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Exclusive: Women staffers of Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone get their turn to speak
“The men were very angry all the time, and some of them would have full on fits—like, full-on toddler-like tantrums."
In the ladies’ restroom at the former Rolling Stone offices in midtown Manhattan, there was a worn and cracked dark leather piece of furniture that former staffers said was dubbed “the crying couch.” It’s where some female staffers said they would go after a particularly troubling encounter with a male colleague to express how they really felt without shame. After that, they’d head back to the boys’ club that was the newsroom, and act like everything was fine. “Everybody had a turn on the crying couch,” one former staffer told me.
This was the magazine’s office culture under the leadership of co-founder Jann Wenner, according to a dozen female staffers who spoke with me about their experience working there during his reign. Along with music critic Ralph Gleason, Wenner launched the legendary magazine in San Francisco, 1967, creating a first-of-its-kind publication that deeply explored music and its cultural and political impact. But what began as the passion project of a music fanatic, the women said, morphed into one man’s entitled journey to be judge and jury for the industry.
Those I spoke to described the environment under Wenner as “a dictatorship” and “a horrible place for women” with a culture of “palpable fear” and the feeling of “an abusive family relationship.” If you weren’t being publicly admonished, they said, then you were invisible. Shut out from major editorial decisions, getting passed over for promotions, at the receiving end of temper tantrums, and underestimated at nearly every turn with no hope for upward mobility, these women described an openly hostile work environment—and most of them said it trickled down from Wenner.
The stories told to me reflected the opinion of the late feminist writer and rock’n roll critic Ellen Willis, who famously refused to write for Wenner.
“The main thing that bugs me about Rolling Stone is that it is viciously anti-woman,” Willis wrote in a 1970 letter to Gleason, Wenner’s co-founder, according to the biography 'Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine' by Joe Hagan. “I realize that the whole rock subculture is very male supremacist and a magazine about that subculture can't ignore that fact, but it seems to me it's the responsibility of RS, just for that reason, to be critical, to admit the fact that there's some rottenness going on, instead of helping to perpetuate it.”
Willis added: “To me, when a bunch of snotty upper-middle class white males start telling me that politics isn’t where it's at, that is simply an attempt to defend their privileges. What they want is more bread and circuses; I like to have fun too, but what I really want is an end to my oppression.”
When I received a New York Times push alert on September 16th that Wenner, who sold the magazine and officially departed in 2019, had been removed from the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the reach of his cultural impact crystalized. Wenner’s great unraveling had been years in the making, but he sealed his legacy in an interview published a day earlier to promote his new book, The Masters. It’s a collection of interviews he did with seven music superstars like Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, and when asked why he chose to feature only white men, he said, “none of them [women] were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” and Black artists, “just didn’t articulate at that level.”
He then added: “You know, just for public relations’ sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.”
(The book reportedly sold just 800 copies in its first week and is currently ranked #37,357 on Amazon.)
In response, current Rolling Stone CEO Gus Wenner—the elder Wenner’s son—attempted to distance himself. “While I love him deeply, I do not agree with the comments he made and understand why they are so upsetting and hurtful,” he wrote in an email to staff. “I want to be clear, his statements as reported do not represent my beliefs, or the values, practices, and mission of Rolling Stone.”
When asked about their reaction upon hearing Wenner’s comments, sources I interviewed described thinking, “that's 100% him,” “he said the quiet part out loud,” “nothing surprising about that,” and that “it really just felt like a slap in the face.” Penske Media Corporation, the current owners of Rolling Stone, did not respond to The Handbasket’s request for comment on Wenner’s remarks. And though a publicist at his book publisher said she’d pass along a request for comment, Wenner has yet to reply.
Wenner’s comments immediately got me wondering what it was like to work for him as a woman, and how that may have impacted the trajectory of one’s career. A majority of the women I spoke to were ready to unload about what they had once considered a “dream job,” working at the country’s most influential music publication. A couple expressed initial guardedness that, through the course of our conversations, gave way to a new perspective on their time at the magazine. And two women reported having an overall positive experience.
I tried to connect with a couple of the very few women of color who worked there during Wenner’s time, but was unsuccessful. Some women I spoke with have given me permission to use their real names, and others requested that I use a pseudonym to protect their privacy. (Those names that have been changed are marked with an asterisk.)
