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Jann Wenner, Startup Bro

The case for the Rolling Stone founder as the proto-Zuckerberg.

Photo-Illustration: Clark Miller

 

 

In the 50 years since he dropped out of UC Berkeley and founded Rolling Stone from a loft on Brannan Street, Jann Wenner has been called many things: boy wonder, social climber, opportunist. But in Joe Hagan’s new biography of Wenner, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Oct. 24, Knopf ), the famed editor comes off as nothing so much as a proto–startup bro, right down to the SoMa address. Says Hagan, “He definitely set the template for piratical Silicon Valley characters.” How else did the Rolling Stone founder—who in September put the old rag up for sale—presage the dot-com billionaire? Let us count the ways.

He “Borrowed” His Idea
Wenner “borrowed heavily,” Hagan reports, from The Sunday Ramparts, a short-lived magazine Wenner worked at in the mid-1960s. After it folded, Wenner took the layout and adapted it into what would become Rolling Stone. He also may have lifted the magazine’s premise, as well as a list of subscribers, from famed music promoter Chet Helms.

He Threw Good Money After Bad
Wenner spent lavishly, both on the magazine and on himself. In 1977, he paid Carl Bernstein $28,000 for a single article. (The All the President’s Men coauthor demanded that his fee be as high as the rent on Wenner’s Hamptons residence.) In 1985, he reportedly paid Tom Wolfe $200,000 to serialize The Bonfire of the Vanities.

He Was an Obsessive Self-Documenter
When Annie Leibovitz joined Rolling Stone as staff photographer, Wenner enlisted her as his personal portraitist. That meant shooting her boss “nearly every day,” Hagan reports. Wenner also kept scrapbooks of party invitations, correspondence, and ephemera, “physical evidence of the story Jann Wenner told about himself.”

He Flirted with Politics
Hagan writes that after Rolling Stone went in hard for McGovern in 1972 (as it would again for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), “there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that Wenner was putting the pieces together for a career in politics.” He didn’t follow through, but his campaign could’ve been the original Rock (or Zuck) the Vote.

He Oversaw a Hostile Workplace
Rolling Stone’s offices were a hotbed of drugs and sex. “Men did dominate,” recalls senior editor Ben Fong- Torres. The writers’ area of the later Third Street office was even dubbed “Macho Village.” Marianne Partridge, onetime copy chief, once proposed an article about a rape trial in San Francisco, to which writer Joe Eszterhas shot back, according to Hagan, “Why don’t you just lean back and enjoy it and it wouldn’t be rape?” On matters of diversity, the magazine wasn’t much better. “All you have to do is look at the staff photos—how few ethnic minorities there were,” Fong-Torres says.

He Bootstrapped—Hard
Wenner was shameless about funding his operation and hit up everyone he met for cash, including Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first staff photographer. Wolman didn’t invest, but he worked for free in exchange for company stock. “It was easy for him [to offer]—there was no company,” Wolman says now. Wenner bought back Wolman’s shares in the 1970s. “I’ve been living off that for years,” the photographer says.

He Grew Too Fast
Wenner traded up on Rolling Stone’s success with a series of now-forgotten spin-offs including a U.K. edition; an environmental magazine called Earth Times; the never-launched rags Politics and Netbook; something called New York Scenes; College Papers; and a parenting magazine. “It was like catch as catch can,” Hagan says.

He Wanted a Seat at the Table
Despite his success, Wenner was always desperate for affirmation. He decamped for New York and hobnobbed with the Kennedys and Andy Warhol. Counterculture may have been the vehicle, but the real engine was his ambition. “He’s a fill-in for the entire generation,” Hagan says. “He was not a hippie in any way. His values were to be in the mainstream.”

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 
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