The House That Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner Built

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Reginato headlined “The House That ‘Rolling Stone’ Built”:

Among the many treasured possessions that Jann Wenner has collected during his rollicking career is a framed cover of the magazine he co-founded, Rolling Stone, autographed by its subject, Sean Penn: “To Jann, from one asshole to another.”

“Sean used the term in an endearing way,” says Wenner about the artifact, which leans against a wall at his home in Montauk, New York.

That house, a sand-colored structure embedded in the dunes, is so low-key you could almost miss it during shoreline walks—unlike its brash owner, whom Bruce Springsteen fondly calls “my gossipy friend.” This vanishing effect is one the English minimalist architect John Pawson labored on for four years. “We cut it into the land, so it doesn’t project,” Pawson explains about the residence, which was designed for Wenner, his husband, Matt Nye, and their three children.

Pawson’s structure hugs the topographical line so that the house isn’t visible on arrival. After parking your car, you enter a gate and see a series of pristine vertical planes rising from the upper deck—an exercise in geometry that recalls the architecture of Luis Barragán. In summer, the deck comes alive with a series of extravagantly planted outdoor rooms, as well as a half basketball court.

Inside, nearly every room features retractable floor-to-ceiling windows that frame sweeping scenes of sea, sand and sky—consistent with Pawson’s belief that “true luxury lies in a beautiful view.”

Like many New Yorkers, Wenner and Nye became enamored with Pawson’s architecture through the Madison Avenue store he designed for Calvin Klein, which opened in 1995.

According to Saturday Night Live creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, a longtime friend and contemporary, Wenner, 77, has always created extraordinary living environments, even when his means were small. “He’s lived that way, one way or another, since the ’70s,” observes Michaels. “Jann has always, for lack of a better phrase, lived well.”

In Summer of Love–era San Francisco, where Wenner, fresh out of the University of California, Berkeley, cobbled together $7,500 to launch Rolling Stone magazine in November 1967, he and his wife, Jane, moved into an old Victorian on the edge of Pacific Heights. Kids in their early 20s, they created a hippie pleasure palace, imbued with opulent funkiness. They combined simple rattan as well as modern Italian furniture, 18th-century French mirrors, potted palm trees, a Tiffany floor lamp, Warhol silkscreens, a large oil painting by Richard Diebenkorn and a high-end TV projector. Joan Didion, a regular visitor, is said to have immortalized it as “the house on California Street” in her novel A Book of Common Prayer.

Wenner’s adventurous taste and his instinct for timing propelled his publishing empire. He kept Rolling Stone at the forefront of American culture and politics for five decades.

He owned the shop too, along with Jane, whose mother, a New York homemaker, put up around $2,000 of the original seed money. As Wenner Media expanded with such titles as Outside, Men’s Journal and US Weekly, the Wenners were afforded a lifestyle that included multiple houses with full domestic staffs and Gulfstream jets. (Jann and Jane, who have three sons, separated in 1995, when he publicly began his relationship with Nye, whom he married in 2013.)

“You’re going to hear a lot of different interpretations of who Jann is,” explains Springsteen, by phone. “I got to be friends with him only in the ’90s, but in 1967, when the first issue of Rolling Stone came out, I was 17, [and I thought] wait a minute, there’s somebody else out there who gets me. Everyone else was hostile. Rolling Stone became a dear companion to all of us New Jersey outliers—it revealed to you an America that you recognized but had previously been hidden, which had not been acknowledged by the powers that be. Jann acknowledged me and validated my point of view.”

Almost from the beginning, this confident boy wonder, who virtually bottled the counterculture, was accused of going mainstream. In the summer of 1977, when he pulled up stakes in California and relocated to New York, Wenner writes in his memoir that he soon began to hear that he had sold out.

Through Rolling Stone’s carefully designed new offices at 745 Fifth Avenue, Wenner was telegraphing his ambitions. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger picked up on it: “Mr. Wenner made his decision to emphasize Rolling Stone’s evolution from counterculture to general-interest publication, and the magazine’s new offices, clean and cool and at one of the city’s best addresses, made it clear that the journal has come a long way from its beginnings,” Goldberger wrote in a 1977 review.

Wenner’s first visitor, Jackie Onassis, brought flowers, according to him.

