For the past two months, New York’s media and fashion worlds have buzzed about the secret that everyone seemed to know but no one dared print: Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone founding editor who came to personify the shifting social values of an American generation, had left his wife, Jane, for a man.
It was a breakup that threatened to destroy the $200-million magazine company that Wenner and his wife shared. So on March 3, when the Wall Street Journal finally published the story and the news of Wenner’s love affair on its front page, it was another step in the evolution of “outing"--revealing to the general public a person’s homosexuality or bisexuality against his or her wishes.
“Ordinarily, someone’s sexuality is not something we’re concerned about,” said Paul Steiger, the Journal’s managing editor. “In this case it was relevant to a very interesting story, so we included it. If you’re going to profile a company that could be coming unglued, and which reflects Jann’s personality as well as Jane’s, you don’t want to be coy. You just say what it is.”
Some news executives criticized the Journal’s story as an excuse to print salacious gossip. But gay rights groups and gay journalists, who said Wenner’s bisexuality has been known for years among his Rolling Stone colleagues but never mentioned in the media, generally were pleased with what they called an “equalization” of reporting about personal lives.
Most said that since the media do report about men who leave their wives for other women, why should the media not report about men who take up with other men--particularly since the press has long held the position that homosexuality is acceptable in American society? Withholding stories like Wenner’s, gay journalists argue, implies a confused discomfort at best and hypocrisy at worst.
“What is the media really saying about homosexuality?” said Michelangelo Signorile, the controversial pioneer of outing and the author of “Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power” (Random House, 1993).
“That homosexuality is the most horrible thing imaginable and that it should go unreported?” he asked. “That’s not neutral. That’s making a judgment about homosexuality.”
Said Ellen Carton, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group: “Just as the media talks about heterosexual affairs, they should not discriminate when it comes to gay affairs.”
Others argue that the complication lies with Wenner himself, whose latest magazine venture is the glossy Family Life, a 180-degree turn from Rolling Stone, the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture magazine he created in the 1960s. In recent years, Wenner, 49, has talked publicly about how he has given up the drugs and the wild living of the old days for the pleasures of his 26-year marriage and being a father to his three sons.
“Someone like Jann, who has used his persona as a family man to promote his magazines, makes journalists feel it’s appropriate to point out that there’s another side of his life that he’s not promoting,” said Charles Kaiser, the author of a forthcoming history of gay life in New York City.
When contacted by the Washington Post, both Jann and Jane Wenner declined to comment for this story.
This particular chapter in Jann Wenner’s long public history began in December, when Jann and Jane canceled their annual New Year’s Eve party and told friends there were problems. Jann moved out of the family’s five-story, $3-million Manhattan townhouse and into a $500-a-night suite in the celebrity-friendly Mark Hotel with a 28-year-old former male model who designs for Calvin Klein.
Soon the gossip press was in gear, and a curious two-month outing of Wenner was under way. Predictably, the New York Post’s widely read Page Six column was first on the case, and dropped regular hints throughout January that there was more to the Wenner breakup than anyone was printing. The gay gossip columnist for the Village Voice also dropped hints.
“He’s the man of the moment,” began one Page Six item about Wenner’s lover. “The hunky young Calvin Klein executive is getting famous, partly because he’s friends with famous folk like Ross Bleckner, David Geffen and Jann Wenner.” (Bleckner, the New York painter, and Geffen, the record executive, are both gay, and part of what is known as the “velvet mafia"--the powerful group of gay men that wields power in America’s arts and entertainment industries.)
By early February, Newsweek ran an article about the breakup and its implications for Wenner’s company, but shied away from mentioning Wenner’s new lover, saying only that Wenner had dined with a “Calvin Klein executive” in the same trendy Manhattan restaurant as Bleckner and media entrepreneur Barry Diller--which left most readers in the dark.
Finally, in late February, a mainstream British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, outed Wenner. Four days later, Page Six at last ran an item headlined “British paper outs Wenner.”
“We don’t approve of outing,” said Paul Palmer, the associate editor of the Mail on Sunday. But in this case, he said, the paper was willing to go with the story because it was relevant to the possible breakup of Wenner’s magazine company, and because Wenner is “a man associated with the macho world of rock stars and film stars” who has himself “never pulled his punches” in the pages of Rolling Stone.
But in fact it was not the Mail on Sunday that first outed Wenner. It turns out that Advertising Age, an ad industry trade publication, mentioned Wenner and his lover by name in a small item in a gossip column called Adages three weeks before, on Jan. 30. The writer of the column, Melanie Wells, didn’t even know at the time what she had done.
“I thought enough had been out there and that everyone knew,” she said. “There wasn’t any newsroom anguish or soul-searching involved.”
In any case, it was the Page Six item that set the Wall Street Journal off in pursuit of its story. Also in response to Page Six, New York magazine, which had been working on a story on Wenner for several weeks, began gearing up for publication. The story appeared in the issue on newsstands last week.
“While I still may have unresolved feelings about this whole issue and what’s appropriate,” said Kurt Andersen, New York’s editor in chief, “those became theoretical and academic once a 500,000-circulation New York newspaper reported it.” Although there were reports that Wenner had managed to kill stories about himself in other publications, Andersen said that in his case this was not true.
“I talked to Jann, and he said, ‘I really don’t want you to do this,’ and I said, “I can’t promise you that,’ ” Andersen said. Nonetheless, Andersen waited and fretted over what to do. “It’s all about we the media elite thinking that the great unwashed out there can’t deal with the fact that he’s gay,” he said. “As if we can deal with it but they can’t.”
Time magazine editors also discussed a possible story but decided against it. “We weren’t sure that this was not a sort of midlife antic,” said James R. Gaines, Time’s managing editor, “and that he would return home a wiser man.” Time also decided that Wenner’s media company--which includes Us magazine and Men’s Journal--was not a big enough operation to merit attention.
Meanwhile, friends say Wenner has never been happier and that he is truly in love.
“We all want to break out,” said a longtime friend of Wenner’s. “There is enormous pressure on everybody in New York to perform perfectly all the time. It’s an anti-life pressure. It is based on nothing but this overwhelming fear that with one mistake you can lose everything. In a way you have to admire Jann for saying, ‘This is what I want.’ ”