“I had an incredibly great experience and great career at Rolling Stone,” Janet Reitman, a writer for the magazine for 16 years and current contributing writer to New York Times Magazine, told me. “Jann Wenner was always supportive of me and it's because of him that I have the career that I have, actually. But I know that Jann treated his writers—his reputation is that he's always treated his writers sort of differently than people in the office.”
Reitman referenced a “star system” for certain writers. “If you are a favored writer, you can do whatever you want, and it's been great for a lot of people. But it could also blind you, perhaps, to what has been going on in the office,” she said.
When I asked one former staffer why she decided now was the time to share her experience, she said “You were the first person that actually asked me, ‘Hey, what was it like as a woman at Rolling Stone?’” And even all these years later, another former staffer says she still feels, “the visceral terror of like, oh, well, I'm not allowed to talk about this stuff.”
These are the stories of the women who said they weren’t heard by most of the people who worked side-by-side with them, who said they were told their ideas were unimportant, and who said they were demeaned for simply doing their jobs. Now they’re finally allowed to talk about it.
(Note: I’ve freelanced in the past for Rolling Stone, and published one story during the time when Wenner still owned the magazine. I never dealt with him in any manner throughout the writing of that story, nor have we ever interacted in any context.)
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The Boys’ Club
Lucy* worked in the copy and research departments starting in the early 2010s: It was referred to by some staffers at the time as the “pink ghetto,” she said, because of the overwhelmingly female staff. They sat together huddled in cubicles far from windows and sunlight where they waited for magazine pieces to come in for them to copy edit and fact-check. Lucy said she remembered feeling Wenner’s presence from day one, even though by the time she started, he came to the office only intermittently.
“It's like, ‘Oh, there's Jann.’ He only talked to people that had an office, and the only people that had an office were white men. Straight, white men who I would say came from upper middle class backgrounds. They were a very particular set of men,” Lucy said, echoing Willis’ letter from decades prior. “Maybe one woman had an office.”
She said she understood very quickly that Wenner was not to be approached directly by lower staff who were not important enough to merit his time, and, despite the relatively small editorial staff of 30 or so people, Lucy was sure he would never learn her name. When she finally departed for a new job after five years, that remained true.
Kara*, an editorial staffer in the 2010s, said it wasn’t exactly a ‘60s, Mad Men vibe in the office. But, she said, “I was just always aware of my gender. It was just really hard not to be.”
However Lucy remembered a distinctly “old school” attitude from the male editors on the print magazine side, and again invoked the hit TV series when she said the men acted “like fucking Don Draper or some shit,” but, “with dad bods.” From sipping tequila in one of their offices, to completely ignoring how their lax schedule impacted those of the women below them, the men in the office, she said, operated by and large with impunity.
“The thing that really struck me about my era is it felt like the guys were just happy to be there and hanging out. Like, I know that that wasn't probably true, but it was fucking impossible to get things finished in a timely manner,” Heather*, an editorial staffer from the mid-aughts to the early 2010s, told me. “And we were just stuck waiting for stories to be done for hours and hours during close weeks. And so we had a lot of time to get to know each other and joke, and when things were crappy, we could commiserate.”
“Close weeks” refer to the weeks when the staff was wrapping up the next issue before it was sent off to the printer. It was a stressful time regardless of gender, but work days that stretched into the early hours of the following morning were especially hard on the women who held most of the copyediting, fact-checking and research roles—the last line of defense before a writer's words were immortalized in print. And on top of all that, most of the women in those roles aspired to do the actual writing. Instead they were trapped in clean up duty.
Wenner and the male editors, some of the women said, seemed to have little awareness of how their actions negatively impacted their female colleagues. And when they’d try to hasten the process, they say they were often treated like nags or scolds.
“It was like we were a total nuisance by doing our jobs of trying to make things accurate or keep things moving along and on time,” Jennifer*, another staffer in the copy and research departments in the early 2010s, said. “And it just felt in the office like a clear divide…one side of the office is all of the male editors in their flannel talking about their things and making all the decisions, and then the largely female [copy and research] departments, doing all of the heavy lifting to get the issue out. But getting none of the overall benefits of it.”
