He's been telling GQ readers how to dress and behave for eleven years. But Style Guy Glenn O'Brien's true expertise may be the art of social navigation. So take it from the man who has always made sure he's in the right circle. (Hell, he had a new-wave talk show! His boss was Andy Warhol!) On the occasion of his new book, How to Be a Man, we asked O'Brien for modern advice on how to win friends and influence people—while always making sure you're moving up
Following texts by Glenn O’Brien:
Life is a euphemism for social climbing. There's no shame in deliberately scaling the social ladder. That's evolution. We are social animals, and we thrive in the company of others. Finding the best others we can is part of the natural-selection mechanism, and it's far safer than rock climbing. And getting to the top of society is like getting to the top of Mount Everest, except you can stay there, usually in comfort. It's an adventure. It's exciting, like sport. If you fail, you don't die; you simply relocate and start over.
We often hear the platitude of cynics, "It's not what you know but who you know." I get it, but it's a bit facile. It's what you know, who you know, and what you know about who you know and what who you know knows, too. Not to mention knowing what else and who else you ought to know. Is that clear?
We are all social climbers, whether we know it or not. It is possible to engage in this necessary activity with taste, discretion, and even ethics, as long as we are aware of what we're doing.
I remember, some years ago, I became enraged briefly with the professionally impertinent writer George Wayne, and he said with touching sincerity, "Don't be mad at me, Glenn. You are a very important rung on my ladder." I was totally disarmed. I couldn't punch him in the nose, because I was laughing too hard at the truth spoken so bluntly.
There is no shame in rising in the esteem of one's fellows (and of course of the ladies), so let's not be shy about social climbing. What we really mean to avoid is engaging in vulgar means to facilitate one's rise. Ideally a rise in society is a sort of feat of levitation. I like to think of social climbing as a profane analogue of the Rapture, when Jesus returns to scoop up his peeps. One day you may look for us and we'll be gone. Possibly to heaven, but even better to Mustique or the Hôtel du Cap.
The term originated with a popular 1951 book by Stephen Potter that detailed methods of creative intimidation by which the apt pupil might ascend the social ladder, and this sportive approach to life is even more popular today, though rarely spoken of in such terms. The premise is that society is a sort of contest—what we might see today as a reality show—in which we are all contestants. We rise in society by outsmarting those at our present social level in order to rise to the next.
You could regard our personal social agendas as a form of warfare, but I prefer to think of them as a game. Rather than killing off my fellow contestants, I prefer to put them on "injured reserve." In this game of life, each encounter becomes a contest in which one may emerge triumphant. Or not. As in any protracted endeavor, you win some and you lose some, but hopefully in the end our no-holds-barred enthusiasm mediated by good sportsmanship will take us to our goal—whether it's fame and wealth or simply the esteem of others—by the most amusing means necessary.
"I played that course. With Ben Crenshaw."
"Oh, that's a great job. I just couldn't take the pay cut."
"Yes, she was Miss India, but I couldn't stand the way she talked to waiters."
Socializing Is Work
I was rather young when I found myself in the entourage of Andy Warhol, then the most famous artist in America and my boss. He liked to drag along to parties a group of attractive young employees and hangers-on to make him seem younger and sexier and maybe give him someone to talk to as a fallback. When he turned to me at a party and said, "This is such hard work!" it struck a nerve. I had never thought of parties as work before; I have never thought of them as not work since. This is where you shine, where you put your best foot forward and catch new eyes. Successful partying will give you a chance to jump the queue, advance directly to Go, and collect $200.
Since Parties Are Work, Take Them Seriously
It's okay to be the life of the party. It's okay to clear the dance floor with an amazing display of footwork with a sexpot partner; it is not okay to clear the floor by stumbling or projectile vomiting. One should never be visibly intoxicated at a party, just as one should never appear to be a wallflower. Get up and mix. Introduce yourself to the people you want to meet. It's okay to have a pocketful of business cards, but if you wind up giving one out at a non-biz event, write your mobile or personal number on it so you don't seem to be doing what you're actually doing.
It's better to be overdressed than underdressed. People will assume you are going to or coming from something better.
I like to go to parties early. That's often when the VIPs arrive for their brief appearance, and it's often the best time to get in a word with significant persons before they become insensible. If you stay too long, it will appear that you have nothing better to do. It's okay to make an appearance. The exception is at seated dinners. You can make an appearance at cocktails, but once you're seated, you're stuck. If you leave after the appetizer, you're leaving two people with only one person next to them. Bad form.
What Are Friends (in the Age of Facebook)?
Ideally, a friend is someone you have actually met, someone you like and spend time with, although it is possible to establish a friendship through correspondence, particularly if one party is incarcerated. Traditionally, friendship required time; it demanded a certain intimacy that was not granted instantly. Today, however, thanks to the social networks' digital exploitation of loneliness, horniness, and ambition, it is now widely believed that it is possible for one's résumé or curriculum vitae to become friends with other people's résumés or curricula vitae. A friend is a person, not a set of data. Friend is best used as a noun, and the uptick in its use as a transitive verb is unfortunate and hopefully a fad. I do not wish to friend or be friended, although I don't mind the occasional befriending.
