From the Archives: Meeting Jann Wenner

by William G. Shepherd Photographed by Harry Benson
Thursday, October 26, 2017

With his announcement that he’s selling his controlling stake in Rolling Stone, and the publication of a new tell-all biography, Jann Wenner seems like he’s everywhere. In November 1979, AVENUE interviewed the young magazine mogul. Wenner told us about his life, ruminated on disappointments like the reboot of Look and shared his thoughts for the future. 

Meeting Jann Wenner, the publisher and editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, is a bit like watching three people trying to get through a doorway at the same time. His boyish face and helmet of long, wavy hair identify him as a veteran of the hippie-rock-drug scene. His portly shape and tailored suits make him look like a baby robber baron, while his rumpled shirt and his tie, loosened and skewed, suggest nothing so much as a hardbitten 1930s newsman. All three of him never seem to stop moving. 

Wenner barks out pieces of sentences. He mumbles. He jumps up from behind his desk, an old pine refectory table whose knife marks and cigarette burns are preserved under layers of polyurethane. He struts. He fidgets. Around him are a Teac stereo cassette deck, a Sony video cassette recorder, old Rolling Stone covers with their antique circus/Sporting News graphics, photos of rock stars, snapshots of friends and relatives, smatterings of pornography (soft-core), and plastic Beatles balloons that have lost some of their air. Ten faces of Mao, one of those multiple silkscreen renderings by Andy Warhol, stare across the office, and at one window stands a pair of large, high-powered binoculars on a tripod. “I like to look at the Park,” Wenner says.

But he is not going to get away with that. The binocs are not aimed at the Park; they point straight at the south windows of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Wenner coolly recants. “A lot of friends stay at the Sher-Ned,” he shrugs. “I call ’em up and tell ’em what clothes their wives are changing into.” He lights the Sherman’s Cigarettellos one after another and swigs from a bottle of Polmos Wodka Wyborowa, his hand gripping its throat. When he cruises his domain, all five feet and six inches of him charges about in a low-slung way as if he were some souped-up Porsche trying to break out of the pack at Watkins Glen. 

And that, in a manner of speaking, is precisely what Wenner is trying to do. Now thirty-four-years-old, Jann (pronounced Yann) S. Wenner is—like many of his original readers—in the throes of transition, a kind of rite of passage from the kids’ funky subculture into the mainstream of grownup money, glamor, and power.

Two years ago he moved the while of Rolling Stone from San Francisco to the Big Apple. “If you want to get big in publishing, you have to be in New York,” he explains. He has a house in Amagansett and a trendy duplex in the East Sixties, where he resides with his wife, Janie, Saffron the Cat, and a lhasa apso named Cheesai. Wenner’s company, Straight Arrow Publishers, now grosses a shade over $16 million; it will be $25 million in a year or so, he envisions, and $100 million soon after. “I find I enjoy having money,” he declares. 

In short, the fever of Wenner is not of the Saturday Night variety. It is the old Wall Street-Park Avenue kind. He fairly trembles—sometimes bristles—with ambition. “You got it,” he says grinning intently. “I am very ambitious.”

Is the purveyor of the hip life, the voice from the other side of Generation Gap, becoming bourgeois? Wenner scoffs. “I’ve been bourgeois forever. Rolling Stone is bourgeois. Its readers are bourgeois. All this counter-culture, hippie stuff is—.” Wenner spits out an obscenity. “That’s all ended.”

Trumpeted at the wunderkind of magazine publishing for nearly a decade, Wenner has had difficulties expanding beyond his original biweekly tabloid. A new magazine called Outside, “to cash in on the outdoor market,” as Wenner describes it, was sold after a year and a half to a competitor, Mariah. A Rolling Stone television special last year bombed gruesomely, and Rolling Stone Press, a packager of books for other publishing houses, has yet to catch fire. Most notoriously, Wenner’s much-publicized partnership this past summer with Daniel Filipacchi to save Look magazine expired after seven weeks of venom and chaos. Look expired with it. 

Undaunted, however, Wenner has plunged into a raft of new projects—more as a businessman than as an editor. “I turned over the editorial side, finally, to Harriet Fier. I did it a long time. I worked with Tom [Wolfe] and Hunter [Thompson] and the writers I’d wanted to work with, and I wanted to do something else. And I though the editorial side would run better. It had freed me up incredibly.”