Fits and tantrums
Oftentimes when these women were just trying to just do their jobs, they were met with outright aggression by male superiors, they said.
“The men were very angry all the time, and some of them would have full on fits—like, full-on toddler-like tantrums and, like, throw things in their office just like, out of frustration,” Lucy recalled. She remembered having to tread lightly when asking certain male editors to weigh in on a decision that required their attention. “Like, this is literally what we're paid to do, and we had to wait or [wonder] ‘are they in a good mood?’ or ‘are they approachable?’”
She remembered a time in the wee hours of the morning during a close week when an unhappy editor lashed out at her for a decision she had made in the course of her job. “I remember that incident happened at 4 a.m. and he just yelled at me, and I cried. I've cried at work before, but I hated that he made me cry. And he didn't care, and he walked away,” she said.
“I heard screaming matches—[men] full-on yelling and screaming at people in their offices, slamming doors,” Jennifer said. “Stuff that after a while you're like, ‘oh, okay, well, so-and-so is on a tear again. I guess we'll just avoid them today even though I have to go in and take them these rounds.’” Wenner, according to her, did not make any attempts to lower the temperature.
She remembered one especially hostile encounter with a male editor. “One time somebody—one male editor—when I was bringing up something, [he said] something to the effect of, ‘well, it's a good thing your opinion doesn't matter,’” she said. “And it was so heated and rude, and it was somebody I worked with like, 14 hours a day.”
This idea that men had the upper hand and final word was made clear to even the youngest men on staff. Nina Pearlman, who currently works in communications at a nonprofit, worked at Rolling Stone off and on from 2000 to 2015. She served in a variety of roles including Special Projects Manager and Managing Editor of Rolling Stone’s Special Interest Publications, and remembered the men embarking on careers there becoming less deferential over time.
“I just feel like it had to come from Jann, because then it just trickles down to the culture,” she said. “And there would be these men—young men—who would start as interns who would be so respectful to me, and then they would get higher up and then they would be dismissive of me, and I'm the same person. What happened to you?,” she’d wonder.
Pearlman recalled reading a 2018 Vanity Fair profile of women who worked at Rolling Stone in the mid-70s, and a particular passage felt all too relevant to her experience in the 21st century. “It was very much ‘us against them,’” Barbara Downey Landau, a former copy chief, said in the piece. “You’re fighting for your legitimacy. You really have to fight about cuts and word changes. The guys on the staff didn’t like the authority that we felt we had.”
When she read that, Pearlman thought “that is exactly what I would say about the time that I worked there.”
Power and control
Evie, who asked that her last name be withheld, was Managing Editor of the website from 2011-2012 and had relatively more power and autonomy than many of the other women there at the time. But even so, she said, Wenner’s presence loomed large in the office day-to-day because they never knew when he would randomly decide to insert himself.
“You could tell there was just this palpable fear of doing anything that would make Jann mad, or that he wouldn't agree with,” she said. “And so his world view about things just got imposed on basically everyone who was in any position to make decisions. So, it's not like all these decisions went through him because he honestly would just come in like every three months or something, but they knew that at any moment he could decide to pay attention, which would happen.”
When Wenner would come into the office, a number of the women told me, an assistant would give them warning so they had time to clear everything off their desks to avoid angering him.
“[He had a] weird tyrannical approach to the orderliness of one's desk in the office,” Lauren Gitlin, who worked at Rolling Stone from 2003 to 2007 as an editorial assistant and later an assistant editor for the website, told The Handbasket. “He would come through regularly and like, evaluate people's desks, and we knew in advance that this was gonna happen. And so we had to frantically clean. And he would sweep through and get fucking pissed if anyone had a messy environment.”
“He didn't want people to have photos or anything,” Evie said. “I had heard that from people and I was like, that can't be true. That sounds ridiculous. And then the first time it happened I was like, oh fuck, this is actually a thing. You had to dump everything into drawers or whatever and make sure it was spotless.”
Gitlin, who now owns and runs a goat farm in Vermont, described Wenner’s leadership style as “a dictatorship.” She added, “It was Jann’s way or the highway, and we all had to kind of just adhere to whatever set of standards and criteria he set…that was kind of the way of things and you just had to accept it or move along.”
