Jann Wenner the Editor: “The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to money and power.”

Jann Wenner, the brilliant and self-destructive editor once on his way to becoming a billionaire, sold controlling interest in Rolling Stone this week with the deal valuing Wenner Media at only about $100 million. The sale to Penske Media came two months after publication of Joe Hagan’s long (511 pages) and intimate Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. Here are some editorial insights from Hagan’s book—maybe the most surprising the respect Wenner had for Donald Trump:

As Tom Wolfe told Rolling Stone in 1987, youth culture was the most important thing to emerge from the 1960s, including Vietnam or civil rights. “Any  of the big historical events of the Sixties are overshadowed by what young people did,” he said. “And they did it because they had money. For the first time in the history of man, young people had the money, the personal freedom and the free time to build monuments and pleasure palaces to their own tastes.”

Tom Wolfe’s fame—he was a regular guest of Dick Cavett’s on ABC—made Wenner’s newspaper the center of gravity for New Journalism at the movement’s high-water mark. Wenner managed to recruit Wolfe from editor Clay Felker at New York, who had belittled and intimidated Wenner at a dinner party four years earlier. Felker, a veteran of Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune, who’d founded New York magazine, along with Milton Glaser, in April 1968, was every bit as ambitious as Wenner and had been publishing Wolfe for years. Wenner hung a quotation from Felker over his desk that  read, “Where is it written that Jann Wenner should inherit the earth?” (Later, Felker acknowledged that Wenner had “one of the best journalistic antennas in the United States. He has an incredible sense of knowing what’s going to be hot. Whenever things change, he’s there.”)

Wenner commissioned reports showing which covers sold and which didn’t. . . .Wenner determined three things about poor-selling issues: Either “the personality involved is a minor one,” or it has “little appeal on a sexual or vicarious identity basis.” Wenner concluded that “editorial quality is not a reliable guide to covers.”

Around the offices of Rolling Stone, Wenner was known for his jovial sexual harassment. He didn’t discriminate between men and women; he liked them both. “He was hitting on every guy and every girl,” said Lynn Hirschberg. “He once grabbled me around the hips and said, ‘Ten more pounds and you’ll be perfect.’ This was  in front of everybody at a meeting and I wanted to die. It was like this schoolboy crap.”

Wolfe once called Jann Wenner his favorite editor. What he liked about him was that Wenner barely touched his copy. “I’ve never really seen him do any line editing,” he said. “He would say, ‘Okay, that’s great,’ or ‘Do it over,’ not giving much meaning to what he had to say.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Rolling Stone’s political coverage was handled by William Greider, who had befriended Hunter Thompson while covering the 1972 presidential campaign for the Washington Post and started as Wenner’s national affairs editor in 1981. Grinder produced reliably left-wing and admirably detailed policy coverage of the Reagan years, but Wenner found “sunny Ronald Reagan” a low-yield target for his magazine, and besides, he benefited enormously from Reagan’s tax policies.

The solar eclipse of Donald Trump signaled the complete triumph of celebrity culture over every aspect of American life. A reality TV star with a casino and a Twitter feed. An egomaniac to rule them all. The message and the medium had merged. The message was fame, and fame was money, money was power, and power was just more fame, for ever and ever, amen.

Rolling Stone was among the first to take Trump seriously, publishing a profile—”Trump Seriously: On the Trail with the GOP’s Tough Guy”—and put him on the cover with a studio portrait by Mark Seliger. . . .

Wenner had a kind of grudging respect for Trump. Nor for his politics, but for the way he bent the world to his ego. Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends—people who worked for him in the 1960s and after—could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to money and power.

Editor Will Dana ended his career in infamy at Rolling Stone [the UVA gang rape story], but before that he witnessed Jann Wenner up close for twenty years. Brilliant, vulgar, courageous, cruel, that peculiar DNA twist of idealism and greed—god of two heads, gatekeeper of heaven. “I always think, with Jann, the question is, is he 51 percent good or 51 percent bad?”said Dana.

Comments

  1. John Corcoran says:

    If that piece was designed to get me to buy the book, it worked. I just wIsh it had run earlier, so I could have put it on my Christmas “wish” list. Will definitively add its sequel “Where Jan Wenner Went Wrong about Trump and Why He Regrets It.”

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