Having established himself as a man for all media, Graydon Carter generated a stir on both coasts this week in stepping down from Vanity Fair. His position as editor in chief of the venerable magazine helped him levitate additional careers as a producer in film and on Broadway, as a successful restaurateur and as arbiter of media power. All this carries a certain irony: As the co-founder of Spy magazine, Carter had ridiculed celebrity ringmasters, social climbers, wannabe moguls and aristocratic hangers-on. To some observers, Carter then became those people – or rather their enabler.
Now, at 68, Carter will step down from his gig as Vanity Fair’s editor but not necessarily from the other roles he has perpetuated. By mumbling “Graydon’s cleared me,” friends will still likely be able to nail a good table or even a celebrity sighting. Says close friend Robert Evans, “Graydon is the most stylish man I know and also the most loyal of friends – through
good times and bad.” When the Broadway version of The Kid Stays in the Picture opens next spring (it was a hit in London), Evans wants Carter at his side.
Before he grew his vast crown of white hair, Carter was an ordinary guy from Ottawa who hustled a job on Time magazine. Then, with Kurt Andersen, he created Spy, instantly changing the lexicon of journalism. At Spy the “in” people were suddenly “outed,” and Donald Trump, a nondescript climber, became “the short-fingered vulgarian” he remains today. At Vanity Fair, however, Carter’s attitude quickly went upmarket, the magazine becoming a paragon of the celebrity and fashion cultures. According to some critics, its monthly issues in recent years have been offering a predictable template of forays on the Kennedys, on feuding movie stars, and on fading aristocrats, added to hair-on-fire diatribes on Trumpian outrages. All the while, however, Carter’s mastery of the celebrity culture has continued to buttress the Vanity Fair brand: Positioned at the front of the Oscar party or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Carter has numbly kept shaking hands like an animatronic maître d’, while carefully checking that his A-listers remained sacrosanct amid the B-players.
Insiders at Conde Nast note that Carter’s job has become relentlessly tougher in recent times as ad revenues have declined across the board, movie star covers have failed to ignite interest, and cost-cutting moves have taken an ever greater toll. Significantly the top editors of Time (Nancy Gibbs) and Elle magazine (Robbie Myers) also departed last week (in-house Time Digital boss Edward Felsenthal was just named to succeed Gibbs; Nina Garcia, a former judge on Project Runway, will take over Elle). Carter, meanwhile has relished his profitable distractions, building important new outlets for celebrity branding – Evans heralded in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Sue Mengers the focus of a Bette Midler-starring play I’ll Eat
You Last. Evans recalls that when Carter first broached the idea of The Kid as a documentary, his reaction was “don’t do it.” Carter resolutely reminded Evans that “your’s is the best story out there.” Brett Morgen, who directed Kid, testifies that Carter was a diligent producer, using his formidable Rolodex to obtain releases from some 255 stars and other players. “He may be a magazine editor first and foremost, but Graydon’s instincts for film are smart and his notes were always spot on.”
Talk to Carter’s editors, writers and random employees and you hear stories of his loyalty and editorial vigilance. His liberal friends applaud his fierce political advocacy while noting that Carter himself is notoriously thin-skinned. His magazine has rolled out some fearless scoops – FBI man Mark Felt as the secret Deep Throat insider for example. Press agents may boast about their “Graydon connections,” but, despite the potential conflicts of interests, Carter’s reputation for editorial integrity remains resolute. Snarks may point out that Carter’s shows manage to get solid coverage in Vanity Fair, but arguably they’d get even better coverage were he not the producer. For publicists, it’s still good business to hang at the Carter-owned Monkey Bar or the Waverly Inn, just as it’s smart for lobbyists to “hang” at Trump’s four golf courses. The rates are a lot more reasonable at Graydon’s places, and the company a lot more savory.