I initially heard of Glenn O’Brien through Interview magazine back when he was first at the helm. He seemed to be at the center of everything that I was interested in. I moved to NYC in the fall of 1973 and gravitated to the back room of Max’s. There we met. He was quite at home among the decadent crowd that called that particular bar home. He welcomed me to this new bizarre scene that I had studied from far-off Minneapolis.
The thing about Glenn was, he had an omnivorous appetite for beauty, humor and eccentricity, often combined. He was as well versed in the Greek classics as he was in black R&B. It wasn’t a pose, it was part of the same big picture for Glenn. After all, his mentor was Andy Warhol, who saw no boundaries in that area. He could make connections from Ray Johnson to James Bond, from his beloved Wyndham Lewis to Grace Jones, from Robert Graves to James Chance. He was the king of high meets low.
Glenn morphed from the Manhattan underground to the international world of fashion, art and advertising. He made the transition look easy. He remained curious, and faithful to his bohemian roots, always trying to bring his old crew into these new worlds. Once in a while, I would get a stray phone call from such unlikely places as Calvin Klein or Richard Avedon’s studio, asking me to come see their boss for some kind of go-see. I would invariably ask, “Does this have anything to do with Glenn O’Brien?” It always did. He was generous and inclusive in that way.
A few years ago, I was asked by an editor friend at the Library of America, if I knew anybody who might be qualified to compile a volume of hipster writing from the last hundred years. The answer was obvious: Glenn O’Brien. He knew this genre off the top of his head. Glenn got the gig, and did a very good job of it. This became The Cool School, with a painting by his friend Chris Wool on the cover.
One reason Glenn was good at navigating the different worlds of celebrity, was that he was never star-struck. Only once, when interviewing his hero Gore Vidal, did he become tongue-tied. He was embarrassed that he choked and wished he could have a second chance.
Another time while on vacation with friends on the French Riviera, Glenn grew irritated with fellow-vacationer Bryan Ferry’s solitary absorption in a P.G. Wodehouse book that he was chuckling over, while the others were having fun together. Glenn finally went over to Bryan, took the book from his hands, and tossed it over the wall into the sea below. Bryan was not amused. Glenn felt completely justified with his actions. Still, they remained friends.
Throughout his life, Glenn remained a man of mystery. Inscrutable. He was such a force, a connector, a divining rod. It was uncharacteristic of him to die at 70. Or die at all. I shall miss him, and remember him with his Cheshire-cat smile, and a twinkle in his eye.
Duncan Hannah is a NYC-based painter who has had 80 solo shows internationally since his debut in 1981. His work is in collections ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Mick Jagger. His journals from the 70’s will be published by Knopf in April, 2018 as Twentieth Century Boy. Hannah is the recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.