Friendship with Louts, Cads, and the Far Less Than Perfect
A young colleague asked me, "Well, what about being friends with a dick, an asshole, or a pompous bastard?" I was a bit puzzled by this at first, but I think that's because younger people tend to hang in a crowd, and there are those friends who sort of come along with the group. As we get older and more intolerant, we become more independent of the posse and demanding of friends. I have, over the years, maintained some surprisingly lengthy friendships with seriously flawed persons, but in the end they have to get with it or just git. Ask yourself, is he getting better or getting worse? If he's getting worse, cut him loose now; he's probably terminal. Then ask yourself, is this scumbag worth the effort? If, after careful consideration, the answer is yes, the next step begins—"Listen, you asshole"—and from there you begin to explain the ways of the world in plain language.
Reaching Friend Capacity
When you've lived in New York as long as I have, you practically have to forget someone old to know someone new. There comes a point when one's social network is simply saturated. Usually it's not a matter of consciously dropping people; friendships tend to fall by the wayside when not maintained. And as life is change, sometimes a friend becomes irrelevant through no fault of his own. It's the old growing-apart syndrome. This is the natural order. Don't fight it. Embrace change. Retire the old address books.
Parties Are Society's Sacrament
When I was young, it was common for people to entertain friends at home, and this was known as a party. It is the perfect occasion for social levitation. On some occasions, a room or a club might even be hired to accommodate a crowd. But as I got older, I found that more and more a party was a business event that featured an open bar until a certain hour. This is not a party, but sometimes it's all we've got.
Someone has to advocate for the finer things in life, so throw an exemplary party—for no particular occasion. Invite some people who don't know but will enjoy one another. Tell them what to wear, but don't say "casual," say "sexy" or "Rat Pack." When they ask what they can bring, say, "Just a good mood." Do not talk business, and if you hear it being talked, nip it in the bud. Mandate dancing or games. Take pictures. Flirt. Take a walk on the wild side.
What If You Hear That a Friend Has a Party and You Are Not Invited?
My wife says that we moved out of the Hamptons because you couldn't have a dinner party without everyone we knew feeling that he or she should have been invited. I don't want to have to move again, so allow me to state that the best dinner parties are small, intimate affairs and that unless you tend to keep to yourself, it's very likely you will not be able to accommodate all of your friends at once at dinner. Two dinners for eight are more fun, and much easier, than one dinner for sixteen. The guests will be able to interact with everyone, and it will be easier to do the dishes. It will also allow you to accommodate your friends who hate each other. But you first must understand that when you are not invited to a friend's party, it doesn't mean he or she doesn't love you anymore; it only means that you are not in on this particular evening.
There is simply no way around it. Sometimes you have to drop a name in the course of telling a story or relating a parable. When name-dropping is required, do it right. Use the last name, too, and you won't sound quite so ridiculous. Quentin, Jude, Jack, Kirsten, Gwyneth... Don't make me guess. You're enough work already.
Always choose a significant other with a better memory for names than yourself. If you find yourself alone and panicked at a familiar face whose name escapes you, grab a hand and say, "You look fantastic!" It will never occur to your acquaintance that you have no idea who he or she is.
It's likely that this year, at least one of your friends will get divorced. Often the best policy in the divorce of friends is to imitate Switzerland and stay the hell out of it. It's okay to be sympathetic, but going beyond "I'm sorry" might lead someone to believe that you are taking his or her side. Even if you are considerably more in sympathy with one party, it's best to remain nominally neutral lest you end up a sobbed-upon shoulder or an evidence giver. Even if you despise a friend's spouse, take care. Start telling him how awful you've always thought she was and they will reconcile before you know it.
When a Friend Takes Up with Someone Awful
A man of a certain age sometimes finds one of his peers abandoning his charming, cultured, and perfectly serviceable first or second wife for a fling or, worse, a trophy. A man so occupied is not in his right mind. He is hypnotized, in a sexual trance.
Do not oppose the new relationship. Challenging your friend's judgment will just get his defenses up. He will think you are jealous, no matter how appalling she is. Just damn with faint praise. Tolerate her with good humor, but do not form a direct relationship with her. She might be hot or she might be evil incarnate, or both.
When a Friend Drinks Too Much
Do unto others, etc. But if it's getting to be a bore, you might say something. I prefer mockery to concern. It's cooler and more effective. If you think making fun doesn't get the message across, you're wrong. "You left something at my house last night." "I did? What?" "Your dignity." I call it "zero tolerance with a twist."
When a Friend Stops Drinking
Try to ignore it. I don't mean that you should push alcohol on a sober (even temporarily so) friend, but don't make it a topic with him or your mutuals, and don't drop him because he's not as much fun anymore. Just carry on normally. If he's going to AA, it's none of your business—the second A is for Anonymous. I make an effort not to try to push my old friends off the wagon, although once or twice I've had a slip and said, "How the hell long do you want to live, anyway?"
I wouldn't go as far as the Sicilians, but I do believe in not informing on one's friends unless your silence will do harm to the friend and/or society. I'm not entirely against gossip, but I generally stay away from it unless I feel that there is something positive and productive about passing on a particular tidbit. Ironically, displaying unusual discretion and an unwillingness to dish the dirt will lead more and more people to provide you with the most salacious inside info. I'll only loose my lips if I want to sink a ship.
