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154 Minutes With Graydon Carter

Carter showing off Spy magazine, 1988.  

But his day job isn’t as easy as it once was. Take newsstand sales, a mainstay of a place that prides itself on its lavishly produced (and painstakingly negotiated) covers of the significant person of the moment (Jay-Z this month), or of the storied past (Lady Diana, a tried-and-true sales success, in September). “Nothing is working right now,” he says. “Nothing. For anybody. It’s like that whole part of the business fell off a bridge, and I don’t think it’s coming back.” Newsstand aside, he insists the “economics of this magazine are still very healthy.”

Last month, a Times story alleged that the magazine wasn’t so important to Hollywood any longer, having alienated, among others, Scientologists (by a cover story on Katie Holmes’s marriage) and Gwyneth Paltrow. The powerful publicist Leslee Dart declared, “It’s not important to them to grovel as they once did.” Carter just rolls his eyes at this. “It didn’t hurt us,” he says.

Carter’s magazine isn’t an exact continuation of Crownie’s jazz-age chronicle, but some idea of it is the same: a Deco mirage of New York, all wit, dazzle, and a place at the right table. Crownie’s Vanity Fair helped popularize modern portrait photography by deploying Edward Steichen, and it was also an early home for Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the woman who became Clare Boothe Luce. Carter has continued with blockbuster, pore-free stagings of celebrity by photographers like Mario Testino, Norman Jean Roy, Bruce Weber—and, of course, Annie Leibovitz. Not to mention his stable of high-priced writing talent, from his late columnist Christopher Hitchens to Michael Lewis to the exposé expert Maureen Orth.

What’s changed is the world Vanity Fair was built to cover. “Our culture is a little crasser now in the last ten, fifteen years,” he says. The Internet moves at such an exhausting pace; the web is just as snotty, if not more so, than Spy ever was. “The funny thing is that the growth in celebrity weeklies has coincided with the decline in the basic art of celebrity,” he laments. “The fact that they call reality-TV stars, stars—it’s just an issue with me.”

In his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a former editor at Vanity Fair named Toby Young quotes Carter as saying: “ ‘You think you’ve arrived … I hate to break it to you but you’re only in the first room. It’s not nothing—don’t get me wrong—but it’s not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further.’ ”

Did he really say that? “A version of that, yes,” Carter says. And does he believe it? “I do,” he says. “It’s part of what makes a big city like New York effective. New Yorkers are constantly moving along and going to another stage. In a lot of societies, you get your car, your boat, your house. And then you stop. New Yorkers are constantly propelled to move on to the next thing. And that’s what makes the city a turbine of the culture.”

Carter has always described Vanity Fair’s variety of stories as striving to be like a fantasy dinner party: It’s about the mix. He has a board in his office that tracks the state of stories by category: world affairs, literary, scandal, fashion, art, and business. Think of it as a seating chart. (He’s so careful about this idea that he makes sure his restaurants’ seating charts are to his liking nightly.)

“Nobody in our industry can put together a guest list like Graydon Carter,” Harvey Weinstein recently said. (“My lasting achievement in life,” Carter tells me, half-facetiously, is “the two-sided place card. So you don’t have to walk around the table to find your little name”—or ask the name of somebody sitting across from you.) The dinner party looms large for Carter, which explains his fascination with its master practitioner Mengers, whom he met after Swifty Lazar’s Oscar party in 1993. “Wendy Stark brought me to Ray Stark’s house. And Sue and her husband were there. We met and we hit it off. ” I ask if he learned from her. “Only in the way you could learn from Mickey Mantle. There was no one out there on her level. The only person in New York on that level is Louise Grunwald. She loved movie stars. She didn’t like second-tier players. She only wanted the headliners at her house.”

But he is worried that the city as he knew it, the site of his own self-creation, is going away. He went out to Williamsburg a couple of years ago with one of his grown-up kids from his second marriage. “Literally I could have been going to Chad. It was not what I expected. The architecture wasn’t as interesting or as baroque or as industrial—it looked like Queens to me.

“I was talking to Fran Lebowitz the other day,” he goes on. “She said that 50 percent of New Yorkers are new every ten years. Half of them leave—the city beats them down. It’s always been tough. But it’s exponentially more difficult now than it was. When I got here, I made, I think, $21,000 a year at Time. I had an apartment in the Village, which was $200 a month. That apartment would be $4,000 a month now.”

But he’s got his place here, and his place in magazine history, if there will be such a thing, and his job. I ask him how much longer he expects to do this. “Until the Newhouses get sick and tired of me, I suppose. I love my job, I’ll be honest. There’s a million frustrations. I make lists upon lists upon lists upon lists.” He thinks some more. “All of the documentaries that I’ve done are about people who, at the end of the day, had huge reservoirs of goodwill around them.” I ask him if he thinks of them as research for how to live successfully among the very successful. “No,” he says. “Because those lives are already done. Whatever train those people have taken, that has left the station. There’s no more changes I can make in my life. I mean, other than the evolution of the magazine.” And that job, he says, is just driven by “a constant state of fear.”

*This article has been corrected to show that Carter's wife Anna is 46, not 47. The original version of this article also misspelled Clare Boothe Luce's name as Clare Booth Luce.