Trying to introduce readers to a new artist was a mostly losing battle, usually subsumed by yet another piece about the Beatles catalog or Bob Dylan B-sides. And if a woman was fortunate enough to be the cover star, it was mostly because the way she looked—particularly in a wet tshirt—helped sell magazines, some of the women staffers said.
But Wenner, I was told, even inserted himself in projects and topics that didn’t particularly interest him just to assert his control—right to the bitter end.
In early 2019 as Wenner’s tenure drew to a close, the staff prepared a special issue about famous powerful women that was meant to be produced entirely by women staffers (the number of which had grown fairly significantly in the years since the University of Virginia scandal.) Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was set to be the cover star, and a female politics reporter was assigned to do the interview: But when Wenner caught wind, a staffer at the time told me, he insisted on conducting the interview alongside the reporter—and getting a co-byline. He was furious, I was told, that his name wasn’t listed first.
Heather, the editorial staffer from the mid-aughts to the early 2010s, acknowledged that while many brilliant people worked at Rolling Stone during her time, in the end, the entire staff catered to Wenner’s tastes. “I don't think I'm overstepping by saying that everyone recognized that ultimately he needed to sign off in order for things to go forward,” she said. “And it was in everyone's best interest to keep the process of doing things that Jann will like and then tailoring to his interest rather than doing something and then having him kill it later.”
This included any and all stories about Bob Dylan, Bono, Mick Jagger, or any of the “FOJ’s”, as I’m told they were called: Friends of Jann.
And Wenner exerted his control in other more subtle ways, too, the women said. Women were rarely invited to meetings with him, and if they were, they remember him not acknowledging them. If he wanted to communicate something to the copy or research desk, he would dispatch one of the editors to relay the message.
Grace*, an editorial staffer who worked there in the last few years of Wenner’s reign, didn’t feel the overall sense of misogyny in the office the same way some others did. She said she was encouraged to pitch and write stories, especially by one of the only women in power at the time, and described it as an overall great experience. But she said she’ll never forget Wenner’s disturbing reaction to the unceremonious firing of a beloved female colleague in the wake of the UVA story who’d worked there for nearly 20 years. The exact circumstances surrounding her firing could not be confirmed.
“There's not a single person who did not love this woman,” she said, “and I remember Jann leaving the office, and he did not even acknowledge her cleaning up her desk.”
While it was upsetting, Grace said it was instructive to witness how little Wenner appeared to value the women at his magazine.
“I just thought it was reprehensible,” she said. “But it was an important moment as a young woman in the field at the time. I was in my early/mid twenties and…it really opened my eyes to what other women had been talking about with respect to that older attitude about women. It was just so disrespectful.”
Pregnancy and motherhood
When Evie unexpectedly got pregnant just weeks into the job, she was immediately worried about what would happen to her position. She was sick for a large chunk of her pregnancy, but did her best to hide it. “I would be in meetings and I'm like, I feel like I'm gonna die right now. But I have to somehow just keep it together.”
Because she’d started so recently, she was told by HR that she would not get the standard six weeks paid maternity leave. So she started banking as many days as she could to cover six weeks off—until her doctor ordered her to bed rest eight weeks before her due date. Despite the fact that her job could be done remotely, however, she was told that remote work was not permitted under any circumstances. Not even hers.
(Penske Media Corporation did not reply to a request to verify these HR details.)
“I was absolutely terrified, but I didn't know what I could do,” Evie said. “And then my manager—who was also a woman—called me a few days into this when I was just like, freaking out, and said that she had somehow figured out that there was a sales guy who had shingles or something and they'd been letting him work from home for weeks.”
And despite the fact that she would not be physically present at the office, HR told her “please don't tell anybody. We're making an exception for you.” A few months after giving birth and returning to work, Evie was laid off. And she couldn’t help but feel like her needs as a new mom had something to do with it.
In such a male-dominated environment, there were so few examples of how to be a successful working mom at Rolling Stone.
Sarene Leeds, a copyeditor on the print side from 2007-2014, said she’d wanted to get out for a long time—partly so she could have a child. And she knew the long hours and late nights during close week would not be conducive to that goal.