Everyone misbehaves. And people change, not always for the best. When our friends behave badly, we want to do something about it—first, because we care about them, and second, because they've pissed us off. Sometimes friends have to be punished. Once punishment has been doled out, we can see if they have responded to our treatment and then decide how to proceed.
Shunning is when one's former friends and associates cut you off, and it was perfected by many religious groups. Today the Scientologists are quite good at it. But you can also shun individually, and that means not speaking to someone and avoiding contact with him.
Generally I prefer the cold shoulder, which is informal. You deny that you are shunning, pretending instead that you are simply very busy. You don't come to the phone or return calls. You can answer e-mail with an old out-of-o∞ce message, preferably dated several weeks earlier.
Nothing makes for enemies like friendship gone wrong, love turned to hatred. I know Jesus advised loving one's enemies, but I believe that when he said turn the other cheek, he actually meant "Ignore the motherfuckers!"
This requires complete indifference. The former friend must become completely invisible; his presence or existence is not acknowledged. I would even recommend that you do not even speak ill of him, as it will make you seem petty, jealous, or slighted. Take the high road—you can't see him from up there.
Once you have practiced shunning, you get good at it. Not long ago, I was seated at a dinner near someone I had not spoken to or acknowledged in nearly two decades. We participated fully in the same conversations but never once spoke directly. That's civility.
When one's enemies are mentioned, simply dismiss them or change the subject. "Oh yes, the former writer. I just don't think she's funny, but she does, and I guess that's the important thing."
Having the right enemies is as important as having the right friends. It shows you have standards and guts. But like friendship, hostility should be one-on-one, not a group thing. Do not proselytize your hatreds. Don't expect your friends to support your animosities. If an enemy's name comes up, just say, "We don't speak." That speaks volumes, and you may leak further details intriguingly as years go by, artfully revealing the flaws of your nemesis without apparent rhetoric.
A dish best served cold and al dente. As long as you get even before death, you win. A brilliant revenge may even carry on beyond the grave. Why do you think they invented wills?
Friends and Intimacy
Having your friends stay in the guest room is intimate enough. Fucking friends is simply not done.
I have been friends with plenty of famous people. I treat them the same way that I treat anyone else, except that I won't give out their numbers or give them a message from you. In a few instances, I have ceased being friends with a famous person precisely because I did treat him like anyone else. Like when a rock star (at whose wedding I was best man) called at 4 A.M. I said, "Never call at this hour." Couldn't take it—even though I had saved him from falling down the basement stairs drunk. Many friendships have a "sell-by date." The ones who are still my friends are still famous, by the way. Some of the others are teetering.
Socializing as a Family Man
When you grow up and get married and have kids and get divorced and go to jail or whatever happens when life gets complicated, you may find that you have less time for your crew. This is as it should be. The family, at least the one you put together, is the basic unit of society, and it should get the best of your attention. Your friends, you may be surprised to discover, can get by fine on your spare time, even if you don't think you have any. We have a saying around here, "It's a school night," and truth be told, most nights I'd rather be home. Parties are work.
Friend Factions and Mixing Them
There will always be cliques. It's bad to get stuck inside one. Get out more. Mix. Even rub your cliques together. Split them up and they release energy, just like atoms.
Transgenerational Friendship: Mentor and Mentee
I have friends of numerous generations. Transgenerational exchange is one of the most essential processes in society; this is how great companies and empires are built. We are mentored as youths, and in maturity we mentor. But at the same time, we can laugh at the same jokes and collaborate in meaningful enterprises. I'll write the manifesto, kid; you write the code.
Reaching the Top
You may think that you have it made and be tempted to enjoy yourself. But if you look down, not only will you be confronted with the dizzying prospect of the abyss out of which you have clawed your way, but also you will behold hordes of younger and perhaps abler climbers nearing the summit, all intent on displacing you sooner rather than later. Look about you at the other masters of the universe and try to ascertain which of them will attempt to toss you over the edge first; make friends with them and discuss who really doesn't deserve all this. You often hear that it's lonely at the top, a sure sign that the speaker isn't there yet. I have a feeling that it's actually very crowded at the top—at least until Satan sneezes. If this situation makes you nervous, phone below and sell your spot to the highest bidder while you still can, and then jump, pulling the rip cord on your golden parachute as you yell "Geronimo!"
What Makes a Good Friend?
The best friends are people like us. Smart, secure, cultured, cool. The best sort of friends are givers, not the needy. We bestow our surplus goodwill on them because they are winners. They seek us out for fun. But they also respect us and so want to back us up, almost politically, as if to say we want a world where people like us do well. We are allies in the cultural conquest of the world.
Friends Aren't Family
Sometimes when you are good friends you do things en famille. Maybe couples go on vacation together, with or without children. If you can pull this off you are very good friends indeed. I have managed this pretty well with very good friends, but one summer a relationship chilled for months when Mr. X picked up the tab for the lobster spaghetti lunch in Italy, until he read his hotel bill and asked for reimbursement. You just can't scrimp on largesse. Hospitality has immutable principles. Ah, but he has been forgiven. Now we're better than ever. Love of friends can conquer most obstacles, sometimes after a short hiatus.
Friendship With the Opposite Sex
While some men maintain that it is impossible for hetero men to have a true non-sexual friendship with a woman, those are men ruled by their glands. I can be genuine friends with anyone smart and funny, gender aside. Many of my best friends are women, who are, sorry to say, far less likely to be assholes than men.
