Growing up, Jonathan Wells obsessed over Rolling Stone magazine, especially the poems published in the pages of the “counterculture bible.” He even had his subscription sent to him when he was at boarding school in Switzerland.
And he admired the magazine’s famed founder, Jann Wenner. So when the two men struck up a friendship in the early 1980s, Wells considered it “a big deal.”
Wells moved to New York City after college with aspirations to work in book publishing, and saw Wenner as someone who was leading a cultural revolution in the overall publishing industry. Wells, then 28, met Wenner through mutual friends. They spent time together, mostly in larger group settings, at restaurants and friends’ apartments.
“His success, his affluence, he was really fun,” Wells told BuzzFeed News. “He was an exciting guy to be around.”
But in February 1983, after they both spent a night drinking and doing cocaine in Wenner’s Upper East Side home, Wenner sexually assaulted him, Wells recently told BuzzFeed News.
In the early 1980s, Wenner was "unhealthy, bloated from alcohol and cocaine abuse," according to Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by author Joe Hagan. Hagan describes that time period as a “twenty-four hour party at East Sixty-Sixth Street,” calling Wenner’s apartment “the locus of a rolling party. The door was never locked, and anyone could walk in.”
Wells told five people at the time about the incident, which they all confirmed to BuzzFeed News. Wenner told BuzzFeed News he believed the encounter was consensual. (Wells reached out to BuzzFeed News after reading in November about a writer who said Wenner offered him work in exchange for sex.)
Wenner, then 37, had invited several people to his home and the group hung out in the publisher’s study. The room inside Wenner’s “fabulous” apartment, Wells said, was full of books and tapes and also housed a daybed.
Wells, at the time, was working for his father’s limited-edition art print business — a job he didn’t like. He wanted to work in book publishing, and Wenner picked up on his professional ambitions, at times “dangling the idea of a job” at Rolling Stone.
Wells said he arrived at Wenner’s home expecting to talk about what he could do at Rolling Stone. Wells doesn’t remember if they talked about the prospects of a job — but he does remember drinking vodka and doing lines of cocaine.
At one point the two men were left alone in the study and Wenner offered to call a prostitute for them.
“I was high. I didn’t feel anything,” Wells recently recalled to BuzzFeed News. “I said ‘sure, why not.’”
Wells said he had shared his childhood history with Wenner, including when Wells’ father, suspecting his son might be gay — an “unbearable thought” for his dad — sent him to a female prostitute shortly after his 14th birthday. Wells is not gay. He said he has only ever been attracted to and dated women. (Wells’ father died in 2003.)
The prostitute did not stay for very long, Wells said. Once she left, the two men remained in the room, mostly naked. It was then, Wells said, that Wenner leapt on him, pinning him under his body.
“I was lying back and he put himself on top of me,” Wells said. “He was kissing me, but you know, normal stuff, kissing my chest. I remember him putting his penis in my mouth. I remember him sucking me, going down on me. I remember his hair on my stomach.”
Wells said he felt powerless and defenseless under Wenner, who weighed much more than he did.
Wenner wasn’t able to get an erection, Wells said, and eventually passed out on top of him. Wells rocked side to side to gather up enough momentum to push Wenner off him.
“I got my clothes and just tore out of there and ran home and showered,” Wells said. “I was terrified he was going to catch me.”
"I am completely surprised by these allegations, as we have remained friends for almost 35 years since then,” Wenner said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “I sincerely believed our relationship was totally mutual and consensual — absolutely, and without question. I am saddened to hear this is his memory of that evening, because it is different than mine."
Wells idolized Wenner. So as he tried to understand what had happened in the study, he said he came to the conclusion that Wenner — like his father — knew something about him that he hadn’t yet realized: that he was gay.
Despite having only ever dated women, Wells went on to have consensual sex with Wenner twice more in the weeks after the evening in Wenner’s study.
“Then I realized, ‘what are you doing?’ — I woke up,” Wells said. “I was never attracted to a man in my life.”
In those weeks, Wells and Wenner had also begun discussing him working at the magazine in greater detail.
Then came a job in the field he loved and always dreamed to be a part of — director of Rolling Stone Press, the book publishing division of the magazine.
Though he doesn’t remember exactly when Wenner offered him the job, the details of the role were finalized around May 1983, and his first day at work was in July.
“I never went into the office, never had an interview with anyone there — I certainly don’t recall one,” Wells said, adding that he didn’t know if someone had previously held the position or if it was created specifically for him.
Wells took the job thinking this was the beginning of his career. “I was hoping I could find my way,” he said.
“When I started working there, Jann wasn’t too interested in what I did,” Wells said. “I knew when I started working there, there was always the question of a continuing sexual relationship.”
