Longtime Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s West Village townhouse is embellished with a dime-store Halloween scare kit: fake cobwebs, a dangling bat, a rubber rat, and a small plastic sign clutched by disembodied ghoul fingers that reads ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. It’s impossible to take that warning seriously, even on the front stoop of the man who controls some of the most coveted guest lists in the country, from that Vanity Fair Oscar party (with its legendary phased entry based on your place in the Hollywood social order) to the banquettes at his nearby Waverly Inn restaurant, to the contributor’s page of the magazine, where all the journalists always appear marvelously first-class.
“It looks like a gift shop,” Carter, 64, says, letting me in by the door under the stoop, careful to step around his 5-year-old’s tiny pink bike. The kiddie holiday décor is his wife Anna’s idea, he explains. He walks me through the comfortable first floor of their house, with its long dining table and subway-tiled, white-marble-countertop kitchen—the whole place is a Keith McNally vision of Francophile Manhattan—and offers me a cup of coffee. He asks if I mind goat’s milk in it. Anna, 46, his third wife, wants him to be healthier, which includes imploring him to quit smoking—frustrating for a Camel Lights fiend who took on Mayor Bloomberg’s indoor-puffing ban as something of a personal affront and political crusade.* She’s upstairs dealing with a female ADT security employee with a flattop haircut who’s fiddling with the alarm. We wander out back, in the shady, brick-walled garden, a tranquil place made less so today by the bang-and-whirr of several nearby gut renovations. “It never ends,” he says, waving. “We’ve had five major rebuilds on this little corridor of the street right here. The whole West Village is under construction.”
I’m here to discuss the sorta-centennial of his periodical. The first issue of a magazine called Dress & Vanity Fair appeared in September 1913, the sister ship of Vogue, both owned by a dapper dress-pattern tycoon from St. Louis named Condé Nast—yes, long ago, there was once an actual person, first name Condé, last name Nast. For most of its first two decades (the magazine dropped Dress in 1914), it was edited by Frank Crowninshield, known as Crownie, a courtly confirmed bachelor, exceptionally talented dinner-party guest, and well-known-at-the-time advocate for modern art. After Nast’s divorce, he and Crownie shacked up for six years on Park Avenue and were, according to Vanity Fair 100 Years, the lush and burdensome $65 coffee-table book that comes out this week, “inseparable,” both in New York and while traveling abroad. (“I suppose people thought we were fairies,” Nast is cited as saying; Carter, for his part, refuses to speculate.) In the middle of the Depression, Vanity Fair was merged into Vogue.
Then, in 1983, the title was relaunched as its own slick entity by Si Newhouse, whose family owns the publishing company Condé Nast. A young British editor named Tina Brown made a name for herself there, before Newhouse gave her The New Yorker in 1992, at which point Carter got the gig. “There is something wonderfully gratifying about a magazine that was started 100 years ago, which was at the birth of modernism, and is still alive and somewhat vibrant today,” he tells me.
Carter is a grandly puckish Canadian college dropout who’s always dressed like an Oxbridge barrister from a classic Hollywood film. He relishes the shadow of provenance, as any reader of his magazine would notice, and has an eye for flea-market finds (he tells me he found his cool zinc double kitchen sink himself). This house had been in the same family for 100 years when he bought it. He personally helped fuss up three restaurants—the Waverly, the Beatrice Inn, and Monkey Bar—to summon an evocatively classy New York that ought to exist but stubbornly refuses to. People from his days working at Time, when he first moved to the city, still remember his wearing spats to a party. I bring that up, and he scoffs. “As a joke! I found them at a flea market.”
Carter gained editorial fame, and no small degree of enmity, for co-founding, with Kurt Andersen, the satirical magazine Spy. It engaged in what he called, back in 1989, “overdog-bashing.” But that was long ago, and for some time now Carter has been quite comfortably kenneled himself.
If Vogue not only depicts but in some way actually is indistinguishable from the central workings of the fashion industry, Carter’s Vanity Fair has done the same thing in Hollywood, and sought similar influence in other venues of power. And like Vogue’s Anna Wintour, Carter long ago stopped being a mere editor. In a relationship business, he gives great relationship—not to mention publicity and prized invitations. For every scandal story in his magazine, there’s a power list or a Hall of Fame mention or a choreographed tale of redemption (like what it did for designer John Galliano). And on the side, he has become something of a one-man conglomerate. Besides those restaurants, he’s produced documentaries about legendary Hollywood figures Robert Evans and Jerry Weintraub, and he’s currently making one about Nora Ephron. He’s played a character based on Jamie Dimon in the Richard Gere thriller Arbitrage (he tells me he was fed his lines through an earpiece), among several other movie cameos as himself. Last spring, he produced a one-woman Broadway show, starring Bette Midler, about legendary agent Sue Mengers.