When Your Friends Don't Like or Actively Hate One Another
This is to be expected. You can't like everyone, and everyone has his own complex history. We can't expect our friends to give up their treasured grudges on our behalf; but we can expect them to behave in a civil manner with their enemies when they come under the same roof. It's prudent to avoid inviting deadly enemies although there will be times, such as birthdays, when it's hard to avoid. This is one of the reasons place cards were invented. At a bigger occasion, like a wedding, there will obviously be in attendance those who do not love one another, but they must save their animus for another day.
Breaking Up With Friends
Sometimes we grow apart and that old mutual magic doesn't work. Usually it's best to drift apart, avoiding all forms of drama, but when the alienatee is the dramatic sort or a psychopath, this can prove difficult. Drifting apart is nature's way. We can still be fond of that old high school chum, but that doesn't mean we have to keep in touch. (One of the worst effects of the social networks is the past suddenly rearing it's now-less-attractive head.) I find that it's best not to explain your course of action as it will only serve to heighten the emotions occasioned by rejection. Even if you wanted to you cannot always explain why a friendship no longer works. It's best to just chill out and stay cool. Explain how busy you are, if necessary, and then be unavailable. If and when confronted deny, deny, deny.
Memoirs and Confidentiality
One reason I hope to live a long life is so I can write my memoirs without my friends suing me. I loved reading Keith Richards's autobiography, but I must say it make me feel bad for Mick. A friend who makes you millions is a friend indeed, regardless of penis size.
When Friends Are Jealous and/or Possessive of You and Other Friends
Who appointed them president of the club? You may have to point out that they are acting more like a spouse than a friend—more like a ninth grade girl than a 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran. The universe is expanding. Friendship must keep up.
Fighting with Friends (Words You Can't Take Back)
Don't call a friend a cunt unless he's English. Think before speaking. What you say may be forgiven, but it won't be forgotten, and it hurts a lot more coming from a friend than an enemy.
If you wish to insult a person, vague generalities are ineffective and often counterproductive. Think of the scoundrel Don Imus, America's great AM radio star, brought low by a misapplied "ho." If Imus had called them meretrices he'd still be on the radio.
It pays to be as precise and specific as possible. Alluding to someone's race, ethnic background, or sexual preference demeans only yourself. Insults should precisely characterize the fault you find in the recipient. Correct usage of common terms like asshole, dick, prick, or scumbag is important. For example, an asshole is a person with a delusional world-view who is incapable of observing social boundaries. A dick is a careless egotist who abuses others in demonstration of his high and misplaced self-regard. While a prick is similar to a dick but with a connotation of a more refined and thought-out maliciousness. A scumbag delights in the misery of others and will do his best to contribute to that misery if it is convenient and without onerous repercussion. A scumbag is a meaner and more malevolent dick. But such words are all too common. Think of the allure of an insult that not only sounds bad, but which is quite specific and possibly unknown to the recipient making him feel even more stupid. Confusion over arcane terms can only help drive the point home to a lickspittle, toady, stumblebum, rube, bounder, middlebrow, mythomaniac, charlatan, yokel, lout or shmendrik. And those words just feel good on the tongue.
Friends with Annoying Spouses, Children, or Pets
When you have a family, sometimes families make friends. This way you can have a play date and cocktails at the same time. But this doesn't always work. Sometimes a person has a spouse or a kid or a tag along dog that you just can't stand. This is why we invented the "boys night out." But always ask how they are.
Managing a Social Calendar
You don't have to go to everything. I think that I could leave New York for a year, return, and pick right up where I left off. It's possible that many of my friends wouldn't even notice I'd been gone. This sounds bad but it's good.
If you are just breaking into the circuit and are not yet rich and famous you should make a point of getting out and getting seen. But now I make a point of not going to an event unless I think I will genuinely enjoy it or my wife has ordered me to attend. If I do attend a party and am not photographed there I feel I might as well have not attended. All that work, for what!
Once established you don't have to knock yourself out to remain a member of society in good standing. In fact going everywhere makes you look like an easy get or even desperate. If you must go, get in, get photographed, and get out. Rationing out your presence will make you even more desirable.
Taking the Kids
I believe in treating kids like adults to a certain extent. I don't do baby talk. If you talk to them as if they were adults they will figure it out and wind up with a superlative vocabulary. Giving your children regular access to other adults will prevent them from becoming nuisances. (Within reason of course, you don't take them to dinner parties without asking.) Some exposure to art openings, cocktail parties, auctions, and even the office will prepare a child much more for success than romping with a cap gun or changing Barbie's blouse. Kids should learn early how to comport themselves, how to curry favor and negotiate any social situation. My ten year old is completely comfortable in any civilized context, and he knows he's a kid. I was so proud of him the other day when "Bitches Ain't Shit" came on and he said "I don't think this is appropriate." He's already answering the phone. He may take over my contract negotiations soon.
Mixing Friendship and Business
When you are a hard working person you probably find your friends (and even lovers) through work. This is perfectly fine and preferable to advertising for friends or seeking them out on the street. Problems arise when there is competition. You may be on the same level at the same company; then someone is promoted. You may work for competing companies. You may covet their job or client or vice versa. This is where ethics—that mostly forgotten department of mostly forgotten philosophy—comes in. When things seem headed toward sticky territory and you value the friendship, talk about it. Let reason (and a couple of drinks) guide you.
