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Jann Wenner and His Biographer Have a Falling Out

Not long after the surgery, Mr. Wenner read “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.” Rather than triumphant, he felt betrayed, according to eight people close to Mr. Wenner.


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

The project began in 2013 in bucolic Tivoli, N.Y., where Mr. Hagan lives and Mr. Wenner has a home. They ran into each other and bonded over their children. Mr. Hagan, then a staff writer at New York magazine who has interviewed Karl Rove and Hillary Clinton, found himself intrigued.

“Your little inner Tom Wolfe is activated,” he said.

Some time later, Mr. Wenner picked Mr. Hagan up in a Porsche, the satellite radio tuned to a station playing 1950s-vintage oldies. Over lunch Mr. Wenner proposed an idea: Would Mr. Hagan write his biography?

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

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages. (Knopf, which had initially bought Mr. MacAdams’s book, said the stalled deal was canceled in 2014.) In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase — Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million — before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

To test Mr. Wenner’s willingness to handle unflattering information about himself, Mr. Hagan said he gathered anecdotes, including from the 1990 book “Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History” by Robert Draper, which was said to be banned in the magazine’s offices, and ran them by his prospective subject.

“He became incredibly agitated,” Mr. Hagan said. “I came out of that meeting very disenchanted.” Mr. Wenner also indicated that he would like to have some veto power over coverage of his sexual history.

In a letter to Mr. Wenner shortly after their meeting, Mr. 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 traveling in elite celebrity circles as a gay man married to a woman.” Mr. Hagan demanded the biography be unauthorized. “I have to be able to determine for myself what’s relevant and what isn’t,” he wrote. “And I can’t do that under the threat of legal recourse.”

Eventually, Mr. Wenner agreed to read the book only once it had reached its final form, and Mr. Hagan signed a deal for $1.5 million with Knopf.

Across years of reporting, Mr. Hagan conducted more than 240 interviews and spoke with Mr. Wenner for dozens of hours. He mined Rolling Stone archives and his subject’s cache of letters and files. “From boyhood, he compulsively hoarded every document of his life,” Mr. Hagan writes in the book’s prologue, “because he believed he would one day be important.


Mr. Wenner in 1977.

Jean Pigozzi, via Penguin Random House

Mr. Wenner seemed giddy at first. Mr. Hagan recalled seeing the actor Michael Douglas, a longtime friend of Mr. Wenner’s, during a visit to Rolling Stone. “Jann introduced me as his biographer,” Mr. Hagan said. “He was very proud to have a biographer.”

Mr. Wenner and Mr. Hagan spent long hours chatting on the veranda of the Tivoli Hotel. “He would say, ‘One day they’re going to put a plaque on this wall and say that’s where it all happened,’” Mr. Hagan recalled. Mr. Wenner also facilitated interviews with, among others, Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. Even Mr. Wenner’s ex-wife, Jane, typically media-shy, spoke with Mr. Hagan on the record and with candor.

“Jann wanted the big, serious book, and here was somebody who he decided he could trust,” said Jon Landau, an early Rolling Stone employee and friend of Mr. Wenner’s since 1967, who went on to manage Bruce Springsteen.

The writing of a biography — a fraught and invasive endeavor — is especially complicated when the subject is not only still living but continues to wield influence. In 2000, a book about the entertainment magnate David Geffen stirred similar controversy after Mr. Geffen pulled his cooperation.

“At the end of the day, you have no one to blame but yourself when you agree to be the subject of a book,” Mr. Geffen said in an interview. (He spoke to Mr. Hagan for “Sticky Fingers.”)

Things began to go sour this spring when Mr. Wenner objected to the title. He found “Sticky Fingers” cheap, Mr. Hagan said. To win him back, the writer sent him “the most emotional email that I can remember writing to anybody,” arguing that the book (and its title) was “about the ambition of a generation.”

In what seemed like a peacemaking overture, or a challenge, Mr. Wenner proposed that the two of them appear together at a 92nd Street Y event on Nov. 1. Other promotional opportunities also began to take shape, including an event featuring Mr. Hagan at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which Mr. Wenner co-founded.

After Labor Day, Mr. Hagan sent Mr. Wenner an early copy of the book. “I hope you like it,” Mr. Hagan wrote in a brief note. “It’s a true story.”

Mr. Wenner did not like it.

In short order, Knopf informed Mr. Hagan that he would no longer take part in the 92nd Street Y discussion; he would be replaced by the filmmaker Alex Gibney, who was making a documentary about Rolling Stone for HBO. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where Mr. Wenner remains chairman of the foundation that oversees inductions (and was inducted himself in 2004), canceled on Mr. Hagan, too.


Mr. Wenner in 2013.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“This was not done at Mr. Wenner’s behest,” said Todd Mesek, a spokesman for the hall. He added that the book did not “complement” the hall’s planned celebration of Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary. “The excerpts we’ve read take a much different tone than what we originally understood,” Mr. Mesek said.

Mr. Wenner’s disapproval of the final product may stem partly from his position of vulnerability: While Mr. Hagan was researching and writing, Mr. Wenner’s media empire showed signs of collapsing under the weight of an industry-wide financial downturn and a debunked article published in Rolling Stone on a rape allegation at the University of Virginia. Over the last year, Mr. Wenner has sold two titles, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, and in mid-September, he announced that his company’s remaining share of Rolling Stone is up for sale.

Others were also sympathetic to Mr. Wenner. Vanity Fair swapped out an excerpt it had initially planned to run about the Wenners’ marriage. “It was just too personal,” Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor, said in an email. The magazine instead published a portion of the book focused on Mr. Wenner’s rocky relationship with Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono.

Mr. Landau said he found the focus on Mr. Wenner’s sexuality to be excessive. “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer,” he said. “To me it’s a question of degree and tone, and while I can see it from Joe’s point of view — and there is no doubt that Joe is a serious writer and journalist — I think the final product is simply not as fair to Jann as it could have been.”

Mr. Hagan said that when he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing “every instance in which he had sex with anybody in the book” and anything else “super personal.”

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

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

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