Donald von Wiedenman was born on August 10, 1944 in Santa Barbara California. Raised in Hollywood and the Midwest, he attended the University of Michigan, intending to study law.
He watched a lot of Perry Mason. Like many decisions he would make throughout his life, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But it wasn’t. He was impatient, anxious to get out into the real world. Leaving Michigan after his sophomore year, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference on a scholarship for two summers in Middlebury Vermont. He began his career as a writer at 19, having his first nonfiction article published in Seventeen Magazine.
By then, he had moved to Richmond, Virginia and was working as a copywriter and account executive with Clinton E. Frank, Inc., at that time one of the largest advertising agencies in the country.
“It was like a Southern version of Mad Men,” von Wiedenman wrote, “complete with button down shirts, office intrigue and three-martini lunches. And we all chain-smoked. I wanted to write for a living, and being in advertising was a way to start.
“I was also writing movie reviews for the Richmond Times Dispatch, sneaking out of the office in the afternoons to see a matinee and writing my reviews late into the night.”
Richmond was a small city and the chances of furthering his career there seemed remote. “My boss had the best job in town, and he wasn’t about to leave anytime soon. I didn’t want to move to New York where the really Mad Men were, but I knew I wanted to leave Richmond. It was the Sixties. I was restless. The South was still segregated, and it was oppressive.”
He met an exchange student from London. She invited him to stay with her when she left Richmond. Having no other plan and excited at the prospect of living abroad, he sailed to Europe on the SS United States, steamer trunk in tow, heading off into what would be one of the greatest adventures of his life.
“It was 1966. I was 22 and very young for my age. I had a lot of ambition. I was hell bent on making my mark as a writer.”
Flower Power was in bloom, drugs were in the air, and free love reigned supreme. He was right in the middle of a cultural and sexual revolution, something he had never even heard of, and to put it mildly, he grew up very fast.
Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll was the anthem at the heart of this new generation. He jumped into the action with abandon.
Within two years, he had established himself as one of the most prominent American journalists living in London. His work was published in every major magazine in the UK and Europe.
“I figured that no one wanted to hear what I had to say, but I knew that celebrities were news. It was easy to get interviews with movie stars then. The paparazzi had not yet ruined the reputation of celebrity journalists. So I called up press agents at random or approached celebrities on the street and interviewed anybody and everybody I could.”
The strategy worked. He interviewed such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Yul Brynner, Mia Farrow, Joseph Losey, Dirk Bogarde, Bryan Forbes, Lulu, The Fool, Lawrence Harvey, Tom Jones, Rex Harrison and Cass Elliot. He became close, personal friends with many of the stars he interviewed and married one of them.
His profiles and in-depth interviews were published in the The London Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph Magazine, European Vogue, Der Stern, Paris Match, Intro Magazine, Nineteen Magazine, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Queen Magazine.
He was soon dividing his time between his flat in London and his home in the South of France near Plan de La Tour. Eventually he was established enough to write what he chose to: counter-culture insights from an American living abroad. He wrote a screenplay called The Sand People which was optioned by EMI-MGM London.
During this time, he also went to work for Bob Guccione who had just started Penthouse Magazine.
“When I met him, he was working out of a tiny office on the Fulham Road. He hired me as a contributing editor, which meant that for many of the first issues, I wrote – made up is more like it – the bios on the centerfolds, the movie reviews, interviewed more celebrities, created letters for the Penthouse Forum and generally did any writing that needed to be done. Sometimes I wrote articles under my own name, but a lot of my writing was what we called editorial content. Really, it was just another word for fiction.”
When Guccione decided to launch the magazine in the United States in the late Sixties, von Wiedenman worked with him on the marketing and advertising campaign. To this day, the American launch of Penthouse Magazine into the American market is considered one of the most successful in magazine history.
In 1970, von Wiedenman began experimenting with the visual arts, deciding on collage as his medium. He had his first solo exhibit of his work in London and his second a few months later in Paris.
In 1971, von Wiedenman returned to the States where he married singer Cass Elliot of The Mamas and Papas.
“It was a rock ‘n’ roll marriage . And it lasted less than a year.”
(His relationship and marriage to one of the most famous pop signers of the Sixties is chronicled in The Baron and the Pop Star.)