Another problem area is expertise freebies. Did you ever wonder why doctors tend to be friends with doctors and lawyers with lawyers? You don't want to give away free what brings home the bacon. Or at least not much. A tourniquet to stop arterial bleeding—fine. A complex diagnosis—that's pro shit. We can't give it away. Don't expect anything from your friends except friendship. I somehow got talked into writing a substantial introduction for a friend's art book, an expensive book, and all I got was complaints that I didn't go to the gallery show.
When pressed for freebies by apparent friends you can try dropping hints: "I'll give you a 5% discount." Or you could bring up barter: "Sure I'll edit your manuscript. If you paint my kitchen."
A Corporation is a legal person and the law extends to this artificial being many of the rights of human beings, but you cannot be friends with a corporation. In fact the corporate world is often regarded as anti-friendship because competition and discipline can trump personal feelings. You don't want your friend to get ahead, at least ahead of you. And that goes double for the competition. But this is nothing new. Classical history consists of one betrayal after another. Et tu, Brute? If we are lucky we will make a few friends who we will trust to have our back, but we always have to consider the stakes. But if a corporation wants to make friends with you, get a contract. This is a corporate world, so we must always look for corporate solutions. A prenup is a new form of sacrament that is required when a person's corporation is bigger than their person.
Should your position in the business world change—should you lose a job for example—you may notice that you are no longer invited to the same events or greeted with the same enthusiasm. This is because corporations and their swinish minions were not actually friends with you, but with your title. Today one's personal qualities are rarely as valued as one's flow chart status. Should you subsequently move on to another important post you may wish to exact some sort of social vengeance against corporate snubbers as a matter of principle. Human character transcends mere office.
Even though men, as a rule, are loath to seek out advice (the same chromosomal glitch that prevents them from asking for directions), book publishers continue to put out a never-ending parade of man manuals, husband handbooks and guy guides destined to be given as gifts or dropped as heavy hints.
"Glenn O’Brien’s How to Be a Man: A Guide to Style and Behavior for the Modern Gentleman" (Rizzoli), with illustrations by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, might be one of the few in the canon that a guy would actually enjoy...if he can get past the title’s insinuated insult.
O’Brien certainly has the bona fides. For more than 10 years, he has penned GQ’s “Style Guy” advice column, and he’s been creative director of advertising for Barneys New York, editor of Interview magazine and involved in ad campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana.
Rather than a list of do’s and don’ts, "How to Be a Man" is part philosophy treatise, part sartorial self-help manual and part call to arms for the Renaissance man. It’s a clever collection of essays on topics ranging from grooming (“Man Is a Fur-Bearing Mammal”) and accessorizing (“Jewels and the Man”) to behavior (“How to Fight Like a Man”) and death (“How to Exit”), all in prose that’s entertaining and fun to parse. (To wit: “We must fill the sandbags of elegance against the rising tide of vulgarity.”) So when, during a recent Fashion Week foray to New York City, I found myself facing off with the author across plates of pasta at Il Buco, I had some questions...
Okay, there’s no delicate way to ask this: Where do you get off writing a book called How to Be a Man?
The title’s a little tongue in cheek, though some people were offended. Rules like these are a kind of common sense that gets passed along.
In some of your “Style Guy” columns, you’ve had to turn to an etiquette book—is that right?
Yes. I actually collect etiquette books. I find them charming—they tell more about history than a history book.
To whom do you turn on matters of style if you’re ever utterly stumped?
Alan Flusser [author and designer]—he has a real wealth of knowledge on menswear. And being a tailor, he knows a lot of things I could never hope to know.
Have you ever had to recant advice?
I’ve changed my mind about a few things—like white shoes. I’ve extended [the appropriate time to wear] white shoes through the entire length of baseball season. It used to be Memorial Day through Labor Day. I think it’s my recognition of climate change.
Style-wise, do you have a pet peeve?
I hate when people wear flip-flops as real shoes—more with men than women. I also don’t like fanny packs, I don’t like backpacks—especially on the subway—and I don’t like baseball caps.
Last question: The bio in your press materials describes you as a bon vivant. Now that you’ve told me how to be a better man, can you tell me how to be a better bon vivant?
Maybe it has to do with drinking a lot—I don’t really know.
Photographer Jessica Craig-Martin dropped by Glenn O'Brien's Manhattan loft to shoot the polymath amid his staggering library and Warhol- and Basquiat-lined walls. O’Brien’s irreverent new book, How to Be a Man, details how to land an insult, organize a social diary, buy art, dress and drink. And O'Brien is quite the authority: currently GQ's Style Guy and a columnist for Vanity Fair Italia, his career arc includes editorial director of Interview (Andy Warhol gave him his first job), NY bureau chief of Rolling Stone, creative director for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, host of cult cable access show TV Party, filmmaker (Downtown '81) and stand-up comedian, not to mention steelworker and singer. O'Brien wrote the intro to Craig-Martin's book Human Nature and invited her to appear in Wit, an online exhibition he is curating for Paddle8 in June. We spoke to the man who has been there, done that, and then some.
