Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and biographer Joe Hagan fall out

Jann Wenner does not like the book which Joe Hagan has written

Founder of Rolling Stone Jann Wenner with his youngest son Gus at the magazine's headquarters in New York City.
Founder of Rolling Stone Jann Wenner with his youngest son Gus at the magazine's headquarters in New York City.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • If things had gone according to Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner's plan, he and his biographer would be appearing together at parties, talks and other promotional events timed to the publication next Tuesday of the 547-page tome from Alfred A. Knopf.

Instead, he and Joe Hagan, the writer who spent four years chronicling his life, find themselves at an impasse. The reason is simple: Wenner does not like the book.

"I gave Joe time and access in the hope he would write a nuanced portrait about my life and the culture Rolling Stone chronicled," Wenner said on Tuesday, in his first public statement about the book. "Rock 'n' roll set me and my generation free musically, socially and politically. My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, he produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial."

Hagan said there was no reason Wenner should have been surprised by the book's contents. "It was all on the table - there's nothing he didn't know," the writer said. "He's used to having control and that's a difficult thing."

Wenner, 71, and Hagan, 46, last spoke to each other in June, during a difficult period in the media mogul's life.

He had broken his hip while playing tennis and had also suffered a heart attack. About to undergo triple bypass surgery, he called his biographer and told him what he was going through. Wenner, Hagan said, also slipped in the fact that rock star Bruce Springsteen had just paid him a visit.

"You're a tough guy," Hagan recalled telling his subject. "I'll see you on the other side."

Not long after the surgery, Wenner read Sticky Fingers: The Life And Times Of Jann Wenner And Rolling Stone Magazine. Rather than feeling triumphant, he felt betrayed, according to eight people close to him.

The comprehensive biography describes his rise to moguldom, his symbiotic relationships with pop-culture legends and the evolution of Rolling Stone from scrappy underground rag to shiny entertainment-industry magazine. It also excavates his personal life, including his complicated homosexuality, drug use, sexual escapades, familial friction and frequent feuds.

The project began in 2013 in bucolic Tivoli, New York, where Hagan lives and Wenner has a home. They ran into each other and bonded over their children.

Hagan, then a staff writer at New York magazine who has interviewed political adviser Karl Rove and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, found himself intrigued.

Some time later, Wenner proposed an idea over lunch: Would Hagan write his biography?

"Immediately, I was just really scared," Hagan said. "A lot of people walked the plank on his pirate ship."

Two previous attempts at an authorised Wenner biography had come to nothing.

In 2003, Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a long-time friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages.

In 2011, Rolling Stone writer Rich Cohen did not make it through the proposal phase.

To test Wenner's willingness to handle unflattering information about himself, Hagan said, he gathered anecdotes, including from the 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, which was said to be banned in the magazine's offices, and ran them by his prospective subject. "He became incredibly agitated," Hagan said.

Wenner also indicated that he would like to have some veto power over coverage of his sexual history. In a letter to Wenner shortly after their meeting, Hagan wondered whether he could write a biography "in which part of your life is fenced off from my inquiry". He added: "You spent 27 years travelling in elite celebrity circles as a gay man married to a woman."

Hagan demanded the biography be unauthorised. Eventually, Wenner agreed to read the book only once it had reached its final form and Hagan signed a deal for US$1.5 million with Alfred A. Knopf.

Hagan said when he was in the final stages of writing this year, he prepared a memo detailing personal details about his sex life.

During a lunch meeting at the Rolling Stone office, the writer appealed to Wenner's legacy as an editor known for giving writers freedom. "Don't blow it now," he said. Wenner leaned back, Hagan said, "and he signed off on all of it".

Well, except one detail: He asked that Hagan leave out the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2017, with the headline 'Rolling Stone founder and biographer fall out'. Print Edition | Subscribe