Andrew Wylie is the most powerful literary agent on the planet, representing some of the most famous authors alive (and some who are already dead). He’s made some of his clients very rich. But is his reign now coming to an end? A profile of a man with an ego for the ages, full of choice anecdotes:
If Wylie is the world’s most mythologised literary agent, it is partly because the caricature of him as a plunderer of literary talent and pillager of other agencies has been so irresistible to the media, and at times to Wylie himself. “I think Andrew quite likes the whole Jackal thing, because it makes him seem like a kind of hard man,” Salman Rushdie, one of Wylie’s longest-standing clients and closest friends, told me. Wylie is an ardent burnisher of his own legend, which is not to say that he traffics in falsehoods. He has led a remarkable life, and even when recounting facts that are grubby or mundane, he instinctively elevates them into something more fabulous. A dealmaker, after all, trades primarily in reputation.
Wylie’s success is founded, in part, on his gift for proximity to the great and the good. As a young man, he once spent a week in the Pocono mountains interviewing Muhammad Ali for a magazine, and singing him Homeric verses in the original Greek. He visited Ezra Pound in Venice and sang him Homer, too. In New York, he spent a lot of time at Studio 54 and the Factory studying the way Andy Warhol fashioned his public persona. He says Lou Reed introduced him to amphetamines in the 1970s and that he gave the band Television its name. The photographer and film-maker Larry Clark was best man at his second wedding. At the height of the fatwa against Rushdie, when Wylie wasn’t meeting with David Rockefeller to strategise a lobbying campaign to lift the supreme leader’s death warrant, or trying to self-publish a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses, he was sitting on the floor of a New York hotel room with mattresses covering the windows for security, meditating with Rushdie and Allen Ginsberg. At Wylie’s homes in New York and the Hamptons in the 90s, party guests might include Rushdie, Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag, or Rushdie, Sontag, Norman Mailer, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Peter Carey, Annie Leibovitz and Don DeLillo. (There was once a minor crisis when Wylie forgot to invite Edward Said.) Wylie was one of the first people to whom Al Gore showed the powerpoint presentation that later became An Inconvenient Truth.
In his younger days, Wylie cultivated his reputation through decadence and outrageousness. At a publishing party in the 80s, Tatler reported that he invited a young novelist to “piss with me on New York”, and then proceeded to urinate out the window on to commuters at Grand Central station. (When asked to confirm or deny this, he said, “pass”.) During a hard-drinking evening with Kureishi around the same time, he spat on a copy of Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak, called it “utter drivel”, then stubbed his filterless cigarette out on it. (Wylie denies this happened, but Kureishi wrote about it in his diary at the time and later confirmed the story to his biographer Ruvani Ranasinha.) Bellow became a Wylie client in 1996, Kureishi in 2016.