Who influenced your sense of style growing up?
My grandmother. Flora McGinty Sheldon. She caught me going out on a date once wearing a pink shirt and she said, "If I were that girl’s mother I wouldn’t let her go out with you." She felt you had to have a sense of occasion, a thing that men lack today.
Did you have heroes in movies to guide you early on?
Watching Cary Grant, William Powell, Fredric March and Gary Cooper was an education in good style. I saw the greatest Powell movie the other night: Jewel Robbery. He looks amazing. He’s an international jewel thief who falls in love with one of his victims and she falls in love with him and escapes her fat old husband. They go to Monte Carlo and abscond with a bit of money.
What was your early impression of New York?
I made my parents drive me to the Stork Club when I was 11 or 12. I knew that they wouldn’t fit in, so I said, “Wait here.” I presented myself to the maitre d’ and he was charmed and introduced me to all these people. That was always my goal—hang out at El Morocco or whatever. Because New York seemed really glamorous, and it was glamorous then. I remember going into Teddy’s and seeing Carl Sandburg the poet talking intimately with Liz Taylor and I thought, Wow, being a poet isn’t so bad.
In the book you say that being a man means being everything a man can be. Can you expand on that?
When you read about the [classical] Greeks, a man could basically know everything. Now everything is so specialized I think it squashes people’s sense of ambition. I like that in France you can be a philosopher and go to nightclubs and date movie stars.
What is the best review you've ever received?
I gave my book [Soap Box] to Gore Vidal and talked to him about a month later, and he said, “Oh, I’m reading your book.” I said, “How am I doing?” He said, “I’m chuckling.” So, that was a thrill.
If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of my teeth. I sorta wish I hadn’t gotten married the second time. I wish I’d have gone from the first to the third.
I’ve been trying to decide whether to start a publication or not. And I wrote a script about Andy Warhol. I thought it would be good to have one that is about him, instead of one where he’s freaking out Jim Morrison or getting shot by Valerie Solanas.
Glenn O’Brien has spent the past several years establishing himself as an all-purpose ambassador on the subject of style: As GQ‘s the Style Guy (a career he picked up after being hand-picked by Andy Warhol to art-direct Interview, running his own cable-access show TV Party in the late seventies, manning Barneys’ advertising in the eighties, and briefly returning to Interview as editor in chief), O’Brien has counseled legions of confused gentlemen on the finer points of style and the good life. His new book, How to Be a Man ($24.95, Rizzoliusa.com), finds him dispensing wisdom on subjects ranging from art acquisition to vice. “I wanted to write an essay book, but that’s not easy,” O’Brien said over tuna salad in Noho. “So this is an essay book in disguise.” Style.com checked in with the self-proclaimed dandy on how to be a man, how to be a woman, and how to conquer that pesky inner beast.
You mention that this is an essay book in disguise. How so?
Being a man is such a broad subject that just about anything will fit into it.
And I suppose that plenty already look to you for advice on manly matters.
Yeah—I have that clientele. I think it’s serving my established audience.
What’s your advice to them, in general?
I always counsel diplomacy.
That’s sort of how I’ve always seen you—as a sort of general-purpose diplomat.
That’s what I always say. There aren’t any rules, it’s all about common sense. A lot of people don’t seem to have common sense.
Is common sense in decline, or have people never really had any?
I think it’s in decline because I think parenting is in decline. I think we’re in a period of decadent parenting, where parents stick their kids in front of the TV or the iPad, the video games, and just expect them to raise themselves. Really, I think that’s the best thing that parents can give you, is a sense of practicality and common sense.
Including common sense about fashion, I take it.
I always liked clothes. [But] I feel like maybe my generation had more options. Now they put the kid in the Steelers jersey and that’s it. I think that’s another reason that men look for advice. My generation, you still had a sense of occasion. You’d get dressed up to go to church, or change to go out to dinner, and I think that doesn’t happen as much. There’s this sort of default casual. And instead of men or even people changing for the occasion, the occasions change to allow this mode.
So your message is one of practicality.
I think, actually, the book is an exhortation to express yourself. Let your personality run wild.
Do women have an easier time with that than men?
Yes, I think women are still kind of given a sense of occasion, and wearing something for the occasion. Maybe people are more worried about their daughters, so they give them a little more counsel.
Who interests you in fashion?
I’m a big fan of Thom Browne. I can’t really wear his suits; they don’t fit me right. The pants don’t fit. But I like the aesthetic. I just think that what he did was kind of subversive. It was a huge influence, and he didn’t really profit from it the way that Armani profited from his influence. Everybody started imitating him.
And for women?
I think Marni is kind of interesting. I think that [Consuelo Castiglioni’s] approach is very much like an artist. With the prints and the color combining and pattern combining, I think it’s kind of bohemian in a way. Prada is kind of like that. It’s classical and rebellious at the same time.
Classical and rebellious—is that your preferred style for women?
I like women that have their own thing, that don’t change fashion so much. Like, I love the way that Lauren Hutton looks. There’s always something that’s really wrong that’s really working with Lauren. And she has great stuff. She puts it together in this kind of wacky way.
Tell me about the illustration on the book’s cover: A Jean-Philippe Delhomme illustration of a man in suit and tie and boxing glove sipping a glass of wine on top of a bear. Looks like he’s just delivered the knockout punch.
