Glenn O’Brien (1947–2017), Gone to the TV Party in Heaven

On April 7, 2017, Andy Warhol fans received the very sad, shocking news that yet another member of the rarefied circle had passed away.

Most of Glenn O’Brien’s professional career took place outside the Warhol ring—at numerous publications including GQ, Rolling Stone, High Times, Art Forum, Details, Allure, and others, as a writer and critic of men’s fashion. But it began in 1970 within its bounds at Interview, when he and Bob Colacello were hired together as co-editors. Glenn left the magazine mid-decade but returned to Interview in 1978 with the music column “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.”

Black-and-white film still showing three men. The man on the viewer's left is wearing a hat and appears in profile. The man in the center looks straight ahead, and the man on the right is seated.

Andy Warhol, Factory Diary: David Bowie and Group at the Factory, September 14, 1971, 1971 ½” reel-to-reel videotape, black & white, sound, 14 minutes. Camera by Michael Netter and Andy Warhol. With David Bowie, Vincent Fremont, Andy Warhol, Allen Midgette, Michael Netter, Pat Hackett, Glenn O’Brien. © 2017 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

O’Brien appears in one of Warhol’s Factory Diary videotapes (1971) documenting David Bowie’s visit to the Factory. In one brief sequence, O’Brien is seen with Warhol, Bowie, Tony Zanetta, and Allen Midgette. (I think of it as Warhol and three actors who would channel him either on stage or screen: Bowie portrayed Warhol in the film Basquiat in 1996; Zanetta, less obviously, played a Warhol-based character called B. Marlowe in Warhol’s stage play Pork in 1971; and Midgette was sent on a lecture tour of colleges that Warhol had agreed to give but wasn’t able to deliver because of his stage fright in 1967.)

O’Brien was also the co-creator and host of a short-lived show on Manhattan Cable’s public-access channels called T.V. Party, which featured significant figures in the downtown cultural scenes of punk music and graffiti art.

I had the great pleasure of meeting O’Brien several times. Over the years, he assisted the museum with essays in exhibition catalogues and other projects that relied on his pop culture and fashion expertise. One of my favorite memories was his recollection to me that he called Andy “The Boss” not merely out of adulation, but because it was true: O’Brien was his employee.

Another was the opportunity to show to him the original Polaroids from the photo shoot for the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers album cover, which Warhol designed. It had always been a mystery to fans just who was wearing the blue jeans and who was in the white briefs. One of the Polaroids, though, included the model’s face, and it was clearly O’Brien in the briefs. He was very happy to see the photo, saying that for years he told friends that it was him in the famous artwork, because he recognized his body hair pattern, and now he had some real evidence. We still don’t know who is wearing the jeans!

The first time that I worked with O’Brien was for a magazine piece, naturally. The French magazine Paradies was interested in presenting one of Warhol’s Time Capsules, with images of the entire Time Capsule provided by the museum, and O’Brien’s writing about the objects contained within it. I gaveO’Brien a list of the Time Capsules from his years at Interview; hardly any of them had yet been documented in any way, so this was a good opportunity for the museum.

He selected one Time Capsule; I skimmed through some of the objects in it and gave him an abbreviated list of them. He seemed pleased and decided to move forward with it. The next step was to photograph all the objects as the magazine wished, something like an exploded diagram of the parts of a car. We couldn’t do that exactly, but we could place them so that every object was visible. This wasn’t easy because many of the objects were large posters for an exhibition by the artist Joseph Beuys, signed by him. Another stand-out object was a scarf printed with the logo of Main Man, David Bowie’s production company in North America.

In later years, O’Brien persuaded the fashion designer Marc Jacobs to create a T-shirt and a cloth tote bag printed with a portrait of Warhol, with a portion of the profits to be donated to the museum. He also organized an exhibition and auction of leather jackets-as-artworks for the museum’s benefit. In short, he wanted to keep alive the creative legacy of the man he knew as The Boss.

The last time I was in touch with Glenn, a few years ago, I emailed him for advice on a style of hat that would flatter me. I wanted one for a special event: the opening of the Andy Warhol: By the Book exhibition I curated. I read his thoughts on hats in his book How To Be a Man and felt that a Homburg was my style. He responded unequivocally with his feeling that I could pull it off. He also noted that long ago, one of his relatives wore a Homburg every day, so he was all in favor of them staging a comeback.

Matt Wrbican