Oral History: Glenn O’Brien’s Friends Remember a ‘Successful Maniac’
Andy Warhol hired him. Madonna sang at his 50th birthday party. He taught readers of GQ and Details how to dress. Few people have navigated New York’s tribes — art, fashion, media, music — quite like Glenn O’Brien.
He grew up in Cleveland and met his future colleague Bob Colacello when they were students at Georgetown University. In his early 20s, he began his life in New York, where he found himself among the Warhol crowd at the Factory. In the decades between his arrival and his death last Friday at age 70, he served three stints as editor of Interview; hosted a public access television show, “TV Party,” whose guests included George Clinton, Deborah Harry and Mick Jones; edited “Sex,” the book by Madonna, as well as High Times magazine; was the creative director for advertising at Barneys New York; and flashed his wit as the Style Guy columnist at Details and GQ.
Here, some of those who knew him well share their memories:
Danny Fields, former manager of the Ramones; punk rock impresario
Glenn arrived at the Factory after Andy was shot and it had moved to Union Square. Let me say this: It was different. It wasn’t funky and the world wasn’t funky. And here came the new generation. And there was Glenn. He looked like this perfect Catholic young gentleman. And if he was the spearhead of the new generation to inherit this culture, there was this sense that it would be O.K.
Bob Colacello, author, former editor of Interview, Vanity Fair special correspondent
After about a year, I gave my title and job to Glenn because I was traveling so much with Andy. The idea was that I was supposed to oversee him, but Glenn was not someone who liked being overseen. Glenn had an aversion to authority, and what was difficult at the Factory was that you had like four bosses. You had Andy, you had Paul Morrissey, you had Fred Hughes, and you had Peter Brant, who had bought half the magazine. Sooner or later, Glenn got into tangles with all of them, especially with Peter, and was replaced. When that didn’t work out, I was brought back. I went to Glenn and said: “We need a music column. Nobody here really follows the music scene.” Glenn started this Beat column, which became so influential — like Clement Greenberg to the Abstract Expressionists; that’s what he was to the punk movement. I would run into people like Lisa Robinson and Danny Fields, who would tell me, “Do you realize that three of the bands Glenn wrote about in the last month or two have been signed by major labels?”
Fred Brathwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, hip-hop pioneer; camera operator of “TV Party”
Glenn got it before anybody else. There was nothing, with the exception of maybe Norman Mailer’s essay about graffiti from the early ’70s, that said that it could be looked at as art. Glenn totally supported, endorsed and championed what we were doing. Glenn wrote the first major article for High Times on myself and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And featured us on the show. Jean-Michel had formed his band, called Gray, which only had a handful of performances. It was kind of like this no wave, noise band — very arty, almost industrial. One of their first gigs was at the Mudd Club. Our whole “TV Party” crew was there to see Jean in action. I remember Jean-Michel came out of this wooden box on stage playing the clarinet. That was a major night.
Roberta Bayley, photographer
He was going to move to Mott Street. He and his girlfriend didn’t have a credit card, so he asked me if I could rent them a car to move their stuff. And I did it, no problem. Later, I’m asleep, and a police officer calls me, saying, “We’ve impounded your car.” It turned out that Glenn and Jean-Michel had gone up to Harlem in this van to buy drugs and they got stopped. The cops stopped them and then they couldn’t prove why they had this car. I had him arrested. I also sued him in small claims court. And our friendship was never dented.
Bobby Grossman, artist
We had this crazy, endless day, around 1982. We were smoking pot in the car and it was all good. It was still early in the day, and we were in the East Village, so we decided to cop some drugs. I went to the A.T.M. machine and went further east into Alphabet City, and of course I got mugged and they took all my money.
Sire Records had moved uptown to a high-rise since they’d discovered Talking Heads and the Ramones. Since I had friends there, I would get records. Went up the elevator, came down with a stack of records, went back downtown to Sounds records. Sold all these brand-new records. Got more money. Went over to Alphabet City. Successfully got our drugs. Mission accomplished. Later that night he was spinning records upstairs at the Mudd Club.
Kate Simon, photographer and writer
I remember he was doing stand-up comedy. It might have been at Tramps, and Keith Richards was there with his wife and this actress, Lois Chiles. She was on “Dallas,” and Glenn had this big crush on her. He’s doing his routine and he stops the show to yell at Keith Richards: “Hey! Keep it down, up front.” I thought that was funny — to look dead in the eye of Keith Richards and tell him to keep it down.