Over the years, Wenner’s high-flying lifestyle and celebrity friends provided fodder for some journalists who profiled him. Last September, Wenner published his own account of his life, Like a Rolling Stone. It debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list at No. 6, and has sold more than 100,000 copies, says his publisher, Little, Brown, which has just released a paperback edition.

But Wenner nearly missed the chance to tell his own tale. Through a fall on a tennis court in June 2017, at age 71, while he was trying to help his son Noah improve his serve, he broke his femur, then suffered a severe heart attack and fell into a coma.

Simultaneously, revenues at his magazine empire were flatlining, as the internet ravaged print advertising. Wenner had also taken out a loan (to buy out Disney’s 50 percent stake in US), and the terms had become onerous. On “a sinking ship,” as he called it, he was in the midst of frantic negotiations to sell off his assets. Three months before his accident, American Media CEO David Pecker had agreed to pay $100 million for US and Men’s Journal. In the final days of 2017, Jay Penske of Penske Media Corporation acquired a controlling stake in Rolling Stone’s parent company, Wenner Media, in another deal valued at $100 million, leaving Wenner rich but unemployed. (Jann and Jane’s youngest son, Gus, 32, now serves as chief executive officer.)

Wenner could have been even richer had he been willing to fold his tent while the sun still blazed high on the glossy universe. “I turned down a huge offer around 2005, just at the peak,” he says, referring to a rumored bid from Hearst around the time his accountants reportedly valued Wenner Media at $1.1 billion.

“I was holding onto it because I enjoyed it…and where was I going to get a job like that?” he continues. “I sold it finally because I had to. No regrets. Fine. I had another 10-plus years—a great f—ing life.”

Wenner was speaking on a chilly but sparkling morning this past February, on the weathered ipe-wood deck of his Montauk redoubt. Pawson finished the house in 2013, but due to Nye and Wenner’s travels and real estate portfolio—which then included a Manhattan townhouse, a ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, and an estate in New York’s Hudson Valley—they had only begun to spend extended periods at the Long Island house shortly before Wenner’s accident. After his discharge from the hospital, it was an ideal place to recover.

With its extraordinary light streaming in from the Atlantic, it was also an inspiring place to write. “The opportunity presented itself,” Wenner recalls, explaining the genesis of his autobiography. By now, most of Wenner’s peers, whom he writes about, have read it and offered their praise, he says. Just “one or two people didn’t like it,” the author allows.

“I think maybe she’s a little miffed about me saying she slept with Mick,” he says, referring to Annie Leibovitz. “But who else would complain about that, man or woman? I shagged Mick Jagger? Yeah.” (Leibovitz did not respond to requests for comment.)

In conversations with Wenner, fandom and friendship appear to be one, and so it is in his book.

He and Bono live close enough to wave to each other from their terraces off Central Park, he writes; at a blessing ceremony for Jann and Matt’s first child, Noah, in godmother Bette Midler’s Fifth Avenue apartment, Noah—wearing a custom gown by Zac Posen—is cradled by David Bowie and Iman as Robert Thurman says the prayers. In the room are godfather Sean Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, Ahmet and Mica Ertegun.

Going back to the vaults, Wenner recently found transcripts and audio recordings of the in-depth interviews he did, over five decades, with his idols. “Many of them were really deep…thoughtful people,” says Wenner, who spent all spring crafting the interviews into his next book, The Masters: Conversations with Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Townshend, Garcia, Bono and Springsteen. Wenner conducted a new interview with Springsteen for the volume, which will be published in September.

When Wenner was close to death following his accident, much of the same cast appeared at the Weill Cornell Medical Center’s intensive care unit.

When Wenner awoke from his coma, doctors could not perform the heart surgery he urgently needed—a triple coronary bypass and valve replacement—until he stabilized. For a week, he lay in bed with one leg suspended in traction, any adjustment of which brought excruciating pain.

Before the eight-hour operation, Wenner met his surgeon, who mentioned that having music in the OR could improve surgical outcomes.

There would be no Spotify playlist for this operation. The next afternoon, Springsteen showed up with a six-hour mixtape. “We would be rolling in the OR to a soundtrack handpicked by the Boss,” Wenner recounts in Like a Rolling Stone.

“To me, Jann is music fan No. 1,” says Springsteen. “When he’s in such dire straits, I thought, that’s the best thing I could do for him.”

The playlist—old R&B and some country—included Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and Marvin Gaye.

“It was very satisfying,” Wenner elaborated about the writing of his memoir.

