Meeting Citizen Wenner
Questioning Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner about his role in the demise of the New Journalism.
By Bill Beuttler (for Creative Nonfiction course, Columbia University School of the Arts, taught by Seymour Krim, spring 1984)
A Stray Cat stared down at me in living color, his tattoos bristling and blond hair greased back. Beside him the Beatles were mugging in striped, old-fashioned swimsuits, their framed photographs taking up a good 20 feet of pale blue Rolling Stone office wall.
Wenner was keeping me waiting. I’d arrived early for my two o’clock appointment, and it was now 20 minutes after. The oversized rock photos and Central Park view were getting boring, but there was nowhere else to look without feeling self-conscious. Staff members, most of them good-looking young women, eyed me curiously as they strode through the reception area, where I sat in a plain plastic chair with its back to a wall. A busty receptionist sat facing me, her desk near the center of the spacious, gray-carpeted room. She munched a hero sandwich and sipped Diet Pepsi from a wine glass she’d scrounged from a nearby room.
“Are you waiting to see someone?” she asked, after I’d been seated a while.
“Yeah. I’m here to see Wenner.”
“Oh.” She returned to her lunch. I stared out the window.
I wondered what he’d be like. Robert Sam Anson had called him “Citizen Wenner” in his history of Rolling Stone, which detailed Wenner’s rise from Berkeley dropout to founding publisher of the multimillion-dollar rock magazine. The impression Anson’s book create hadn’t been favorable, nor were the comments I was getting from writers. Jann Wenner sounded like an autocratic asshole.
Tim Crouse thought Wenner was ruining the magazine by devoting too much space to celebrities, turning it into a hip version of People magazine. “The fatal discovery on Jann’s part was that movie stars sold more of the magazines when they were on the cover than anybody else,” Crouse had told me. “You’re not going to get any new talent if you don’t encourage it, if you don’t seek it out, if you’re trying to fill up the pages with celebrities instead of people who are coming up.” Crouse said that editors who challenged the trend toward fluff were routinely fired.
He also criticized Wenner’s editing. “You always have to watch out for people who spend a lot of time on airplanes going from coast to coast.” Crouse said Wenner would edit galleys on redeye flights, making “huge cuts without even worrying about reshaping the transitions. So often he would turn things into nonsense.”
“Wenner loved to fuck with people’s copy and he loved to humiliate people,” another former Rolling Stone writer later told me. He described Wenner’s editing graphically: “Imagine this article, 25 to 30 typewritten pages, you’ve just put your heart and soul into. You turn it in to your editor, and he’s snorting a gram of an illicit substance, there in front of you, and drinking Stolichnaya from the bottle. He takes your manuscript and starts scribbling on it with a green pen.”
Hunter Thompson had helped me arrange my interview with Wenner. He’d phoned me from Colorado in response to a letter I’d written asking why New Journalism, which he’d helped Tom Wolfe pioneer in the 1960s, seemed dormant. Thompson blamed editors, particularly Wenner. At the time, the two were discussing whether Thompson would cover the Grenada invasion for Rolling Stone. Thompson said Wenner favored the invasion; Thompson strongly opposed it. Thompson said Wenner’s attitude was typical of editors in the 1980s, whose fear of offending conservative readers and advertisers was making it hard for New Journalism to be published. “Now is not the time, in terms of journalism, to take on the Establishment in tandem with equally committed editors and an equally committed publisher. We’re talking about the death of rock and roll.”
Thompson said I’d have to talk to editors to find out what happened to New Journalism. I said I’d tried, but had been brushed off. He said he’d help and gave me Wenner’s private office phone number.
The next night Thompson called again. He’d phoned Wenner and was now going to Grenada. He’d also told Wenner I’d be calling and what I’d be asking about. Thompson said Wenner was scared. “He said he was going to offer you a job.” Before hanging up he made sure I had Wenner’s number. I repeated the number he’d given me the night before, but Thompson had another number to give me. He told me to call the new one and laughed. “That’ll really scare the piss out of him.”
I phoned the next day. Wenner’s secretary answered. I told her Wenner had spoken with Thompson and was expecting my call. “Hunter?” she asked. She sounded impressed. “Just a minute.” When she returned to the phone she said, “Jann wants to know if you could write him a letter telling him what you want to talk about.” I agreed, and hung up.
I mailed the letter, waited a week, and called for an appointment. Jann’s out of town, I was told, call back next week. I did so, and had better luck. “Jann’s read your letter. He wants to talk to you.”
