Interview with culture-maker Glenn O'Brien, published shortly after his passing in 2017.
Ever since the early 1970s, when he was a member of Andy Warhol's Factory and the first editor of Interview magazine, Glenn O’Brien has occupied a choice seat in the control room of Cool Culture. As a co-founder of magazines like Spin and Bomb, a columnist for ArtForum and Interview (“Glenn O’Brien’s Beat”), a creative director for top style brands including Barneys New York, an author (The Style Guy), and a book editor (Madonna’s Sex), among other achievements (like serving as underwear model for the inside-album crotch shot of the Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers and being named one of “Top 10 Most Stylish Men in America” by GQ in 2009), the Cleveland-born O’Brien has for the last forty years been a deft practitioner of what media people sometimes call “that fast thing.” With the help of friends from the art world and cutting-edge pop music, hundreds of whom he has written about, he has stayed on top of cultural and social developments, discerning between what’s important and what’s only a flash in the pan, applying both the judgment of a connoisseur and the affable gameness of a good party guest to the eternal wave of The New.
And somehow today, despite a certain statesmanlike air conferred by rich experience, O’Brien is as involved in that fast thing as ever. His books Berluti: At Their Feet (Rizzoli), about the legendary maker of hand-made shoes, and Like Art: Glenn O’Brien on Advertising (Karma), a collection of his columns for ArtForum, were both published in 2016. His TV series for the streaming fashion TV network M2M, Tea at the Beatrice, has featured conversations with director Baz Luhrmann, model Gisele Bündschen, and designers Proenza Schouler, among many other culture-makers. O’Brien and I recently chatted over tea in the quiet art-filled East Village loft he shares with his wife, fashion and art publicist Gina Nanni, when they are not installed in the circa modernist house they own in West Cornwall, Connecticut.
STEPHEN GRECO: Glenn, I’ve always admired the graceful way you’ve been able to go between the non-commercial and commercial worlds.
GLENN O'BRIEN: I came up in the Pop Art moment. I guess I always believed that you could mix both without compromising. Some of the ads I’ve worked on — I felt like they were up to art’s standards. I always felt like Barbara Kruger was imitating me.
SG: Your work has always been so culturally informed — practically literary.
GO'B: I just did a piece on what books a man should own.
SG: Oh? And what was at the top of the list?
GO'B: My favorite book to recommend is J.P. Donleavy’s advice book, what’s it called? A Guide to Our Deportment...? [A quick search on Google turns up Donleavy’s witty 1975 gem, The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.]
SG: I love that title.
GO'B: It’s a really important book.
SG: I collect etiquette books — pre-1960.
GO'B: I’m mad about them.
SG: You’ve done so many things, Glenn, and you’ve done them well. What did you start out to do? What did your parents hope or expect you to do?
GO'B: I don’t think they really thought about it too much, because I was pretty much self-determined. I think they always knew that I would go to New York. Then my stepfather got transferred and we came to New York, and I was really excited. I tell this story a lot: the first night in Manhattan I told my parents to drop me off at the Stork Club and wait for me outside.
GO'B: Because I knew they would never let squares like my parents into the Stork Club. They were so astounded to see this little kid show up alone at the door that they took me in and introduced me around the room.
SG: Who was there that night?
GO'B: I think I met Kitty Carlisle.
SG: What were you wearing?
GO'B: I suppose I was wearing a nice little suit or a blazer. Probably I was wearing my red blazer. In high school, I always wanted to be a writer, so I was like the editor of the school literary magazine and wrote for the newspaper. For my big project as a senior, there was a newspaper strike in Cleveland and I went and covered it. Every day after school, I would go hangout with the writers who were on strike. I always thought that was glamorous.
SG: You used this term “self-determined.” When you were growing up, did you have examples of that?
GO'B: I knew cool people, but I think that coming from the mid-West — people like Duncan [Hannah], from Minneapolis; Jim Jarmusch, from Akron — we were like this refugee generation escaping the mid-West. I think part of it was that you grow up and see New York in the movies and on TV. I used to love “What’s My Line,” “To Tell the Truth”, all those shows, because the panelists were all really witty. Just made me want to be a New Yorker.
SG: And you’ve been in the middle of the action ever since: writing, directing, producing and creating advertising campaigns. You created that controversial Calvin Klein ad for Obsession with Kate Moss, didn't you?
GO'B: Kate and Herb Ritts, the one Bill Clinton got so upset about…
GO’B: I loved working with Kate, and Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell…. they were all new — all great beauties, all great personalities. I remember meeting Christy. She was sixteen but like a woman. It’s like I’m seated there eating a hamburger and looking at her and thinking, “She’s sixteen? No. That’s impossible.”
SG: Tell me, do you feel New York is still as lively and creative as it was during the 1970s and ‘80s?
GO'B: It’s just in a different way. I think it’s still the center for Americans, but…. I mean, when I came to New York, the city was the center of art production. Now, it’s the center of the art industry, but not the center of art production anymore.
SG: It’s an interesting distinction.
GO'B: Basically, in the U.S. you have California and you have New York. In every other place, the culture is kind of piped in. I think that’s why we have this awful political situation right now — because the leadership has been skimmed off the top and concentrated elsewhere.
SG: Skimmed off the top of Middle America?
GO'B: The smartest people from every town left, making most of America a country of second-rate places and second-rate people.
SG: For years you went out a lot — I suppose it was part of the job. May I ask what your social life is like nowadays?
GO'B: We keep a very low profile. In West Cornwall, we don’t go to parties, but we do have dinners. My wife is a really great cook. She likes to do a feast. That’s about it. It’s just like we want to stick around the house. I like to pull weeds.
SG: I read in a 2004 New York Times style magazine piece about the house that it was built in 1940 for the playwright Hatcher Hughes. You were quoted as saying that Hughes bought the land from “’a very chic swami’ who ran a yoga camp for affluent New Yorkers.”
GO’B: When we found the place, it had been cut up into smaller rooms. We opened it up again.
SG: Right now, here in the East Village, we’re sitting in a room full of interesting art works — Basquiat, Kosuth, Tom Sachs — and many are by artists I know have been your friends….
SG: So I’m wondering how you decided to deploy your collection between here and Connecticut.
GO'B: The house in Cornwall is mostly glass — it’s stone and glass. There’s not that much wall space. And we want it really clean, so a lot of what’s up there is smaller, abstract stuff — James Nares, Christopher Wool, Frank Stella. I have some beautiful abstract drawings by the writer James Purdy.
GO’B: My wife always says, “You overhang,” which I probably do but I like salon style, floor-to-ceiling. Maybe I have a cluttered mind.