One project is producing a record of Kenny Packard, a romantic pop-rock composer and performer. (Wenner produced a Boz Scaggs album a few years ago.) Another is the restoration of the Hudson Theater of Forty-fourth Street with music promoter Ron Delsener. “It’s the oldest theater on Broadway. It opened with Ethel Barrymore in Cousin Kate in 1902,” Wenner says.

Thirdly, he has an eighteen- month contract with Paramount, a deal that developed through pal Irving Azoff, manager of the Eagles, Boz Scaggs, and others, to produce three motion pictures. The notion is to mainline into whatever it was that made box-office bonanzas out of the movies Animal House, Midnight Express and comedians Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, and Wenner’s first couple of ideas are his own. One involves San Francisco in the mid-1960s—”sort of autobiographical,” he confides—and the other, “high-adventure dope smuggling in the Caribbean.”

As for magazines, Wenner has just started a quarterly for students called College Papers. Run by Wenner’s sister. Kate, it adds up to a cheaper, more sophomoric Stone. Its first issue features comedienne Gilda Radner on the cover, backed by pieces on singer Bruce Springsteen’s schooldays, women’s basketball, aging beatnik William Burroughs, and beer drinking. As might be expected, its advertisements are virtually all for whiskey, beer, movies, and stereo equipment. 

Biggest of all his projects, however, is Wenner’s attempt to create a slick Look-a-like without the Look name. Wenner and his team manages to put out only one Look issue of their own before Filipacchi closed the doors. That was the August issue, which wound up looking a little like People magazine with bigger pictures, beautifully reproduced, and longer articles. Wenner had vowed to eschew celebrity mongering and new “to have Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the cover.” Instead, he put actress Sally Field on the cover, with articles on rock ‘n’ roll’s Doobie Brothers, Hollywood’s Bottoms brothers, author William Styron, Fiorucci’s “freak-chic” fashions, and yet another woolgatherer on how nobody can figure out Jerry Brown’s politics but he knows Jane Fonda.

Armed with that issue, Wenner is now trying to raise $10 million. One possibility is to take in a corporate partner, perhaps a foreign publishing group. Meanwhile, “we’re looking at investment bankers—just laid it out to Morgan Stanley,” Wenner says with a faint air of astonishment, as if to say, “Gee! Imagine me talking with Morgan Stanley!”

Rolling Stone‘s circulation is close to 700,000, and the average age of its readers is not twenty-five, up from twenty-one a decade ago. Editorially, Stone is roughly half pictures. About half of its articles are music-related, while perhaps forty per cent of its ads are music-related. By contrast, the new magazine will be aimed at an older but more affluent twenty-five to thirty-nine-year-old crowd. Photos will fill about seventy per cent of the editorial space. Perhaps as little as fifteen per cent of the ads, but thirty per cent of the articles, will be related to pop music. 

“The music business is bigger than the film business,” Wenner says in defense of his formula. “It’s bigger than television, if you exclude affiliated stations.” Wenner adheres to the tenet that pop music is the central element, the armature, of most people’s lifestyles and cultural identity. “A lot of great editors—Henry Grunwald, Clay Felker—they know that. But they don’t like it,” says Wenner. “They didn’t grow up with rock ‘n’ roll.”

Despite his successes, Wenner has his share of enemies. Some of his former employees refer to him as “Citizen Wenner,” a reference to the power-hungry Hearst-like publisher in the film Citizen Kane. Says one: “He never just lets you forget he owns the magazine and he owns you.” New York Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Armstrong, who used to handle the business side of Rolling Stone, heats up at the very mention of his name: “I absolutely will not talk about Wenner,” he says in a vitriolic tone. 

His first day at Look, Wenner quickly multiplied his enemies by firing more than half the staff in a single stroke. Almost everyone agrees that the Look staff needed a lot of culling. It was the way Wenner did it that rankles his victims. “We were in Kevin Buckley’s office,” recounts one Look senior editor who was axed. “Wenner came in and told us what a tough morning he’d had because he’d been on the Today Show. I mean, tough? We had been fired, for God’s sake. Then he said, ‘Well, it’s been nice working with you.’ I thought he was the most petulant, insensitive guy I’d ever met. I felt he was on a Napoleonic trip.”

Look‘s closing seven weeks later was, in Wenner’s words, “the biggest magazine disaster I’ve ever seen.” The magazine’s losses were reportedly approaching $10 million when Wenner came up with a plan requiring another $5 million to turn it around. Filipacchi, who also publishes Paris Match and Lui, the French version of Playboy’s Oui, apparently decided to cut his losses.