This is the man who’s conquered his inner beast.
Seems to have conquered the outer one, too. Is that struggle a particularly male one?
Traditionally, it’s the male role.
Women start tame and end tamer?
No, women are less tame than men… I think generally women are more in touch with their emotions; they’re less repressed. Men are always telling you to suck it up and shut up.
Whereas women tend to explain. In fact, I was struck by something Kate Moss said about you: “If more men read Glenn O’Brien, women would have a lot less explaining to do.” What are they explaining?
That whole side of the brain that deals with the unconscious mind. The id. Men are supposed to be doing business and being logical, and culture is always thought of as the thing that the wife took care of. So in a way, it’s really culture.
And what needs to be explained to them? What, say, would you explain to Kate?
Oh, we’d just have a laugh. I wouldn’t explain anything to Kate. The funny thing about Kate is, [that] I think people don’t realize…Why is she so popular? Part of it is how she looks, but she’s the consummate professional model. She loves it, and she works harder than anybody. So I think Kate knows how things work. I think a lot of women…we still live in a culture of women living off men, the Real Housewives phenomenon. Some women need to have it explained how to make your way in the world as an independent person, I think. As much as women’s liberation was supposed to accomplish all that, I think it really hasn’t. We still live in a world where bimbo-ism is encouraged.
Welcome to Mr. Blasberg’s Book Corner, a new feature wherein our editor at large Derek Blasberg picks his read of the week, and meets the author. First up? Fashion and art’s favorite literary icon Glenn O’Brien, a writer who has written on all manners of style and artistic expression for decades.
Last week, O’Brien released "How to Be A Man," his tome related to all things stylish for aspirational men around the world. (The book was feted last night at a cocktail party and signing at Bergdorf Goodman, drawing a crowd of art heavyweights – probably the first time that Richard Prince has been spotted at a store party in this millenium.) Blasberg sat down with O’Brien to talk about two of their shared interests: stylish men, and Kate Moss.
You've been considered a stylish man (according to GQ magazine, you're the "Style Guy") for decades. Was this something innate, or did you take some sartorial lessons when you started your career in New York?
I was always into clothes. You can get a lot from watching old movies with Cary Grant, William Powell and Fredric March. Not to mention Dobie Gillis. But when I came to New York, I did learn a lot from being around Fred Hughes at Andy Warhol's Factory. And then when I started working for Barneys I got a sort of garmento masters degree from being around Fred Pressman.
Speaking of influences on the job, your career is reaching legendary status: Andy Warhol, Playboy magazine, even a New Wave TV show. Sartorially speaking, what have been some of your favorite style moments? And who are some of the most stylish men you've encountered?
During the days of [my cult New Wave television show] Glenn O'Brien's TV Party in the early '80s, all that mid-'60s slim lapel, narrow tie, sharkskin, colored dinner jacket stuff was just hitting the thrift shops, so we all looked great for nothing. I was never into retro, but I did love the way August Darnell (who also went by Kid Creole) looked. Some of the Brits have wonderful style, like Bryan Ferry; Charlie Watts; Jarvis Cocker; the late, lamented Malcolm McLaren; Miles Davis; Alex Katz; Joe Eula; Bobby Short. My tailor in London, John Pearse, has great style.
This is getting to be quite a long list.
Hooman Majd, the writer; Andy Spade. Gene Krell, the Brooklynese editor of Vogue Japan, is a legend. Oddly, I’ve always thought John Lydon looked terrific. The Clash survivors have gotten good in their old age. Only Jean-Paul Goude can look like Goude. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Dash Snow were brilliant. Waris Ahluwalia. Andre Balazs looks Hollywood in the good sense. Vincent Darre. And my man Derek Blasberg always looks good.
Flattery: the true mark of a modern gentleman. What about girls? Who are your favorite female fashion icons?
Obviously Daphne Guinness is a work of art. I like the way Lauren Hutton dresses: she's usually quite casual, almost dressing like a man, but with some amazing detail, like beaded Indian moccasins. And then when she goes womanly, she's a knockout. Paula Greif, an art director and video director who I've worked with for years, has really great style. (It was from Paula that I got into the habit of rewarding myself after big jobs with clothes, although she doesn't know it.) Anh Duong always looks terrific. And lots of the French girls: Victoire de Castellane, Ines De la Fressange, any member of the Birkin family. Kate Moss has fantastic taste.
We'll get to Ms. Moss in a second, but let's talk about why you wrote your book. Last year, I wrote a guidebook for girls because I was seeing too many young women in the world dressing and behaving like tramps. Did you have a similar stimulus? Do you feel that there not enough elegant gentlemen in this world?
Yes, I feel like we've almost hit bottom culturally in the way men dress. They dress like children without any fantasy, costume element. They dress to not be naked. It would be a wonderful thing if there were more elegant men, but I'd settle for a respectable looking general public – like they had before LSD.
So, help these boys. What are some easy, quick steps that a man can implement to his style or behavior immediately?
Throw away his sneakers, flip-flops, backpack and anything with a sports franchise logo on it. Use polite language that would please his grandma. And, tell the truth.
Now, let’s get back to Kate Moss. She said of your book: "If more men read Glenn O'Brien, women would have a lot less explaining to do." How did you two meet, and do you have as affectionate feelings for her work as she does for yours?
