Jann Wenner, the legendary founder of Rolling Stone magazine, may have revoked his blessing of the new biography on his life, but that doesn’t erase the insight he gave into his drug and infidelity infused marriage—which eventually ended after he revealed he was in love with a man.
Written by veteran journalist Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is a 547-page dive into Wenner’s life, his ambition, and his magazine that continues to trade in cultural influence. The biggest guiding force in his success was his then-wife and business partner Jane Wenner, who was destroyed when he told her on Christmas Eve of 1994 that he was “leaving her for a man.”
“It was entirely a gut decision, made in the moment, with no thought to consequences,'” Wenner, 71, told Hagan about the moment he revealed his secret to Jane. (After reading the book, he later told the New York Times he found it “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”)
Jane, 71, whom Hagan also interviewed, only said this about her husband’s announcement: “‘It was cruel.'”
But the book reveals that Jane wasn’t completely blindsided by the news. According to Sticky Fingers, early on in their marriage she discovered a love letter that confirmed Wenner’s affair with a male friend, Robin Gracey. (“‘He was unsure whether he was gay or bisexual or which way he was,'” Gracey told Hagan.)
Wenner promised Jane that he’d end the fling. They stayed together, but for Jane it was with some anxiety.
“If the marriage of Jann and Jane Wenner was a mystery to some, for others it was completely obvious: they came together in their mutual desire for power and pleasure and style,” Hagan writes.
This “mutual desire” manifested by keeping up with the rock ‘n roll stars the magazine covered so zealously. From a taste for cocaine (the Wenners paid their employees bonuses in the form of the drug) to Jane’s romance with folk-guitar player Sandy Bull, who was a heroin addict, their relationship was rocky from the beginning. After their mutual infidelities (more of which are detailed in the book), they created a silent agreement. “They were both free to take new lovers as long as the other didn’t learn about it,” Hagan writes.
But eventually the strain of Wenner’s secret proved too much — especially with Jane’s “depression and drug use.” After 26 years of marriage he broke the news to Jane that he’d fallen in love with young fashion designer Matt Nye. This was a surprise to his wife and the music industry, including Mick Jagger. After learning about their breakup, he advised Wenner against becoming a “weekend dad” to the couples’ children.
Jane was also in shock and told Hagan that she’d been in denial the whole time.
“He never really said it, you know?” she said. “There would be whispers, and every time I’d ask him about it, he said no, and so, you know, you turn a blind eye. I don’t know.”
After the news broke, Wenner dealt with mixed responses from friends—many of whom felt bad for Jane. That didn’t stop him from wanting to show off his boyfriend.
“[Matt Nye] was an object of desire for Wenner, a walking, talking status symbol among his friends,” Hagan writes. “He had finally got the girl he desired and she was a man.”
Jane, in contrast, continued to swim in denial and refused to give up on their relationship. They stayed married for another 17 years.
“The contradiction of Jann’s life is that he was mastering a hetero rock and roll world while a closeted gay man. And that defined a lot,” Hagan told Billboard. “Jann had a great power to compartmentalize. He could live life as a straight man while being gay secretly. He could be a righteous magazine editor while also collecting the cash as the publisher. He could… be friends with somebody one day, then stick a knife in them the next.”