REMEMBERING GLENN O’BRIEN
By Dimitri Ehrlich
My career as a writer began under the bemused, wry and artful tutelage of Glenn O’Brien. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor. It was 1989, and I had just been hired as an editorial assistant at Interview Magazine. At the time, the magazine’s offices were still housed in the last Warhol factory. at 19 East 32nd Street, a hulking former Con Ed building with dark green ceramic tiles. Warhol’s paintings were still strewn all over, his weights were still out, his ghost was palpable. One of Warhol’s former superstars, Brigid Berlin, still worked as a receptionist.
I had no idea who Glenn was, but he was an affable boss and gave me my first bylines in the magazine. For a while, we co-wrote a column of record reviews called Sound Advice. I was 22 years-old and only vaguely aware of how cool it was to be sharing a column with him, but I slowly began to realize his impeccable downtown New York pedigree.
Glenn once told an interviewer that he went out every night in the 1970s and 80s—and he meant every night. Leafing through old issues of Interview, I discovered Glenn had interviewed Bob Marley, and was there at the Factory the day a then unknown David Bowie dropped by to sing for Warhol. But there was more. He had dated Grace Jones. He was the model for the cover of the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers—that’s his crotch you see when you unzip the pair of jeans on the cover (there is some debate about this—some say it was Joe Dallesandro, because Warhol photographed both so nobody knows for sure).
As the months wore on, I began to realize Glenn was not only a great mentor and boss, he was also a worthy hero. When I met him, he was still dressing in the slightly rumpled style of a cool but not well-paid writer. Glenn had been an editor of Interview in the 1970s—when I began to share an office with him, he had returned for the second of three stints. At this time, he was just beginning to transition from an edgy new wave artsy guy into fashion icon. It was around this time he got a job as creative director at Barney’s and I think he somehow managed to work out a deal where they let him shop for free, because he began to dress impeccably. Glenn knew how to get perks—he once told me, if people tell you they don’t have a budget to pay you for your writing, ask for a painting. (Not sure what perks he got as editor at large of High Times magazine, but he grinned a lot.)
Around the time he began re-inventing Barney’s ad campaign, he also reinvented his look. He started showing up in tailored Italian suits, expensive shoes, handmade shirts. But with Glenn, it was never about the label. He just knew how to dress. More than that, Glenn knew how to live. I was heavily influenced by him as a writer, but learned more from watching how he interacted with people, how he treated his friends, and how he negotiated. Perhaps the most significant lesson I learned was that while Glenn was kind and generous, he was never a push over. He didn’t ask for more than he deserved but he didn’t accept less. Glenn knew how to be a gentleman, but also how to stand up for himself in an appropriate way. He pushed back when people tried to take advantage—and indeed after a few months of working together, he had a fight with our editor in chief, Ingrid Sischy; I forget what the argument was about, but Glenn told her to go fuck herself and walked out.
By then, our friendship had been cemented and we continued to work together over the next two decades. There was no division between Glenn’s social world and his work life—he always gave his friends work. And his closest friends, Max Blagg, Linda Yablonksy, Fab 5 Freddy, John Lurie—were the cream of downtown New York. Once, he invited me to housesit for him in Fort Green Brooklyn. I remember looking through his rolodex and being awestruck that he had Madonna’s home number. (She later hired him as the editor and co-writer of her book, “Sex.”) He also had lot of amazing art on the walls, even though he was just beginning to earn serious money at that time. I recall seeing stacks of videotapes from his influential cable TV show Glenn O’Brien’s Cable TV Party—an inebriated and free-flowing talk show on which he interviewed Jean Michael Basquiat, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, David Bowie, George Clinton, and others.
When he returned as editor of Interview Magazine many years later, I began writing for him again. He was older, only slightly less active on the nightlife scene, and had evolved from being merely well-dressed to something more like a style samurai. I can’t say we had an emotionally intimate bond, because Glenn was a person who more often asked about you than talked about himself. He worked constantly—writing plays, a movie, several books, advertising campaigns, and the Style Guy column for GQ. In person, Glenn was quiet and understated. All his wit and energy and humor were poured into his work. But his work was always the kind of thing he would have done for fun anyway. As my career followed his in many ways—we both wrote for Rolling Stone and the New York Times and we both created advertising for Calvin Klein, and we both loved similar music—I also learned to emulate his wisdom for turning fun into a career. He brought such playfulness to his work, I’m not even sure “work” is the right word to describe what he did for a living. He lived for a living.
The way Glenn had fun never suggested not giving a fuck. His spirit was whimsical, not sarcastic. In conversation, his eyes twinkled with mischievous delight. He had the grin of a Cheshire cat. A smile that reflected an inner joy at simply being in on the joke of life. His eyelashes, which were pretty in an almost distracting way, would flicker while his face and voice remained deadpan. He was cool but not emotionless. He was always sharp but never cutting or needlessly cruel. His love affair with language, music, art and ideas gave even his silly side a layer of substance. He was one of the few advertising copywriters who wrote headlines worth thinking about.
Although he was a great writer about art, he was never a snob about culture. He was into jazz for the vivaciousness of the music, not because it was high brow. He loved things that were able to straddle high and low culture. I remember visiting him at his loft on Bond Street about 10 years ago. His son Oscar was six at the time and Glenn was excited that the two of them could watch the Simpsons together and both enjoy it on their own levels.
The last time I saw him, I bumped into him and his wife Gina on the street and I jokingly introduced her to some friends as his “qualified consort.” They both laughed and Glenn said, “’Consort. I like that. I’m going to use that from now on.” It wasn’t a fair deal—I gave him one word, and he gave me my career as a writer, but that was Glenn: generous, grateful, curious, always learning and forever young.