The Year Two Hungry Freelancers Corralled Elton John

Medium contributor Joe Fox revisits a celebrated 1976 Rolling Stone cover story.

Imagine wrangling your first cover story as a freelance journalist and it turning out to be an interview where Elton John admits publicly for the first time that he is bisexual. That’s what happened to Cliff Jahr; the October 7, 1976 issue piece garnered waves of additional outside coverage and led its famous (and then 29-year-old) subject to stop performing live for several years.

But how did Jahr do it? Today on Medium, Joe Fox takes a look back at the efforts of the reporter and photographer Ron Pownall, who got the assignment when Annie Leibovitz was unavailable. The two freelancers worked together diligently to make the interview happen, agreeing on a further strategy to put John at ease:

Jahr, a corn-fed Midwestern boy from St. Paul, Minnesota, was openly gay. “Friends in the business who knew him said I shouldn’t be surprised if he hit on me,” Pownall said. “Cliff was out and proud. He was convinced that Elton was gay, or bi, but no one talked openly about homosexuality then. Certainly not in the press.”

Jahr wanted to ask Elton about his sex life, but worried how he’d respond with the recorder rolling and a camera in his face. “Cliff was sure he could get Elton to open up if he got him alone,” Pownall recalled. “We agreed that he would give me a signal, at which point I would stop shooting and leave the room. The code word was privacy.”

To find out what happened after the word “privacy” was uttered, read on. Jahr sadly died from AIDS in 1991. RIP.