“Throughout my life, doing Rolling Stone, you’re always in the line of fire, everybody’s complaining about this or that article, that you’ve sold out…whatever the f— they are complaining about.”

Does he understand how his lifestyle might legitimize the view that he’d sold out? “Oh, I do. It was a big thing. I just never believed it. As long as you can stay true to what you believe in, it’s not selling out. I never shrunk from my personal, political and moral opinions, and expressing them in the magazine.”

“He’s Jann,” says Midler. “He has a reckless flair about him that I admire. He goes his own way, he’s unstoppable—in a world today where people get stopped left, right and center.”

In Wenner’s eyes, Rolling Stone and the baby boomer generation are one and the same. He’s fiercely proud of the accomplishments of both. “The disrespect of our era, the denigration of what we did!” Wenner exclaims. “I wrote the book because I wanted to set the record straight.

“We pushed ahead on the major issues—justice, human rights, race…women’s rights, sexual orientation, the environment, drug policy, gun control…. Those were things we were in the forefront of, agitated for, against the most hidebound, powerful bureaucracy. The adults behaved so stupidly, made such evil choices in Vietnam.”

In the months after all this came out in his book, Wenner has encountered new attitudes.

“All of a sudden, people are saying nice things about me, and to me. ‘Wow, you weren’t that spoiled,’​” he says, with a laugh. “I wasn’t looking for that gratification—it’s just satisfying. It wasn’t just about the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It wasn’t just about being a rich playboy.”

But there was plenty of that.

Arguably, no one has ever mixed business and pleasure as well as Jann Wenner.

In the interest of keeping his staff, and himself, on the job, he had a darkroom in the costly Rolling Stone Fifth Avenue offices turned into an in-house drug-dealing den.

Today, taking stock of his lifetime drug intake, he regrets only the cocaine. “Looking back, not a good use of my time or money,” he says.

Psychedelics, on the other hand, stand the test of time: “Let’s be very clear: I think if more people had used LSD, we’d live in a better world. It’s rare to go through an LSD experience and not be aware of the interconnectedness of all living and nonliving things, and not be aware of the beauty of it—how special and rare and precious. If more people who run government, oil and coal companies would take acid, I don’t see how they would do some of the things they do.”

Two months later, over the overlapping Passover and Easter weekend, things are warming up in Montauk. The pool on the ipe deck is open. With a huge smile and a mane of sandy blond hair, 15-year-old Jude whizzes by on his skateboard. Among his pals, he must have bragging rights from the guitar that’s sitting in his room. It’s signed, “HEY JUDE!” by Paul McCartney.

At the moment, his twin, India, is out having a riding lesson. Their sibling, Noah, 16, is at boarding school.

The family just returned from spring break—skiing at their ranch in Sun Valley and surfing in Kauai, Hawaii, with Wenner’s sister Merlyn Ruddell. Nye, affable but private, has opted not to speak for this story. But when it’s time to take Wenner’s portrait, he offers his styling services, affectionately tousling Wenner’s hair.

Twenty-nine years ago, few people—Wenner among them—could have imagined such a domestic life for the couple. In his memoir, he writes frankly about his struggles facing up to his sexual attraction to men throughout his marriage to Jane, whom he adored.

“My head was spinning,” he wrote of Nye, whom he first glimpsed wearing a blue Speedo on the deck of Barry Diller’s and Diane von Furstenberg’s chartered yacht, anchored in St. Barts.

The pair saw each other secretly for six months before Wenner confessed the affair to Jane, over a Christmas holiday at their property in Amagansett, New York. Wenner quietly checked into The Mark on Madison Avenue. When the holidays ended and Wenner returned to the office, “the very first call I got was from David Geffen, who already had the inside scoop.” Soon Wenner’s phone was ringing as friends called to offer advice—“Don’t be one of those weekend dads and just buy them ice cream. Make sure you help them with homework,” said Mick Jagger—as well as humor. “Jannie, why not me?” joshed Michael Douglas.

On March 3, 1995, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article revealing all. “The summer of love is over for Jann and Jane Wenner,” read the piece, which focused on the financial ramifications for Wenner Media in the wake of the couple’s breakup and Wenner’s new romance.

