Broken Friendships, Dramatic Rock-Star Relationships and 7 Figures: Inside the Jann Wenner Bio

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

When it was disclosed recently that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner would cooperate with a writer on a seven-figure biography for Alfred A. Knopf, skeptics were quick to point to similar previous projects that had fizzled when Wenner got cold feet. But people who know the legendary editor, 68, say he has been talking about legacy and mortality lately, and that with the approaching 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone in 2017, the timing is right.


What's more, the book's author, New York contributor Joe Hagan (and former Rolling Stone/Men's Journal contributing editor) discussed the fate of the previous biographies with Wenner and negotiated a "methodical" agreement that defined the parameters of Wenner's cooperation this time around, according to a source familiar with the deal. Wenner also agreed "to write a letter to publishers explaining what had happened" with the other books, says the source.

"Jann and I spent a lot of time talking about this project before we got started," confirms Hagan. "We both want to get it right. He's personally committed to a credible, definitive account of his life and times, and he believes I'm the right person to do it." Wenner has already started talking to Hagan and sharing the Rolling Stone archives. (This writer and Hagan worked together at The New York Observer.)

The two men first became friendly in Tivoli, a small town in New York's Hudson Valley where they both have homes. Wenner approached Hagan about writing the book last fall, says the source, noting: "To his credit, Jann didn't want to write an authorized biography," which would have given him control over the final product. "He thinks [those books] are losers."

After Hagan completed a 50-page proposal, his agent, PJ Mark of Janklow Nesbit, invited potential bidders to read it in the agency's Manhattan offices. In order to participate, publishers had to sign a confidentiality agreement to prevent leaks to the media, says the source, who describes the proposal as including an account of "Jann's dramatic relationship with a major rock star." The winner, Knopf, will pay approximately $1.5 million for English-language rights, says one publishing source familiar with the deal; other media reports put the figure at $2 million. "You got a very clear sense from reading the [proposal] of the access that Joe was going to have, not just with Jann but the subjects in his orbit," says Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards.

In 2003, the publisher had commissioned Lewis MacAdams, a poet who had been friends with Wenner since they were both 20 years old, to write one of the previous Wenner biographies. MacAdams says he had turned in 300 pages, or half of the book, when Wenner, unhappy with the contents, pulled out. (In 2011, the Spiegel & Grau imprint of Random House offered Rolling Stone contributing editor and Monsters author Rich Cohen $1 million for a Wenner biography, says a source familiar with the project, but Cohen’s agent Jennifer Rudolph told the New York Post:  “After it got snapped up, Wenner had a change of heart.”) MacAdams is uncertain how Wenner got hold of the work in progress, but says that his deal, like Hagan's, specified that Wenner would not have editorial control.

MacAdams characterizes Knopf's role in the saga as "mysterious," noting, "[Knopf editor-in-chief] Sonny Mehta and his wife ski with Jann and his partner Matt Nye."

Bogaards responds: "Sonny has never, ever skied." 

The poet says his anger has since given way to regret. "This person who I liked a lot and thought of as my friend has disappeared from my life," says MacAdams, who has not spoken to Wenner "since the day he pulled the plug." Adds MacAdams, "All I can say is, 'Good luck, Joe.'"