It’s been almost two years since I sat down in front of my computer to interview filmmaker Lars von Trier about his gods-and-genitals film Antichrist. We were going to “try something new” and talk over a Skype video connection. In preparation for the chat, I downloaded a program that would allow me to record the conversation and dump an MP3 file directly into iTunes—except that it didn’t work.
The overall experience was clouded by a little video box in the corner, in which my twee head, then adorned with spiky, gelled hair, reflected my every awkward move. Jesus, I remember thinking, what an asshole I am. Does Lars von Trier think I’m an asshole? Of course he thinks I’m an asshole! Knowing that he was watching a offensively large version of me in that Lilliputian box made it difficult for me to focus on what he was saying, and so, when it became clear that I’d accidentally recorded literally none of our interview, I was hard-pressed to remember anything he’d said. Since then, I’ve resolved never to make the same mistake twice, except of course that I did—over tea with Glenn O’Brien, another hero of mine.
O’Brien, a writer whose prose is much like his white hair—short and unfussy with wispy flourishes—agreed to meet with me at The Smile to discuss his new book, How to Be A Man: A Guide to Style and Behavior for the Modern Gentleman. I’d come straight from the Waldorf Astoria where I’d spoken with actor Mia Wasikowska, who covered BlackBook in April. (While turning on the recorder for that interview, I recounted in vivid hyperbole the von Trier nightmare.) On the cab ride downtown I checked to make sure the audio recorder had recorded. It did, but it’s also a fickle bitch.
O’Brien, the 59-year-old New York fixture, has been prolific since he began hosting TV Party, a variety show featuring art misfits like Debbie Harry and Klaus Nomi that ran on public access cable TV for four years starting in 1978. He worked at Interview, first under Warhol’s reign and again in 2008, when he was named Editorial Director; he wrote and co-produced Downtown 81, a film starring his late friend Jean Michel Basquiat; he’s GQ’s Style Guy columnist—the magazine also named him one of the top-10 most stylish men in America in 2009; that same fall, he even modeled for menswear designer Adam Kimmel’s lookbook.
When he arrives at the Smile 20 minutes late, dressed in his unfailingly chic garb—a trench coat overtop a crisp shirt and subtly patterned tie, well-tailored but not fashionably-tight trousers—he is neither overly apologetic nor given to breathless histrionics. He simply was, he explains, recording a segment for a German television show, and it ran long. But he is here now and it is time for tea.
There are, of course, no video boxes intruding on our meeting, but there was an overwhelmingly distracting elephant in the room: O’Brien’s new book, which spans topics as vast as sex, patriotism, and sickness, and provides advice meant to distinguish gentlemen from everymen. Even before our first meeting, I’d broken three of these rules while interacting with O’Brien.
The first: “How many times, in an e-mail-volume–addled state, have I downloaded a MIME attachment that turned out to be nothing more than a corporate logo or signature?” he writes in How to Be a Man. “Trust me: attaching a Facebook or Twitter logo to your e-mail will only make me hate you. Attaching a logo to your correspondence is pretentious.” Why, oh why, had I attached our most recent cover to my e-mail? Had he noticed? Scoffed?
The second: “If you have an answering machine, when recording your message resist the temptation to play DJ and provide a musical interlude or try out your stand-up comedy routine. People like me will hate you for wasting seconds of their time,” he says about two things I’m loath to admit I’ve done in the past. “Never say, ‘You have reached [your name here].’ Obviously the caller will be talking to a machine because he has not reached [your name here], and when he does, it will be in the future.” I can’t help but worry that his assistant—who called me to tell me O’Brien was running late, and who I presume to be equally poised—has relayed my voicemail message to her boss. (Looking at him, it’s hard to tell.)
The third: “A dandy isn’t faking it,” he writes in his book’s section on style. And he might be right, although earlier that morning when deciding what to wear, I purposefully chose an outfit that might at least approximate his own. Crazy, of course, but not the first time (or the last) I’d play the interviewer-interviewee reflection game. (I introduced Mark Ronson to my hairstylist and now we both get “The Ronson.”)
All of this is to say that I felt like I was faking it, and I knew after the first minute in O’Brien’s company that his tolerance for bullshit is lower than John Galliano’s tolerance for alcohol. (News had just surfaced that day about the former head designer for Dior’s boozy, anti-Semitic rant, a reveal that somewhat shocked O’Brien.)
Over the course of almost two hours, we talked about everything from Patti Smith (he said something amazing about her once having a sense of humor) to his unceremonious departure from Interview (which was all of the record, anyway), to his home in Connecticut, to the irrelevant frippery of Fashion Week, to Andy Warhol, to the punk scene, to his son. It was dishy and witty and revealing, and, unfortunately, you’ll never read it. So, you know what, Glenn? As far as I’m concerned, the number one rule for how to be a man is this: Turn on the fucking tape recorder.
Buy Glenn O’Brien’s compendium for the urban dandy here.