I met Kate Moss through Corinne Day when she was 19. We wanted to use Kate for a Barneys advertisement, but she was under contract with Calvin Klein. But then I worked with Kate on Calvin Klein – the first job was a jeans commercial directed by Herb Ritts with Marky Mark – and I adored her immediately. So smart and so funny and fearless. Then we did cK One on the jeans campaign that ended up getting banned. Kate has a wicked sense of humor, but she’s also a real pro. She loves her job and she really works hard at it in a way that most girls couldn’t imagine. She is a great classic beauty, but her longevity is really about her enthusiasm and joie de vivre.
Calling your book "How To Be A Man" could be considered presumptuous, but ever since Caitlin Moran offered our female counterparts similarly clear guidance we've felt the absence of our own definitive behavior bible. Enter American GQ's "Style Guy" and all-round Renaissance Man Glenn O'Brien, who has written about music and art for Andy Warhol's Interview and ArtForum respectively, dated Grace Jones and befriended everyone from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Kate Moss. He also hosted his own talk show TV Party, has performed stand-up comedy at a Hell's Angels party - on a boat - and can even pull off socks with sandals. "I thought I should write something for an existing audience that I have," O'Brien explains. "I've been sort of typecast as this style authority, so I thought I would use that as a cover for writing philosophy and getting some laughs." Indeed, his catch-all book covers everything from to how to be a gentleman to how to insult correctly: "I am a man. I think every man should think about how to be a man. That's why it's a funny title." So to summarize, what best lesson he's learnt, sartorial or otherwise? "Think again." Here he talks to British GQ.com about the aphrodisiac effect of Brigitte Bardot films, dressing like Bryan Ferry's stunt double and how Thom Browne changed the world...
Many, many men look in the mirror and can't really see their reflection.
They seem to be dressing for another body altogether. It all starts with being able to actually see.
The style question I get asked most is…
”Should my socks match my trousers or my shoes?" I usually encourage them to match their socks to their mood.
The secret to successful black tie?
Perfect fit. Good shoes. No colours. No stunts.
I first became interested in style…
…as soon as I realised I was wearing clothes. I was allowed considerable input on my wardrobe as a child, which is very good, I think. I got my first suit I think about the time I was able to walk. My first stylish purchase was probably something cowboy-related.
What's the weirdest style question I've been asked?
Maybe "How do you make your penis bigger?" At the time I think I said you should eat carrots and bananas and if that doesn't work, put them in your pants. But thinking about it now I might say Brigitte Bardot movies.
Go to a good tailor…
…and get measured. A great suit is an investment. I have suits I still wear that are almost 20 years old.
I have a lot of suits because…
…they've lasted. I have a navy velvet John Pearse suit that makes me look like Bryan Ferry's stunt double and I have a dark-gray three-button Anderson & Sheppard suit that has been my default for elegance for a decade. I just had the same suit made in navy and had the jacket cut a little shorter. Thom Browne changed the world.
Every man should have…
…blue jeans, a grey suit, a white shirt, a black knit tie and a tuxedo.
The secret to dressing well on a budget…
...is to buy things that won't go out of style. Buy used things, or vintage if you can find it. I had no money but I still looked good because I looked around.
How do you dress well for a wedding?
For somebody else's, dress impeccably to blend in. For your own, it's a ritual so be traditional and defer to the bride but involve something memorable.
I was once a bit flabby…
…because of an experiment I was conducting with Belgian Beer and I wore some rather Orson Welles-y jackets. I would rather forget my hairstyle circa 1987.
I have a lot of shoes but…
…far fewer than my wife. I have a thing for these sex-neutral slip-on shoes that old-school New Yorkers like. They're called Belgian shoes, they come in many colours and I think men shouldn't be stuck with black, brown and white. I have black, brown, white, green suede and plaids. I guess I like my Black Watch tartan and my grey flannel Belgians best.
…discreet, modestly sized watches. I have a drawer full of vintage watches, many of which don't work quite right, but since I've developed an allergy to leather bands, I wear a gold Hermès with a steel and gold bracelet almost every day and I wear a black faced Jungmans on a ribbon band when I'm gardening.
What should you wear to a prom?
A boutonniere and shoes you can really dance in.
How do you dress well in the heat?
Linen, seersucker, short sleeves, white shoes.
I have to say that Prince Charles has great style.
He knows all the nuances without being poofy like the Duke of Windsor. And Jarvis Cocker, Bryan Ferry and Charlie Watts.
Every stylish man's bookshelf should contain...
...The Unexpurgated Code by JP Dunleavy, The Book of Snobs (both Thackeray's and the Duke of Bedford's) and The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis.
Every stylish man's iPod should contain…
…Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Bryan Ferry, Lee Perry, Jarvis Cocker (especially C***s Are Still Running The World), William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful For What You Got", James Brown.
The films that I think are stylish are…
…Casanova 70, Our Man Flint, Le Samouraï and Bob Le Flambeur.
If I could only keep one item from my wardrobe it would be…
…my Schott motorcycle jacket with the crown painted on the back by Basquiat.
My style hero used to be…
Brian Jones. Then it was Duke Ellington. Now I guess it's Ezra Pound.
My most important style rule?
Don't fall down.