The Sweet Smell of Hipness

Glenn O’Brien, Cannes, 2000
Gina Nanni
Glenn O’Brien, Cannes, 2000

Glenn O’Brien was the leading boulevardier of my particular subgenerational pocket, the one that thrived in lower Manhattan from the last days of the hippie era until sometime around the end of the 1990s. He was an exemplary if atypical citizen of its culture, and something of a figurehead as it evolved from local, fringe, and “underground” to international high fashion. He lived and worked on the leading edge of style at all times, and was invariably at the right club at the right hour on the right night, but his résumé suggests someone from an earlier era. As if he had flourished during the Regency or the fin de siècle, he was a dandy and a wit, an aphorist and a tastemaker. Although his point of entry was Andy Warhol’s Factory (he was born in Cleveland, attended Georgetown, and was a graduate student in film at Columbia before getting there), he worked primarily with words, as magazine editor, book editor, columnist, and publicist. He exuded cool, sangfroid, and—unusually for the time and place—quiet competence.

But those jobs, for all the money, prestige, and mobility they gave him, were not his primary claims to fame. In that era careerism was regarded with suspicion, and in that much more physical time he made his mark by his sheer presence on the scene: his role as both a throwback (some part of him always inhabited the world of The Sweet Smell of Success) and as the very image of hipness. His cultural footprint was broad and significant, if not always noticeable to the average cultural consumer. He was putatively most visible as the underwear model on the Warhol-designed inner sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971)although the jury is still out on whether his picture was the one actually used.

O’Brien, who died in 2017, was the host from 1978 to 1982 of TV Party, an antic talk/variety show with an audience that was restricted to people, largely in lower Manhattan, who could tune in to the public-access cable channel on which it ran (a set of DVDs has since been issued). In 1981 he wrote and produced a feature film starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, a youthsploitation picaresque originally titled New York Beat, but financial woes kept it from being released until 2000, when it was retitled Downtown 81 and took on an entirely different significance—historical and elegiac, in view of Basquiat’s early death.

And he edited Interview (1971–1974); worked at magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to High Times to Allure, Spin, Maxim, Mirabella, Purple, and Arena Homme Plus; cowrote and edited Madonna’s Sex; edited some other touchstones of the period (Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, Terence Sellers’s The Correct Sadist); wrote a column on advertising for Artforum (“Like Art,” 1984–1990) and one on men’s fashion for…

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