"He’s ready to see you now. Sorry to keep you waiting.” It was Wenner’s secretary, Mary. She led me down a narrow, white hallway, past several office cubicles. The place was clean, almost sterile – the antithesis of the cluttered San Francisco office I’d read about. Only one staffer wore blue jeans – a bearded, balding, pot-bellied man who looked like he’d been with Rolling Stone in San Francisco. Mary wore a red dress. We could have been inside the New York Times. Well, not quite. I was the only one wearing a sportcoat and tie. We reached Wenner’s office and Mary pointed inside.
It took me a moment to spot Wenner as I stepped inside his executive-sized office. He sat at a big, black antique desk, just to my right as I looked in the door. He was looking at me with as much curiosity as I was at him. I introduced myself and we shook hands, Wenner remaining seated. As I sat down, he launched a brisk, chatty monologue about William Styron’s piece on John F. Kennedy in the Golden Anniversary issue of Esquire: “It’s really well-written, I mean, it reads really well, but it’s about how Styron meets him on a boat one time, and Jackie, and he spends a couple hours having cocktails, cruising off Hyannis. And then it’s about them meeting at some party in New York City about nine or ten months later, and Jack Kennedy being flattering, nice to him. But it’s all about these two casual meetings – very well-written – but it’s not an article I would say explores the heading, ‘Fifty Who Made a Difference.’ And a lot of it’s like that. So I don’t know what they pay people, but for $10,000 it’s hard to turn down doing a 2,000-word essay. But some of it’s great – I understand Tom’s piece on the inventor of the chip was excellent.” He took a deep breath. “So … “
“So you know pretty much what I’m here to ask about,” I said.
“Well, I guess,” he replied, having another look at my letter, the only piece of paper on his desk when I came in. “Why I destroyed the New Journalism, is that…?” He was grinning.
“Not exactly.” I asked Wenner’s opinion of a handful of theories other writers and editors had given me regarding New Journalism’s decline and whether he had others to contribute. As we spoke, Wenner twice got up and paced the room, strolling past a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniel’s that sat atop the office liquor cabinet. He didn’t look like a magazine editor. I’d read that he had begun wearing suits and ties since moving Rolling Stone to New York, but this afternoon he was wearing a checked flannel shirt. With his longish dark hair and chubby, tanned cheeks, Wenner, now in his later thirties, reminded me of the blue-collared season ticket holders I used to see at hockey games in Chicago.
He spoke quickly, but his thoughts still seemed to race ahead of his words, which occasionally came out a bit tangled. He kept referring to my letter, which had listed a few possible causes for New Journalism’s decline. At one point he flipped the letter over to sketch three lines depicting the history of New Journalism: “From Esquire to Rolling Stone and then out.”
Wenner said that the shift from New Journalism was caused by the disappearance of “interesting and weird” subjects (“The counterculture’s kind of disappeared, hasn’t it? It ain't my fault.”) and the absence of talented writers (“Anybody can do it half-ass, and too many people do.”).
“There’s not much that writers like Tom Wolfe or Hunter really want to write 20,000 words about anymore, or 10,000 words,” he said. “And there’s not many subjects that you the reader want to read about. I’m not interested in reading a lengthy, 25,000-word piece about Evel Knievel, are you?”
I told him that Wolfe disagreed about the lack of good material. Wolfe had told me that there would always be plenty to write about in a country the size of America, and had even suggested a couple of story ideas. One of them, break-dancing in the South Bronx, had already appeared in Rolling Stone.
“Tom’s been hocking on that thing for about two years,” Wenner said. “Somebody gave him some records. … But you’re not going to get Tom interested in doing that, and you’re not going to get Hunter interested in doing that. And until some brilliant young guy or brilliant young girl comes along and does that, that’s going to be part of the problem – not having the writers.”
Wenner said that another problem is that most of the things going on in the ’80s are covered so exhaustively by other media that no one wants to read more about them from New Journalists in Rolling Stone.
I argued that there should still be room for unique treatments of events. “Take something like the Vietnam War. When people started realizing what was going on it was in all the papers, it was on the news all the time. And yet, the best accounts of it – there was still room for someone like Michael Herr to go out and write Dispatches. So maybe there are possibilities.”
“We’ll see. Hunter’s back from Grenada this week.”
“He’s not done with the piece?”
“He just started on it yesterday,” Wenner said. It was already two weeks after the deadline Thompson had mentioned, laughing, when he’d told me he was going.
Wenner crossed the room and grabbed a rolled-up beige poster, which he brought back and spread out on his desk. “He brought this back from Grenada. This is put out by the CIA station chief there. There, see? They published this poster. Read this.” The poster asked for information about island subversives. Wenner and I gaped at it like a pair of schoolboys.
