Words by Nathaniel "Natty" Adams.
This post, our memorial to Glenn O'Brien, appears on Natty's "Lives of the Dandies" blog also.
Try writing about Glenn O’Brien without using the word “cool.” Might as well describe the ocean without mentioning water. Glenn was so unassailably, impeccably, motherfuckingly cool you’d glance at the thermostat when he walked in the room. Glenn’s coolness was cosmopolitan and manifold, like the renaissance-man portfolio of jobs he juggled throughout life. He was all kinds of cool: stylish cool, cultured cool, witty cool, and just plain laid-back breezy cool. If someone were to say “don’t lose your cool,” they could just as well have said “be more like Glenn O’Brien.”
Glenn’s coolness seemed innate – one could no more imagine him getting ruffled or flustered than picture him running to catch a bus. He’d wait for the next one, no sweat. Or hail a cab. Or hitch a ride. Or steal a bicycle. Whatever way, it’d be cool.
Speaking of Glenn & transport, one of the coolest things I can recall involves Glenn and a Metrocard. Glenn wrote the introduction to my and Rose’s first book “I am Dandy.” The artist Peter McGough had put us in touch with him. Glenn was skeptical of the project at first, but he liked Rose’s photos and – much to my delight – my writing, so he agreed. He also put us in touch with Bergdorf Goodman, who ended up hosting our launch party. Glenn only showed up at the very start and only for a few minutes. There are only a couple of photos of him there, one of him gamely standing next to your truly, the beaming young author. In his left hand are both a champagne glass and a Metrocard.
It’s just the kind of too-perfect detail that handily affirms Glenn’s reputation as a man at home in the high and the low. Was he really just on his way out and thought it prudent to whip out his train fare before taking the elevator downstairs and walking two whole blocks to the station? Or had he just arrived and absent-mindedly neglected to put it away? Had he forgotten his wallet?Or was it a deliberate move? I wouldn’t put it past Glenn. Perhaps a code – a subliminal signal – to the other partygoers that he couldn’t stay long: just the sort of social trigger Glenn would have noticed when nobody else had. Or could it be a clever accessory to confirm his outsider-insider aura, casually holding a proletarian artifact while surrounded by unabashed luxury, a reverse of Evelyn Waugh walking a mile to mail a letter from a fancier post code.
Glenn was in some ways like a character from one of those earlier Waugh satires. I don’t know if Tom Wolfe had much contact with Glenn, but I imagine he might have been jealous to see realized in flesh the sort of city society character he sometimes struggled to invent. Better still, the phrase “too cool for school,” didn’t apply to Glenn because he was such a valiant opponent of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and pretense.
To a young writer with broad cosmopolitan tastes and interests, Glenn was an inspiration and refutation of the vogue for specialization. Interviewing him was daunting – as with masturbation you always got the sense the chap could have just done it better himself. Still, he smiled and thanked you when it was over. And that smile! Glenn could always deliver a devastatingly handsome look to camera with his beaming double-barreled blues sitting above his notorious cheekbones, but when he smiled the eternal teenager shone forth. Here was Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain in whole.
For a young man, Glenn’s patented aphorism-laden brand of laid-back masculinity was a breath of fresh air: unapologetic yet unburdened with musk and machismo. Glenn was a cool dude in Chuck Taylors or bespoke brogues, a t-shirt or a tuxedo, a beard or bare-faced. In the same way he was always implausibly plausible as both elder sage and puckish rapscallion. He even made a couple of passing remarks that suggested he didn’t think I was such a bad dresser, either, which is a bit like the Pope saying “Hey, nice miter.”
Whenever I saw Glenn at an event and said hello there was always a moment or two when I was struck by the fear that he didn’t recognize me. I’d feel nervous, prepared for the embarrassment accompanied by his unreadable poker-faced gaze. Then he’d always do something like turn to the person next to him – the sort of person who thinks being cool does mean not remembering young writers’ names – and say “This is Natty. He wrote a great book about dandies.”
If there were a heaven, St. Peter wouldn’t even need to check the guest list. Every bouncer knows Glenn’s invited to the party. And in the unfortunate event of Glenn’s sins tipping the scales in the other direction, hell would surely soon freeze over from all that cool.
Photographs were taken by Rose Callahan at Glenn's home in New York City on June 25, 2013