“He just lost his taste for it,” Wenner says. “He knew it wasn’t going to be his magazine any longer. He would still own fifty-one per cent, and his investors forty-nine per cent, but we’d run it – it would be ours. So he walked.”

Wenner then tried to but the magazine, or at least the Look name. “We could’ve had it. We had a deal. We were going to buy it for a buck and assume certain liabilities. Then he wanted to renegotiate. So I walked. I realized I’d rather do it on my own, clean, without having to deal with their cluttered past.”

Why did Filipacchi and his backers, a group that included Edmond de Rothschild and Sylvain Floirat, want to renegotiate? It is a subject that brings out Wenner’s bile. “Because they’re nuts. They’re greedy. They’re incompetent,” he says, his jaw thrust out in a pugnacious bulldog fashion. “Those damned frogs wanted to renegotiate everything. They said we had to take the racks – magazine racks in supermarkets. We told ’em to stuff it. We wanted the magazine.”

Although Wenner comes off as the California boy trying to crack the big leagues, he was in fact born in New York. His father, who used to have a baby-formula company in San Francisco and is now in Los Angeles real estate, changed his name from Wiener just before he married. “He didn’t want his kids to suffer all through school being called ‘weenie’ and ‘wienerschnitzel’ as he had. It didn’t work,” Jann remarks drily. “It was still ‘wienerschnitzel’ all through school.”

In this ‘teens, Wenner began encountering the major trends and styles rumbling out of the West Coast. For instance, “I got to boarding school, Chadwick, in Los Angeles when the surfer-beach boy thing was starting. My first girlfriend at Chadwick,” he recalls, “was Liza Minnelli. We held hands for a week,” He arrived at Berkeley in 1963, just as the free-speech and anti-war movements were fermenting, wrote a music column for the campus paper, and helped the NBC news team at the 1964 Republican Convention. A year or so later he dropped out of college and joined the staff of Ramparts, where he met Jane Schindelheim, a lithe New York-born beauty with an Oriental exoticism about her. “There’s got to be a Mongolian rapist in the background somewhere,” Wenner remarks. “She was doing subscriptions. We’ve been married eleven years now.”

Then, in 1967, Wenner raised $7,500 from family members, Jane, and such friends as Ralph Gleason, then music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, who became Wenner’s chief mentor, to launch his own publication.

“Wenner was an early music groupie,” recalls a colleague from those days. “He was fascinated by famous people, and the famous people around there who were the most accessible were the musicians, the ones starting to create the ‘San Francisco Sound.’ Starting Rolling Stone at that point—the name comes from an old Bob Dylan song—turned out to be a stroke of genius.”

The magazine might have rolled over and died during the disillusionment of the early 1970s, when the starry-eyed Aquarian Age suddenly turned into a nightmare of drugs, suicides, and the Manson and Altamont murders. Instead, it blossomed. It expanded into hard-eyed sociological and political reporting, became a leading vehicle for the so-called New Journalism, and began winning not only awards but readers and advertising all across the country.

“We weren’t slick. We weren’t Elaine-ized then,” Wenner recalls. It is evening. Wenner sprawls in the den of his duplex nest to another knife-gouged old table, his elbow tearing a whole in his shirt, his fist around the neck of yet another bottle. He is being the Hardbitten Newsman. 

“I never started out wanting to be a big magazine publisher,” he says. “I never set goals like that for myself. I just started out wanting to have fun.”

He turns on his stereo equipment and begins thumbing album covers His favorites are the oldies—Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, the Eagles, Bob Seger. “And a lot of rhythm-and-blues stuff,” he says, “Otis, the Impressions, Motown.” In his own field, Wenner is very conservative, and traditionalist.

He begins to dance, rolling his hips, drawing the rhythm up through his legs, up to his shoulders and into his arms, letting the beat take over. His eyes glitter. He is Wenner the Long-Haired Rocker now. He grins. His eyes seem to say: “Am I sexy? I was there, through all the major events of the Sixties; I was part of it. I am authentic, the real thing,” his eyes say, as if he is not certain he is the real thing at all. Two electric guitars stand erect, like bodyguards, in the corner. “I still want to have fun,” Wenner says. “I feel I’m still very much a kid.”

But the Sixties are over. For that matter, so are the Seventies. Jann Wenner is thirty-four and trying to crash the Big Time. He cannot articulate just what he is ambitious for, but the fever is in him. It is Wenner The Mogul whom he hopes will finally get through the doorway.

“Yeah, I realize I’m now definitely on the other side,” he says in a tough, quiet voice. “The side of the bosses.”


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