The poster prompted me to get Wenner’s response to Thompson’s and Crouse’s remarks about how he was ruining Rolling Stone by pandering to advertisers and emphasizing celebrity fluff. He rolled up the poster and circled the office, a huge smile spread across his face, as I recounted my talks with Thompson. Wenner said they were both wrong, the magazine hadn’t changed much.
I sided with Thompson and Crouse, and started talking about differences between Rolling Stone ten years ago and now.
“How old are you,” Wenner asked, pausing for comic effect, “son?”
“So ten years ago you were fourteen, tell me …”
“I’ve been reading microfilm.”
“I don’t think our advertising base or anything like that has anything to do with it, really,” he said. “It’s just that you get periods where a bunch of good writers all come along together, or separately, and that’s matched by a good editor, or good editors, with the right vehicle – you’re in business. You know? And that comes and goes in cycles, ’cause you’re dealing rally with talent. Your controlling factors aren’t advertising bases; you’re dealing with art, and art goes in cycles. You get one person who comes along, like Picasso, the Beatles, or Elvis, and they create an enormous breakthrough, an advance, and a perspective. And that sets the tone, it kicks off a whole evolution in art. A whole new field. And then it goes dry for a while.
“It also has to do with the amount of journalism that’s around today, in all other fields of all other kinds – new, old, pig, cat, or dog. You don’t have Defoe anymore, because you have television. You don’t have Fielding, you have television.
“It’s those ebbs and flows that govern this sort of writing. Not that I won’t send Hunter to Grenada, which I did. And I believe it was my idea, and not his. That really doesn’t matter, does it?” He glanced once more at my letter. “Are you from Chicago?” I said yes, and he set the letter aside. “And if you’re going to give somebody 20,000 words they’d better be good enough to handle it, whatever the form.”
He reached for his cigarette lighter for the first time since I’d arrived. “There’s no change in politics at Rolling Stone?” I asked.
“Uh unh,” he replied, inhaling.
“No aim at making it a little more slick?”
“Oh no, there’s definitely an aim to make it more slick, more professional. Better done, better put together, spend more money on it. But that hasn’t changed the basic politics of the magazine.”
“And you aren’t trying to become less controversial? You know, the mood of the country is becoming pretty conservative … “
“Oh, I’m aware of that,” Wenner interrupted. “And I think everybody becomes more conservative as they get older. I mean, 99 percent of the people do – maybe Saul Alinsky doesn’t – but everybody becomes conservative as they get older. Even Tom and Hunter. Even Hunter, “ he repeated, grinning. “If you hang around a while you might meet him,”
“Oh, he’s going to be in?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s always impossible …”
Wenner looked across his desk at my watch and began whistling nervously. He yanked up his phone receiver and punched out a four-digit extension number with his stubby, badly chewed fingers.
“But insofar as selling more copies of the magazine and getting more advertising …” he began, interrupting himself when one of his editors answered the phone call.
“Alan, did you get some stuff from Hunter this morning? … Is that notebook stuff? …. When did you get that from him? … He left it last night? … Have you heard from him today? … What time was he trying to wake him up? … Well, he’s supposed to have written a bunch of stuff last night. Is that your expectation? … He’s supposed to have. … OK, thanks. … All right, thanks, Alan. Bye.”
“… About advertising and all that kind of stuff?” Wenner said, resuming our conversation and dragging on his cigarette. “To have a Hunter and Tom Wolfe writer regularly in Rolling Stone could only be to the benefit of advertising, sales, and readership. So au contraire. That’s what really sells the issues, not movie stars.”
“What else?” Wenner asked, but we’d been talking a half-hour, and I was running out of questions. “What are you going to do when you graduate from journalism school – is this the year you’re supposed to graduate?”
“I don’t know. I’m waiting for job offers.” I laughed, wondering if Wenner had been serious when he’d told Thompson he’d make me one.
“Jesus,” he said, shaking he head.
“Probably try to catch onto one of the Chicago papers, or I’ve also talked to an editor in New Orleans.”
Thompson had promised to give me a call when he came to New York, so as I put on my coat I asked Wenner to remind him to do so. “That wouldn’t be in my interest,” he said. “Hunter would love to sit around and tell stories, but I’ve got to get him to finish the Grenada article.
“But I will tell him you stopped by, and that you’re a nice young man …” The onetime enfant terrible of magazine journalism caught himself in mid-thought. “Jesus, listen to me, ‘Nice young man.’”
© Bill Beuttler