Editor’s note: We received this update on March 6:
Sonja Wagner Postscript
Sonja Marie Wagner, born January 26, 1938, died March 3, 2023, at 4:20 a.m., in the Dawn Greene Hospice in Manhattan. A dozen friends had gathered in her final hours to say goodbye. Sonja’s eyes were open, and a hospice worker said that she could hear us. The atmosphere, though somber, was celebratory, like one last party, the room filled with laughter and expressions of love amid the tears. Everybody told their Sonja stories. When word came of her passing, one of her friends pointed out that “four-twenty” is cannabis-culture slang for marijuana and hashish consumption. It was as if Sonja, in her inimitable way, had left us with a final message.
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She was a Kansas housewife who fled a bad marriage in Wichita, moving in 1977 to New York City, where she carved a Xanadu-like loft, including a spacious art studio, out of raw factory space on West 37th Street. For the next 46 years, she lived in rent-regulated splendor and produced a body of work that runs the gamut from the religious to the profane. One day in 2015, the artist Robert Attanasio came to her studio and said, “Why aren’t you better known? You’re like Man Ray.” He dubbed her Woman Ray.
Her name is Sonja Wagner, and at age 85, she’s terminally ill with only a short time to live.
You’ve probably never heard of Sonja, because she flew below the radar, didn’t play the game. Nor did she play well with people she didn’t like, so if she didn’t like you, you knew it. But she had her loyal patrons, corporate CEOs in the Midwest and elsewhere and local collectors in New York, who were willing to pay sometimes as much as five figures for her work: abstract puzzle paintings and metal sculptures; her whimsical “Ruby Leggs” series, a pair of bright crimson lips mounted on a long pair of legs in high heels, gallivanting about New York; serene Buddhas and monks in saffron-colored robes; and erotic paintings, inspired by 25 years as an art director for pornographic magazines, which is how she paid the bills between sales. That’s how I met Sonja — in 1984, when I was hired as an editor at Swank Publications.
Tall and redheaded, she wore the kind of stylish, vaguely avant-garde eyeglasses that made her look the part of an art director. On my first day at work, I saw her standing in somebody’s cubicle, explaining the intricacies of a layout in a voice so loud and authoritative that I thought she ran the entire department. But no, she was a freelancer and remained that way, refusing to ever go on staff and give up her independence. And she’d soon be my art director for such distinguished fetish rags as D-Cup, Shaved, and Plump & Pink, cash-cow men’s magazines that would provide us with a steady income and comfortable lifestyles as we pursued our outside creative endeavors — until the business began to collapse in the face of free Internet porn.
It would be incorrect to suggest that the 15 years we worked together (and she became known as my “office wife”) were without friction. There were a number of years early on when I think we would have killed each other, given the opportunity. As talented as she was as a graphic designer, Sonja was difficult to work with. For one thing, she was dyslexic, which created a constellation of layout issues too numerous to recount. (“No, Sonja, you cannot have text flowing from right to left.”) And she smoked weed like a Rastafarian, which often led to her misplacing crucial elements of the magazine, such as the cover photo. She swears that one time I was so exasperated with her I jumped into the air and did a complete 360.
But in the world of “adult” magazines, hiring employees who perform flawlessly can be an insurmountable challenge, and management was not going to get rid of somebody with Sonja’s design skills. And the publisher, Charles “Chip” Goodman, an art collector, was a fan of her work, with at least one Wagner puzzle-piece artwork hanging among his Warhols. Whatever her flaws, Sonja and I managed to get our magazines out on time, and as the years passed I grew more appreciative of her talents — because in pornography, it’s the visuals that really matter, and the average Shaved reader probably wouldn’t notice if text did flow in the wrong direction.
By the end of the ’80s, we’d somehow forged a friendship, and that was when I became a regular visitor to her loft, a scene that could best be described as an ongoing bacchanal broken up by New Year’s Eve parties, birthday parties, summer solstice parties, and dinner parties, where she served an array of inventive gourmet meals from Midwestern to international, including dishes like sour-cream mashed potatoes, spicy enchiladas, mussels in mustard sauce, and Turkish stuffed eggplant — as well as super-strong margaritas that should have come with a warning label. (Sonja had been offered work as a chef but wasn’t interested, preferring to cook up an orgy layout rather than her celebrated crème brûlée for a party of 10.)
Anytime I dropped by the loft, usually with a bottle of vodka, her favorite, there was something going on. You never knew who’d show up — actors, dancers, academics, filmmakers, drug dealers, journalists — and what kind of intoxicants they’d bring. We’d sit in her studio, surrounded by her artwork (at one point she was painting tornados, some of which were used to decorate a house in the Showtime series The Affair), and as the booze flowed and the joints, hashish, and edibles were passed around (her hash brownies were famous) we’d talk into the night. Sonja the octogenarian still partied like an 18-year-old. On her 81st birthday, somebody asked me what Sonja’s secret was. “Drugs, booze, and cigarettes, as far as I can tell,” I said.
When I was writing Beaver Street, my book about the porn industry, Sonja was the only “character” who insisted I use her real name. She was proud of the way she’d transformed the schlocky smut we’d created into fine art. In one scene in the book, our publisher, Chip, is critiquing a dirty-letters digest Sonja and I had just finished assembling. As sales figures had proven time and again, readers wanted stories about incest, and Chip demanded that there be a significant number of such letters in each digest. In this particular one, he didn’t understand from the title, “The Mom Swappers,” that the letter involved incest. What Sonja said to him seemed to capture the essence of her personality: “Is something wrong, Chip, dear? Didn’t Bobby and I put enough incest into your filthy little book?” So did the malapropisms to which she was prone. “I went to the eye doctor yesterday and he didn’t find any guacamole,” she told me one night. “Do you mean glaucoma?” I asked.
In late 1992, Chip sold his porn mags to a New Jersey printer, who’d quickly move the entire staff to Paramus and use the magazines as fodder to keep his presses running 24/7. Within a matter of weeks, we realized we were no longer editors and art directors. We were instead assembly-line workers cranking out the most dismal kind of low-budget pornography at an increasingly frantic pace for a right-wing bigot with a tendency to scream — he’d eventually be sued for age and sex discrimination. In the demoralizing atmosphere of that workplace, Sonja and I bonded like soldiers in a foxhole. My office wife became one of my closest friends.
Though I fled Paramus after seven years, Sonja endured until 2009, when, at age 71, she returned to the loft to create art full-time. And now, in her final days, though she calls herself “the dying idiot,” there’s no sadness or regret. “I had a good run,” she says.
That she did, and I was fortunate to play a part. ❖
Robert Rosen is the author of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. His latest book is A Brooklyn Memoir.