“Another reason why I knew I had to leave was because I knew that it was an environment where I was not gonna be comfortable being pregnant,” Leeds said, referring to the high pressure environment and the unrelenting schedule. “I knew that there was no way I could safely maintain a pregnancy while I was there.”
Pearlman remembers finding out she was pregnant while working there, and telling the three people she reported to. Her male boss, she said, “was the only one that looked panicked because he knew how much I did for him that made his life easier.”
No mobility or respect
But perhaps most crushing of all, many of the women told me, was the accepted truth that moving up the ranks was a pipe dream for most, if not all, the women working at Wenner’s Rolling Stone.
“You just feel it in your bones. You know this is not a place where my career will advance,” Kara, the editorial staffer in the 2010’s, said. “Obviously my career is not advancing here,” she remembered thinking “It was like, I don't think I can be respected as a human here.”
Gitlin described a “sort of false notion of a meritocracy,” under Wenner. It's not that he was a misogynist, she said, but rather that he truly just believed that the women weren’t good enough.” She said Wenner’s recent comments about women epitomized the culture when she was there. “I think I must have internalized that to some degree. I just was like, yeah, I guess I'm just not good enough, and I was early enough in my career that I didn't question that.” When she was let go in 2007, she never pursued a media job again.
“As we're talking about it, I'm feeling angrier and angrier that I was done a disservice by him and by that place,” Gitlin said, just now processing what the experience of working at Rolling Stone was like for a woman in her early twenties. “You know, like, I could have done more. I could have been better. And I don't think it really dawned on me until we started having this conversation that there were other forces at work besides my own ability that prevented me from excelling in that position.”
Some of the women I spoke to described an environment that was much more nurturing to young male staffers who were given greater opportunities and more room to fail. “I was just watching a young male writer who was so in over his head, and it felt like all of the male editorial department was just banding together to kind of prop him up to help him through,” Leeds recalled. “And most of the females in the research and copy department, we were just shaking our heads.”
Jennifer said she was passed over for a promotion to fill the only editor position that had been held by a woman at that time. “They hired essentially an intern that we had had because his dad knew somebody. And he had not even graduated college yet.”
The psychic damage of being consistently devalued became clear as soon as Leeds quit the magazine with no new job lined up.
“I quickly learned that it wasn't my skill set or my talent,” she said of her almost-immediate success freelancing post-Rolling Stone. “There was a significant attitude that somehow trickled down from the top at Rolling Stone that said, nope, she is a copy editor and she's a woman. So we're not gonna bother with her. And that attitude, if I had stayed, could have destroyed my career.”
Life after Rolling Stone
Some of the women described a sort of “trauma bonding” that keeps them tight until this day. Whenever their old boss pops up in the news, their group chat will light up with a few minutes of rueful reminiscing, then eventually give way to regular everyday conversation. But Wenner’s comments last month brought a fresh, more potent wave of emotion, leaving many of them feeling raw and transported back in time.
When a female editor for the website resigned for a new job in January 2018, just days before Penske Media took over after Wenner sold the magazine, she penned a memo to HR about her experience there as a woman. With her blessing, it was then shared with the new owner, Jay Penske, who then circulated it among the female staff. The text of that memo has been shared with me.
The editor wrote that although grateful and proud of her time at Rolling Stone, it had been “in many ways, a challenging place to work as a woman—in ways that I believe point to systemic culture issues here. I heard someone once say that addressing such culture issues is like trying to describe ‘the color of the air we breathe.’”
Since the author was one of the most senior editors, other women staffers often came to her seeking advice or to vent. “I heard countless stories—some big and many relatively small—of women being frustrated about not being taken seriously, being ignored, having their concerns blown off, etc. It's been my experience that women here are, on the whole, very concerned that they aren't being paid fairly relative to their male peers.”
She closed by writing, “I'm leaving behind some incredibly talented women who deserve to be taken more seriously and treated with more respect. And beyond those individuals, the publication would benefit greatly from having people with more points of views and different backgrounds at the table. Not only that, but it's the right thing to do —and, as we're seeing in this moment of reckoning, not just about sexual harassment, but also the greater treatment of women in society, it's also the right side of history to be on.”
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