Duncan Hannah, artist
He went on a vacation with Bryan Ferry and I think the art dealer Paul Kasmin. They’d all rented a house in Provence, or maybe Cap d’Antibes, somewhere glamorous. It was a jolly bunch except for Bryan Ferry, who just sat in a lawn chair and was reading P. G. Wodehouse books and chuckling to himself. This irritated Glenn so much that he just went over and took the book out of Bryan’s hands and threw it over the sea wall. Which really irritated Bryan Ferry, who didn’t think it was funny at all. I said to him, “You actually did that?” He said: “Yeah, it was so annoying. We’re all trying to have some fun and then there’s Bryan Ferry chuckling to himself.”
Matt Dillon, actor
Glenn was smart and honest and didn’t care if people didn’t like what he had to say. He spoke the truth.
Adam Rapoport, editor in chief, Bon Appétit; former editor at GQ
One day in the mid-2000s, Glenn and I were sitting in a conference room at GQ, going over a feature he had written. It was December, the thick of holiday-party season, and Glenn had been out the past three nights and was talking about what he had on tap that evening and the next. I asked, How could a 60-year-old guy have that kind of stamina? He looked at me, almost incredulously, and said, “Adam, it’s my job.” I had never thought of it like that. Glenn could be effortlessly charming and elegant. But in reality, Glenn was a hustler, one of the hardest working guys in the biz. He woke up every single morning, on what I imagine were really nice sheets, and punched the clock.
Christopher Bollen, novelist; editor at large, Interview
The year we relaunched Interview, 2008, was a notoriously difficult year for magazines. But Glenn made it feel that we were starting out on a gorgeous dawn. Whenever the subject arose of why a certain celebrity would want to appear on the cover or why a certain brand would want to advertise, Glenn would respond with a deeply bewildered expression, as if the questioner were on heavy pills. “Why wouldn’t they?” he’d answer, as if it were self-evident. Glenn had a trait known to geniuses: the confidence to assume that whatever he spent his time working on was the best and baddest thing going down. Unless some of those brands or celebrities made demands we couldn’t fulfill. Then he would say, “Tell them we’re just a little hippie magazine doing what we can to get by.”
Michael Hainey, executive director of editorial, Esquire; former editor at GQ
He could be prickly. Maybe a year ago, he called me up and said, “Let’s meet for breakfast.” We made a plan to meet at the Smile, which is across the street from his house. For some reason, I got there 10 minutes late. I walked in and said, “Glenn, I’m really sorry.” And he said, “Uh huh.” He just froze me out. He said, “I could have slept an extra 10 minutes.” I said: “Glenn, you literally rolled out of bed. You literally have your slippers on.” And he says, “Uh huh,” and he starts moving things around the table. And I asked, “Are we really doing this?” He said: “You’re right. I’m sorry.” I think that was like the father in him, where he’d never be afraid to take you on. He had this way of tapping into my own lost father thing. He stepped into that role and scared the hell out of me. Like, “Dad’s mad at me.” At the same time he was a kindly priest for all of us. And someone who could draw your confessions from you.
Tom Sachs, artist
“A man is a successful maniac” is one of Glenn’s many pearls of wisdom. He also taught me that what I’ve been doing all my life was as much sympathetic magic as it is sculpture. On his deathbed, he quoted the third law of thermodynamics, which was about stasis and the stopping of entropy in a perfect crystal as the temperatures approach absolute zero. Somehow, even coming to terms with what was going on with his own life ending, he confirmed for me with authority that art is about writing your own rules and intercourse everything else.
Richard Pandiscio, creative director
I am hapless when it comes to dressing myself. I have no talent for it. Blue suit and a white shirt. So when I got a call from Glenn to come over early one night before a dinner party — he had been losing weight and he had some pants he thought would fit me better than they fit him — I was thrilled at an offer of pants from the Style Guy. He brought me three bags of pants and shorts from one of his favorite shops, Supreme, that indeed all fit me well. I told him to hold on to them in case he put the weight back on, but he refused. He was telling me two things, but only one was on the page and I would only let that one register: Wear better pants.
Deborah Harry, of Blondie
I will miss his wonderful wit and way with words. New York City and the publishing world were much better off when Glenn O’Brien was here, adding his delightful insights.
Chris Stein, of Blondie
Yeah, Glenn could have saved every magazine.
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