Joe Hagan on His Controversial New Jann Wenner Biography

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Jann Wenner Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall

A few years ago, journalist and former New York contributor Joe Hagan ran into Rolling Stone co-founder and magazine-world legend Jann Wenner at a cafe in a small town in New York. They struck up a conversation, one that ultimately led to Hagan’s biography of the mercurial publisher, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, which comes out October 24. “I was flattered that was interested in the idea of my writing the book,” says Hagan. “But I also knew that he had a reputation for burning people, and I wanted to make sure that if I was going to take the project on, I could do it with enough journalistic freedom that I’d still have my integrity after it was all done.”

It’d be hard to argue that Hagan wasn’t successful on that count. Sticky Fingers is rife with juicy celebrity gossip and insider detail. (And Wenner has already expressed his disappointment.) But more than that, it tells, in full, the story of a man — and magazine — who, for better or worse, came to define his generation.

Hagan spoke about the book from his home in the Hudson Valley.

For younger people who didn’t grow up reading Rolling Stone, why should Jann Wenner be relevant?
Because in a way, Jann Wenner represented the spirit of his age. All generations who are coming out into power are all alike, and given the slightest slack in the velvet rope they’ll take everything. That’s what baby boomers are about. I mean, Jann always calls himself the “First Child of Baby Boom.” And he was like the id of the baby boom. He was the raw thing of their ambition, and his life is a way of understanding how we’ve got to where we are as a culture today. At first when Trump was elected I was really blown away and wondering what it all meant, and then at some point it all made sense: Of course he was where we’ve been headed. Trump is the same age as Jann, there are parallels between the two in terms of their desire for fame and pursuit of power and our celebrity culture. It’s all become uncoupled from the idealism of the ’60s. It’s about fame and power, pure and simple, and Jann is a part of that transformation. I mean, if you look at the arc of the book, it starts with Jann and John Lennon and ends with Donald Trump on the cover of Rolling Stone. That’s the path of the culture.

The book has example after example of Wenner manipulating people to his own ends. Were you at all concerned that his willingness to cooperate with you was just a way of manipulating the end result?
Well, he’s giving me trouble right now because he hates the book.

Which is maybe a sign you did your job well.
Yeah, he thinks the whole thing’s salacious. I knew all along that the book was going to be difficult for him because he’s not a very reflective person. He hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about his life in real terms and there are people in this book who are saying things that maybe he hadn’t known they felt. Last spring I told him, “Jann, I just wanna prepare you. This book is going to be like looking at a portrait of yourself — half of it is in shadow and half of it is in light. You’re not going to like the shadow.” But if I’d just written the book that Jann dreamed of, it would’ve been a terrible book.
You needed to have people’s feelings of betrayal if you wanted to tell the true story.

What were the biggest sticking points when you were negotiating with him about the material you wanted to be able to report on?
His big thing was wanting to have control over the reporting about sex — who he slept with and whose names would come out. I remember I started listing off all these celebrities and saying, “Did you sleep with these people?” And he said, “No, no, no. It’s not that.” So we had all this negotiation and finally he said, “Listen. It’s not a big deal. But it’s a thing that I am concerned about.” From there, he suggested I write up a contract about what I wanted and needed in order to do this book and then we’d go back and forth to see if we could land somewhere mutually agreeable. And that’s what we started doing. It became about what my access to his archive would be like and what he would have the right to block or not block. Essentially it all came down to this little moment of risk for both us, where we said I can write about anything about his sex life if it relates to Rolling Stone or any of his other magazines and anything that he tells me about it on the record. And so I saw that as a pretty big opportunity for me because he’s actually pretty frank once you get down to it. As you see in the book.

The news that Jann was looking to sell his stake in Rolling Stone came out after the book was finished. What do you think it’ll mean for his self-identity to not have the magazine anymore?
The truth of it is that the financial world of Rolling Stone has been in really bad shape, and then you had the UVA controversy, and these things have determined where he’s ended up in this moment. But I would say that one of the points that I hope comes across in the book is how deeply Rolling Stone is an expression of Jann Wenner the man — his personality and his ego and his worldview. It’s almost like the magazine is a part of his body. He was having these physical ailments over the summer, and I had a conversation with friends of his and the thinking was that as the magazine was deteriorating, so was he.

Almost a psychosomatic response?
Totally. I saw the stress that was on Jann in the last couple of years as he was trying to get his son [Gus Wenner] to take over for him, and the financial stuff was hurting him — it’s the back end of his whole era, you know? Jann wouldn’t say it this way, but what’s happening in media and with his magazine is an ending, and all endings are painful. Transitioning to a life outside of Rolling Stone is going to be difficult for him.

What’s your sense of Gus’s aptitude for taking the publication into the future?
Gus seems smart. He seemed to recognize that Vice was a model for what Rolling Stone wanted to do. I think what Gus realized and in some ways, it’s obvious, is that Vice had the benefit of Rupert Murdoch and Tom Preston and people who could plug them into other larger companies with more leverage. Rolling Stone had survived as an independent magazine in a world where there was a lot of consolidation — because Jann Wenner treated it like his own personal pirate ship. Jann needed that kind of grit to keep Rolling Stone at the top of the game even though it had no corporate parent company like a Condé Nast or Hearst. But now here we are in the post-magazine world and Gus is a smart young man, but I don’t know if he has that ruthless fire in his belly and vision that Jann had. As Gus says in my book, the media world is not about one person’s editorial vision anymore. But if that thinking also applies to Rolling Stone, then it’s not really Rolling Stone anymore, is it?

Right at the end of the book, you have Will Dana, who used to edit Rolling Stone, saying that the eternal question about Jann Wenner is whether he’s 51 percent good and 49 percent bad or the other way around. What’s your answer to that question?
It’s an interesting metaphor. You know, life as a whole probably only ends 51 percent good, you know? But let me think this through for a minute … I’d say he’s a higher percentage good than that. How much higher I’m not sure.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Joe Hagan on His Controversial New Jann Wenner Biography