After the divorce, von Wiedenman stayed in Los Angeles. He was writing and working on a new art show.
“Sometime in the early Seventies, I realized that my attraction to men was stronger than my attraction to women, and I came came to terms with it. It was long overdue. Like everything I’ve ever done, I did it with the obsessiveness of an addict. I was out!”
In 1974, he took on the position of Features Editor of The Advocate.
“At that time, The Advocate was the only semi-respectable gay publication in existence. It was sold in coin boxes on street corners and was pretty much known for its sex ads. But it was the beginning of something much larger. When they hired me, my mission was to help change that image.
“It was a very heady time in the gay movement. Stonewall had changed the world. People were coming out of the closet all over the place, Loud and Proud. It wasn’t an easy time, but it was exciting to be part of something so new. I remember leading one of the first gay parades on Hollywood Boulevard in 1974, driving my orange mustang convertible, pulling the Advocate float with a huge banner that read We Shall Overcome. Gay men and lesbians were literally dancing in the streets.“
After a year, the magazine had been reshaped and was sold to David Goodstein who turned the Advocate into one of the most prestigious gay magazines in the world. It is alive and thriving today.
A year later, von Wiedenman had his first art exhibit of more than 125 works of collage at the Limited Edition Gallery on Sunset Boulevard. It was a critical and financial success and soon after von Wiedenman moved to Malibu where he continued to create his art and write.
He was just finishing "Memoirs of an Unfit Mother," the biography of Virginia Arness, the ex-wife of Gunsmoke’s James Arness, when she died, causing him to abandon the project.
He returned to Los Angeles and reentered the world of advertising and marketing when he became the junior partner in a boutique advertising agency in West Hollywood.
Five years later, von Wiedenman founded what would become the first of several corporations, all of them handling the marketing and advertising needs of a wide variety of clients, everything from the largest manufacturer of refrigerated trailers to skin care products.
“For many of our clients, we provided full service advertising and marketing services. For others, we arranged funding, business strategies and hands-on start-up management. It was the Eighties. I had gone from being a Hippie to a Yuppie, and Yuppies everywhere were making money.”
“My attention span was never my strong suit, and doing one thing for any length of time was never that appealing to me. And honestly I was bored with advertising. I had a few art exhibits during that time, but I wanted to do something different, something completely off the wall.”
In the mid Nineties, von Wiedenman founded Stable Entertainment, an adult home video company. Funded with his own money and operated out of his home in West Hollywood, Stable Entertainment became known for its lavishly produced, story driven triple-X bisexual and gay videos produced for the home entertainment market.
The company won Best Gay Video of the Year, and twice won Bisexual Video of the Year at the annual GayVN Awards, but the business itself did not flourish as well as von Wiedenman had planned.
“The market was changing. Home videos were giving way to the DVD market, and the internet was changing the way the world watched entertainment. I didn’t entirely see the handwriting on the wall, so I probably stayed too long at the fair. But I had a great run. It was limousines and opening nights, award shows and parties that went on for days. And sex was just everywhere. Owning an adult entertainment company and living large in West Hollywood was the ultimate in rationalized debauchery.”
But it took its toll.
Burned out from the business and from living in Los Angeles for over 30 years, von Wiedenman finally sold Stable Entertainment in 2003 and moved to Key West. He is now moving to Puerto Vallarta, where he will continue writing and creating his art.
Close Personal Friends, his memoir of those five years living in London and the South of France and becoming friends with the most famous celebrities of that era, is soon to be published as an eBook. He has a new art exhibit planned, and his novel Greenleaf Terrace, about the high life in the LA fast lane, is scheduled to be finished by next year.
But really, who cares?
With age comes wisdom and humility. I am no longer defined by money or lack of it, fame, infamy, prestige, reputation, where I lived, what car I drove, who I was married to, who I’ve known or what I‘ve done.
Whatever I’ve done has caused me to be here now.
Now I am happy and content, and, honestly, when it comes right down to it, that’s all there is to know.
And now I’d like to share my experiences in words and pictures so that others might learn and perhaps be entertained by the fanciful, surreal exploits of just another fellow alien on this planet we call Earth.