It took a few years, but eventually Jann and Matt and Jane—who is often only minutes away, in the Amagansett house, which she got in the divorce settlement—forged warm relations with each other. The two sets of children bonded too. It’s a real blended family, says Wenner: “The two sets of kids were kind of raised as one family; there was lots of back and forth between the two households. [They] adore each other. Matt and Jane get along better with each other than they do with me. It still makes me a little nervous!”

His second go-round as a parent has been “much easier. You’ve been through it before, so you’re not nervous or anxious about all the mistakes you’re afraid [of making]. I’m a much more relaxed person now, and at this age, I have much more time for it and I love it. [Though] I’m home, they don’t necessarily want me all the time. [They’re] just a joy.”

“I think he’s much more indulgent than he was with his first set,” says Midler. She describes Nye, who grew up as one of 10 children in a Midwestern Catholic family, as “in the good cop/bad cop world, Matt is more the bad cop. He’s a real old-school dad…. It’s a good balance.”

“As long as you can stay true to what you believe in, it’s not selling out. I never shrunk from my personal, political and moral opinions.”
— Jann Wenner

The first years of their relationship, Wenner says he and Nye “bopped around.” Their first summer together as a family, they rented a modest cottage tucked in the woods of Amagansett with a garden-hose-powered slip and slide for the kids (something never seen before or after at a Wenner residence). A curious Paul and Linda McCartney came to call unannounced, according to Wenner. But it was OK with him: “It’s always risky dropping in on people, but as a Beatle you are welcome day or night,” Wenner writes.

Later, Wenner and Nye purchased and meticulously restored Teviot, a Gothic Revival–style manor house built in 1843, on 127 acres fronting the Hudson River in Tivoli, New York, where the family spent much of their time for several years.

Eventually, they missed the ocean. They found a beachfront property for sale in Montauk. The house was “crappy” but the sublime site inspired them to embark on a building project with Pawson.

According to Pawson, Wenner and Nye “embraced minimalism…but not from me—I didn’t sell them on it.”

“Maybe it has to do with age. You find yourself stripping down,” says Wenner.

Still, he wasn’t quite ready to go whole hog. When he saw Pawson’s London house, Wenner asked him, “ ‘Do you have kids? Where do they go?’ I just said to him, ‘We have to be able to live in the house; everything can’t be hidden in the walls.’ ”

To furnish the interiors, which are divided into two wings—one for the adults, one for the kids—the couple brought in New York–based interior designer Vance Trimble, with whom they have collaborated for 20 years at their various properties. “The idea was to keep things very basic, informed by Pawson’s aesthetic of keeping things minimal, simple and not fancy,” says Trimble, whose client list also includes Wenner’s sons Gus, Theo and Alex. (Theo, 36, a successful photographer, has shot campaigns for Chanel and other brands; Alex, 38, a married father of four, recently opened Lasting Joy Brewery, a craft brewery and tasting room, in Tivoli.)

Trimble sourced primarily European modern furniture, along with some by Nakashima. He designed simple sofas, inspired by the designs of Jean-Michel Frank, which he covered in boiled wool.

As the house is open to the elements, Wenner and Nye keep their collection of blue-chip works by artists including Fernand Léger, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol at their other residences. Instead, Montauk features sculptures by Ugo Rondinone, Aristide Maillol, Robert Graham and others. There is also a series of glass, collage and acrylic objects—portraits of each member of the family created by Dustin Yellin. Most recently, working with art adviser Rachel Mauro, the couple is collecting contemporary figurative paintings, with a concentration on queer artists such as Hernan Bas and Louis Fratino.

Pawson describes the Montauk residence as “a modest house in a spectacular location.” The point, he says, was to take advantage of the site, but not spoil it.

“The bluffs of Montauk are high and layered like a cake: sand, loam, and pure clay, clay you can make pots out of,” says landscape architect Edwina von Gal, a Hamptons resident, who planted native switchgrass and goldenrod in the dunes beneath the house. “The stuff had to be really tough,” she says. Seasonally, she brings more delicate and dreamlike planting on the upper deck, which features various outdoor spaces and a sauna.

“In summertime, it becomes this crazy, hobbit-like world. It’s Jann’s Middle-earth,” says von Gal. “It’s all roses, clematis, big leaf tropicals in pots, big drippy plants. And the food—you can eat your way through it; cherry tomatoes cascading down, espaliered apple trees, lots of lettuces, string beans, all the herbs for the kitchen, peppers, eggplants.”

“It’s really nice,” says Springsteen. “I’d like to live there.”

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