remembering new york legend glenn o'brien

The irreverent downtown superstar has sadly passed away. We take a look back at five of Glenn O'Brien's most iconic moments, from his Reagan-era mayoral bid to his intrepid ads for Barneys New York.

by Hannah Ongley
07 April 2017, 8:10pm


Glenn O'Brien wasn't just synonymous with NYC's downtown art scene. He helped create it. Amongst his many accolades: editing the first issues of his friend Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, chronicling the city's burgeoning punk scene as part of his "Glenn O'Brien's Beat" column, writing the screenplay for iconic Basquiat-starring art drama Downtown 81, helming the unconventional cable show TV Party, and dictating how thousands of men dressed as the GQ Style Guy. But his lesser known exploits are equally fascinating. In honor of the visionary late legend, here are five of his most iconic, audacious, and culture-shaping moments. RIP, Glenn O'Brien.

He coined the term "editor at large" for a very inventive reason.
The term "editor at large" normally implies holding enough sway within any given publication to dictate your own schedule. It did, too, when O'Brien first coined the term in the 70s, though he wasn't just trying to maximize his frequent flier miles by doing so. After being appointed editor in chief at High Times magazine, O'Brien thought it was probably a good idea to avoid the office — and potential scrutiny from the law. 

He nearly turned TV Party into… the TV Party.
The name of his satire-heavy cable show was evidently too good a double entendre for O'Brien to ignore. During the scariest years of the Reagan era, he considered turning it into an actual political party. "Everything was done in a kind of joking manner. I was going to try to get on the mayoral ballot because I thought if we could get on the ballot and it said 'TV Party,' that everybody would vote for that because everybody likes TV," he told PopMatters. "But we didn't get enough signatures, so we weren't on the ballot." If only it was possible for reality TV hosts to launch successful government campaigns. 

His Barneys ads were brilliant.
While his mayoral ambitions were never fulfilled, O'Brien clearly kept a close eye on politics. During his stint as creative director of advertising at Barneys, he oversaw campaigns that feel daring even today. In 1992 the New York Times reported on a print advertisement that included "Not inhaling" on a list of "Some of our favorite things," riffing on Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas's now-iconic campaign trail statement that he tried marijuana but "didn't inhale." Another ad in the series — debuted just months after the Soviet Union dissolved — informed NYC of Barneys's fondness for "Caviar from new democracies."

He was The Style Guy.
In his infamous, hilarious 2015 interview with Four Pins, O'Brien lambasted the magazine where his style column took off. He also reminded readers that he had written books under the Style Guy moniker, and that the column first ran in a different Condé Nast men's mag to GQ. In its glossy heydey, Details was known for serving fashion with a generous side of wit. The magazine once ran a sweater spread juxtaposing photos of Martha Stewart with matching ones of Alf — except Martha was never informed of the layout. O'Brien's columns would have felt well at home within Details's pages. 

O'Brien first took Blondie to the Bronx.
Over four decades after TV Party ended, O'Brien helmed a second television interview show: M2M's Tea at The Beatrice. Last September, he brought on Baz Luhrmann to talk about the director's 70s South Bronx hip-hop series The Get Down. He also reminded the audience that there wasn't just one genre drawing attention at the tail end of the decade. O'Brien, in fact, may be responsible for the earliest crossover of uptown hip-hop and downtown new-wave. He once drove Debbie Harry up to the Boogie Down in his Toyota Corolla, to catch a show by an upstart hip-hop DJ called Grandmaster Flash. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Instagram

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