Wells thought to himself, though, No, that’s not going to happen.
Wells said for at least six months after he started the job, Wenner would invite him out to dinners and ask him to hang out.
“I knew what that meant,” Wells said of the invitations, adding that he began cooling things down with Wenner by declining invitations, telling Wenner he was busy. Eventually, Wenner backed off.
During his time at Rolling Stone Press, Wells worked on number of books, including one on Frank Sinatra and a biography of Bruce Springsteen written by Robert Hilburn, a famous music critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Then, in February 1985, Wells said he was unexpectedly fired after he was told Rolling Stone was rearranging “the Press.”
“I did not perceive it as retaliation at the time,” Wells said “I don’t know if I was especially stupid or just I couldn’t understand the whole thing.”
At the time of his firing, Wells wanted to make a book about Liberace happen — and was trying to convince both Wenner and the entertainer to agree to the project. Once he was ousted from Rolling Stone, Wells sold the idea for the book to publishing house Harper & Row.
Within weeks, Wenner and Rolling Stone — Wenner called the parent company at the time Straight Arrow — threatened to sue Wells for interference with a contract, Wells’ lawyer at the time recently told BuzzFeed News. “I was scared,” Wells said. “My instinct was to settle this as fast as I can. I didn’t want to be in litigation with this guy.”
Wells said he offered to settle the lawsuit for $30,000 — money taken from the Liberace book advance. Wells told the magazine’s lawyer that if they didn’t accept the settlement, he’d talk to the media about Wenner allegedly sexually assaulting him.
“As I remember it, within the hour I got a call saying it was accepted and was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” Wells said.
It’s unclear if Wenner feared Wells would out him as gay. Wenner did not come out as gay until 1994.
Wells said he always interpreted Wenner agreeing to the settlement as him not wanting the nature of what happened to come to light. Wells said he never thought it was because Wenner hadn’t publicly come out as gay, because “to me, he didn’t seem to care how he was seen.”
Wells’ lawyer from the time told BuzzFeed News he doesn’t recall his client giving Wenner money, but said Rolling Stone agreed to not pursue the case after he suggested Wells would talk to the press. A source familiar with Wenner told BuzzFeed News that the financial settlement over the Liberace book was an economic issue and that Rolling Stone’s book division was shutting down.
Wells continued his career in books — editing an anthology of poetry and publishing his poems in the New Yorker and the Academy of American Poets. He coedited a poetry translation series and is currently submitting a book he wrote to publishers. He has also raised four children.
Wells said his wife believes he was so traumatized by his experience with Wenner and working at Rolling Stone that he never fulfilled the career he could have had. “I could have become an agent, an editor,” he said. “I turned my back, though. I didn’t want to see any of those people.”
“He was a much more confident person when he was working there,” Wells’ wife Jane said of her husband. “He was pretty confident and happy and it was all cool and fun when I started dating him [in 1985]. Immediately when he got fired and sued things got very heavy for him.”
Wells shared his experience with a few people at the time he felt wouldn’t judge him or make assumptions about him. He didn’t want people in the book publishing world to find out and think his encounter with Wenner was the reason he was hired to work at Rolling Stone.
Three longtime friends, his sister Alice, and his lawyer from the time all told BuzzFeed News that Wells discussed the events with them around the time they happened — from the night at Wenner’s apartment to when he was fired. He later told his wife Jane about them before they married in 1986.
One of the friends remembered Wells confiding in him on a wintery night in New York City within a month of the assault, and said Wells was very upset and shaken as he detailed being physically overtaken by Wenner.
“It was obviously a very serious incident for him,” the friend said. “He's not the kind of person who would make up a story like this.”
Wells has had a hard time through the years defining what exactly happened that night. He said he had always considered the incident an assault, but found himself trying to normalize it and bury his emotions. Then in October, when the national conversation turned to sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace, Wells started regarding what happened as rape.
He says he’s still pretty shaky talking about what happened, and in the past weeks has taken on the difficult task of telling each of his four children about it.
“You want to believe your parent is good and fine and unblemished,” Wells said. “And it’s always a shock when that’s not true. I don’t think it affects how they think of me, but it’s sad to share it.”
Since his firing in 1985, Wells said he’s seen Wenner three or four times, including in May last year, when Wells visited his office to discuss a book project. Wells took notes right after the meeting on his iPhone, which he shared with BuzzFeed News.
During the meeting, Wenner told Wells he remembered them having “a good time” at his apartment, referring to the prostitute he invited over as “a facilitator.”
“I remember pestering you a little,” Wenner said of Wells’ time working for Rolling Stone, according to his notes. “But then I could tell you weren’t into it. Then we switched the Press around and you left.”
Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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