Jann Wenner says his magazine hasn't lost its spunk at 25


May 17, 1992|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer

New York To begin at the end, here's what Jann Wenner wants on his tombstone: "He was a great father, and he did great magazines."

The man who is father to three sons and founder of one of the great original magazines of our time, Rolling Stone, says he could live with that epitaph. So to speak.

"You know, when you ask somebody what they want on their tombstone, you're asking them, 'What are you fundamentally proudest of in your life? What is the thing that matters to you most?' " says Mr. Wenner, forcing each word through thin plumes of cigarette smoke.

It's an astute observation, he is told, and an agreeable epitaph, one that --

He interrupts to say it's also an unfinished one. There's more he wants on that tombstone, and here it is: "He knew all of the major celebrities of his time. And was a friend of movie stars. He may have had to leap across rows of seats to meet them, but he knew all the big ones. Like Telly Savalas." At this point, Jann Wenner -- great father, great magazine editor and a man who's sick and tired of the accusation he's a "star-struck celebrity hound" -- pauses, then explodes with laughter.

But there's an edge of bitterness in his laugh. It's the bitterness of a wildly successful, 46-year-old man who feels he's still not taken seriously enough. After all, here he is, the editor who helped change political reporting when he unleased gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in 1972 to cover the presidential campaign; the editor who enlisted Tom Wolfe to cover the last Apollo flights -- the four-part series later became "The Right Stuff"; the media magnate who owns not only Rolling Stone but US magazine and the fledgling Men's Journal.

And here he is, a man said to be worth $250 million -- a figure which, if not precisely accurate, is close enough. The fact is: He lives as if he's worth $250 million. There is, for instance, the five-story town house off Central Park West, the two fabulous houses in East Hampton, the private jet, the art collections, the motorcycles, and the household staffs that run into double digits.

But despite all this -- or maybe because of it -- Jann Wenner can't seem to shake the image of a man enthralled by the idea of celebrity. Even now, as Rolling Stone prepares to celebrate its 25th year of publication -- surely a verdict of success by any measurement -- even now, the slightest suggestion that he prefers hanging around people with names like Richard Gere or Michael Douglas or Billy Joel can derail Mr. Wenner.

Which is why he keeps coming back, like a tongue to an irritated tooth, to the Telly Savalas story. See, someone once wrote that Jann Wenner is so star-crazed that he climbed over five rows of people at a boxing match to introduce himself to Telly Savalas. The story, alas, has taken on a life of its own.

"Star-struck about Telly Savalas!" says Mr. Wenner now, denying the story. "People who are star-struck with Telly Savalas are like in casinos, you know. Give me a break."

Setting the record straight

So much of what has been written about him, he says, is just inaccurate. The stories that he grew up embarrassed because the family fortune derived from the baby food business; that he started Rolling Stone in order to meet John Lennon; that he was once wheeled by Caroline Kennedy into the chic restaurant, Elaine's, on some kind of diamond-studded cart; that once after a cocaine-snorting binge, he met Jacqueline Onassis for lunch at Orsini's and promptly began sneezing blood.

"They make things up," Mr. Wenner says of reporters. He swivels around in his expensive, caramel-colored leather chair to gaze out the glass wall that lines one end of his spacious, impeccably elegant office. "They depend on a lot of very highly colorful, emotional and inaccurate accounts." Pause. "I think accuracy's very important." Pause. "The lack of accuracy in journalism today is, I think, fundamentally what's behind the public's distrust of the press."

All right. So let's try to piece together an accurate account -- or at least, a fair account, since accuracy is a slippery thing -- of the 21-year-old Berkeley dropout who back in 1967 had an idea for a revolutionary magazine, one that would blend music, culture and politics together in a way that young people understood. In a week, the first of three special issues celebrating the 25th anniversary of that magazine hits the stands.

It is a tribute to the vision of Jann Wenner, who saw that if you published a magazine that addressed the concerns of young people, they would buy it. But the foundation upon which he built Rolling Stone, of course, was music.

"Music was the glue holding that generation together," Mr. Wenner says now. "And those were real people singing about real things, things that mattered to people's lives."

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