, they had never had a woman who was not a secretary,” she says.

“But then I was really challenged. I thought, ‘Why can’t I be a manager?’ So I became a manager. I switched to marketing, and thought, ‘Why can’t I become a director?’— and I became a director. Then, ‘Why can’t I become a vice president?’”

Butson not only found challenges, but support at Philip Morris.

“I was very lucky to have had three important mentors in my life there,” she says. “One is Hamish Maxwell, who later became CEO; one was George Weissman, who later became the president of Lincoln Center, and one was Carlos Salguero, a Latin American executive.”

Changing the face of corporate culture

These days, it’s not unusual for a fundraising event to be held in a museum.

But go back a few decades, and it just wasn’t done. At least, not before Elizabeth Butson got the idea, as she was looking for a place to host an annual event for Philip Morris executives.

“I had recently been to the Guggenheim and I just love that long, circular ramp… so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a dinner beneath the Modigliani’s?’”

That event forged a new link between corporations and museums—one that would benefit the arts from that point forward.

“We had these tables going up and down the ramps,” says Butson. “I had the tablecloths in burgundy, with white lilies under the Modigliani’s. It was just beautiful.”

Museums haven’t been the only public spaces to expand their use, thanks to Butson’s imagination.

“When I became marketing manager at Philip Morris,” she says, “every year, we would hold a marketing conference; one year in Madrid, another year in Krakow, and this time it was in New York.”

Her idea for the New York event was not so much unconventional, as completely radical for its time.

“I decorated the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria as Marlboro Country,” she says, “and I had a very good set designer do that—you know, with beautiful old saddles, and fences and hats and chaps and what have you. I mean it wasn’t tacky at all, it was very nicely done.”

Pop art and having fun

Another milestone in corporate culture that took root during Butson’s years at Philip Morris was the changing notion of corporate citizenship—one that necessitated a global language.

That language, Butson realized, was art.

Under her guidance, a new exhibit, Eleven Pop Artists: The New Image, featured emerging artists Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist and others, and traveled in 1966 to major galleries and museums in Washington, D.C., Munich, London, New York and Montreal.

“It was an amazing success because we commissioned 33 portfolios,” says Butson. “They were all signed silk screens; 11 pop artists, three each.”

She adds that despite the exhibit’s success, “some of the very conservative executives in Switzerland thought I should be fired, for coming up with such a crazy idea. Little did they know that it was George Weissman, who was president of Philip Morris International at the time, that it was his brainchild…I had a lot of fun.”

A trip to the rebels’ camp

Butson’s early career as a photojournalist—which segued into her corporate success—was revived unexpectedly when she received a call from an editor at Time magazine, offering her an assignment: to photograph the president of Guatemala, Cesar Mendez Montenegro, as well as Anastasio Somoza Debayle, then dictator of Nicaragua.

“So I went to my boss and I said, ‘I need to get this out of my system’,” says Butson, who was granted two weeks off—two weeks that would change the course of her life.

Once in Guatemala City, and getting to know the other press members encamped around the bar at the Pan American Hotel, she realized the “real” story was not the famous men she was photographing, but the growing resistance movements throughout Central America.

As she explains it, “I called Time, and said, ‘Well you know, there’s a revolution brewing in the mountains, and I would like to cover it’, and they said, ‘Ah, you’re young, you’re a woman—why would the leader of this movement be interested in you?’”

Request denied, Butson continued learning what she could about the developing political situation and one reporter, Bob Rosenhouse, arranged for her to meet the rebels, who were looking for someone to tell their story.

“So they interviewed me in a safe house, along with three others,” says Butson, who was then blindfolded and driven for three hours into the mountains, where they switched to horseback, crossed a river and finally reached the rebel campground.

In that isolated location, Butson sat on the ground talking with, and photographing young men eager for their movement to gain international exposure.

“When I got back to Philip Morris, they weren’t too happy,” she says. “They thought that I was putting the company in a difficult spot, because here I was, cavorting with the rebels.”

The good news however, was that since Time had declined to give her the assignment, “I was free to sell it to anybody else,” Butson says.

“I sold it to Germany, and France, and Switzerland, Italy, and [the man who would become] my husband saw a picture that I took, in Newsweek, and he called them and said, ‘Who is Elizabeth Margaritas?’ And they said, ‘Well, we don’t really know her but she’s the only one who has the pictures. You want her number?”

As it turns out, Tom Butson, then a young assistant managing editor with the Toronto Star, did want her number. And a year later, they were married.

Dividing the kingdom

The iconoclastic photojournalist-turned-marketing whiz, and the managing editor from Canada ended up living in New York City in the early 1990s, and buying two well known community papers in Lower Manhattan, The Villager, and Downtown Express.

Was it tricky, tackling that challenge together?

“We had to divide the kingdom,” says Butson. “Tom was the editor, and that was his domain, and I was the publisher.”

“Of course,” she adds, laughing, “he had the glamorous job, and I was supposed to be the person who would make us survive, by raising enough money to pay the staff and the printing bill.”

That distribution of work worked.

“Tom concentrated in providing ‘Class A’ coverage, and we got many awards from the New York Press Association,” says Butson, going on to share that when her husband became ill in 1999, the couple sold both their papers.

Today, Elizabeth Butson remains Publisher Emeritus of Downtown Express, and a valued advisor.

“I have to say I’m really thrilled that John Sutter, the new publisher, is continuing with the paper, and also receiving many awards,” she says. “This means a lot to me because it really was a labor of love, you know.”

She’s even planning to write a column for Downtown Express, “As I See It,” which will showcase prominent West Village residents who “see things,” she says, in a unique way.

Health and jazz, in the West Village

Though less directly involved in publishing, Elizabeth Butson continues working to connect New Yorkers with the resources they need.

Recently, she proposed and helped organize a public forum, “Take Charge of Your Health Today,” hosted by NYU and Village Care New York, on whose board she serves.

“I think it was an important thing for the community,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know where to go—their doctors don’t accept Medicare anymore, they have someone who lives with chronic pain in their house and don’t know what to do. I got such great feedback about it; people said, ‘Oh, when is the next one?’”

Living in the West Village, it is fortuitous that Butson also happens to be a jazz fan.

“I was buying something at Citarella [a neighborhood market] recently,” she says, “wearing my baseball hat, which is from the Jazz Cruise, and an older man in line behind me said, ‘So, you go on the Jazz Cruise?’”

Butson, in fact, has gone on the New York Jazz Cruise for the last seven years, and the man she met in line, an accomplished trumpet player, invited her to join him and his friends, who hold jazz sessions in his apartment every Friday afternoon.

“He gave me the address and said, ‘Come on over’!’ I haven’t gone yet, but I will,” Butson says. “And where else can that happen? I love being in the Village.”

Next stop? Anyplace once.

“Fifty percent of my time was traveling, the 27 years I worked for Philip Morris,” says Butson. “It’s in my blood. And if I’m not going someplace, I think there’s something wrong with me. I really get energized.”

Recently, she visited Havana.

“I took a tour that was about art and music, and this was an amazing trip because it brought us face-to-face with young talented artists and musicians. I have never seen more talent per square inch in a place.”

She also just returned from the Norwegian fjords, and her next destination, like her life’s path, will likely be anything but predictable.

“I’ve never been to Tahiti,” she says. “I’d like to go to Vietnam. I’d like to spend some time in China. I was in New Zealand in January; that was where my husband was from. My motto is, I’ll go anyplace once.”

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  • Born in Istanbul, attended Boston University, started as photojournalist
  • First woman VP at Philip Morris, former owner of two NYC newspapers
  • Today, provides scholarships for BMCC students, enjoys jazz and travels

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