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Graydon Rides the Wave

How did Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter manage his gravity-defying glide from Canadian obscurity to celebrity scourge to the ultimate media insider? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.


Thirty years ago, long before he'd hatched the idea for Spy, reinvented the New York Observer, or emerged at the sunny peak of Vanity Fair, Edward Graydon Carter worked on the western railways of Canada as a lineman, stringing wire between telegraph poles in rural Saskatchewan. He stuck out like a tiger lily. Most of his co-workers were convicts, railroad lifers, or both; Carter was middle-class and already a bit of a dandy. When he arrived at the Winnipeg depot in the spring of 1970, he was wearing a pair of brand-new Adidas and carrying a big knapsack full of books -- Kerouac, Brautigan, tattered copies of the National Lampoon. His foreman took one look and ordered him to get a haircut, which he did, at some whistle-stop town outside of Saskatoon.

Carter befriended a fellow named Craig Walls, the only other curious, underachieving 21-year-old in the bunch. "I was a high-school dropout," explains Walls, who now works for the Ministry of Culture in Manitoba, "so Graydon really stands out in my mind. Imagine a guy with hair down to his shoulders and the whitest teeth you've ever seen, a guy who came from the East" -- Ottawa, the Canadian capital -- "and had all these books. It was quite exciting. He was an alien."

Carter wasn't an especially good lineman -- "I don't think he wanted to be good at it," says Walls -- but he made a strong impression: He had a flair for cruel nicknames; he worked on his tan a lot; and when the crew's cook was fired, he whipped up the gang a little something . . . canapés. "Salmony things," says Walls. "I think his mom served them at bridge club."

Walls has plenty of vivid Graydon Carter stories. But one looms larger than most. The crew was eating some mysterious meat dish, "and Graydon said to me, 'This is good -- what is it?'

"And I said, 'It's pork.'

"Graydon is brilliantly self-invented, pretending to be someone until he became that person." "If a person is useful to him, he's loyal. But once that usefulness is gone, it's 'Next.'"

"And he said, 'Oh, my God, my mother would kill me!'

"And I said, 'Why?'

"And he said, 'Because I'm Jewish.' "

Walls lets the phrase hang.

"We never knew whether to tell Herbie, our foreman," he says. "He'd been a German POW and was purported to have S.S. tattoos on his body."

The story stands out in Walls's mind for a reason: He'd never met a Jew before. But to anyone who knows Carter now -- the bespoke suits from Anderson & Sheppard, the Connecticut country home, the Anglican bone structure, the Gray Goose martinis, the pilgrimages to London -- it stands out for a different reason: Carter isn't Jewish.

"I was reading a lot of Kerouac and a lot of Ginsberg," says Carter, sitting on a bench in Bryant Park 30 years later, struggling to explain it. He smiles sheepishly and jiggles one leg up and down. "And . . . and I thought, If you're going to be an intellectual in New York, you gotta be Jewish. It wasn't some experiment, like Gentleman's Agreement, or anything like that. It was just . . . I thought . . . I just found it . . ." He trails off. "I don't know. It was so much more exotic than what I really was."

Today, Carter no longer needs to trim his biography with extra filigree. He's the Jay Leno of the magazine world, the king-size personality controlling the world's glossiest showcase for the formerly, currently, and would-be famous. Nervous, ubiquitous, and impossibly fabulous, Carter, in the words of his friend Jim Wiatt, president and co-CEO of the William Morris Agency, "has transcended being a great editor -- he's really a celebrity."

When he first replaced Tina Brown as Vanity Fair's new editor in 1992, Carter was dismissed as a lightweight, a mere caretaker at the helm of his predecessor's creation, like a replacement Grizabella in Cats. But since he took over, Vanity Fair has won four National Magazine awards and increased its advertising pages by more than 60 percent. This year, the magazine overtook Vogue to become the second-most-profitable in the Condé Nast empire. (Glamour is the leader.) And Vanity Fair's annual post-Oscar bash, a Carter innovation, has replaced the late Swifty Lazar's Spago party as the postgame destination of tout Hollywood.

How on earth did this happen? How did the creator of Spy, a magazine that made toothsome snacks of the same celebrities and power brokers Vanity Fair now so happily lionizes, wind up the darling of his former victims? How did a penniless military brat, a college dropout, a Canadian, wind up one of the best-paid editors (roughly $1.5 million annually) in the Condé Nast building?

"Graydon is endearingly, sort of brilliantly, self-invented," says David Owen, a staff writer at The New Yorker. "And I mean in the way Cary Grant was self-invented: pretending to be someone until he became that person."

Growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa, Carter fantasized about a perfect Manhattan life, one based on a diet of old Esquires, Damon Runyon novels, and classic movies -- particularly Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick's noirish paean to Gotham intrigue and celebrity dish. And that's exactly what he's got now.

Today Carter flies through Manhattan in a chauffeured car, wears custom-tailored shirts, and lights his cigarettes with a tarnished silver Zippo. He lives in a Bank Street townhouse, spends his weekends in Connecticut, and dines almost nightly at Da Silvano, usually in a cloud of smoke, usually in some Lazy-Susan combination of writers (David Halberstam, Fran Lebowitz, Michiko Kakutani), moguls (Barry Diller, David Geffen, Brian Grazer), fashion people (Diane Von Furstenberg, Kenneth Cole), and visiting Angelenos (screenwriter Mitch Glazer and his wife, actress Kelly Lynch).

"Graydon is a man who has decided to create the world he dreams of," says Jim Kelly, incoming managing editor of Time and one of Carter's closest friends. "And he has been more successful at it than anyone I've ever met."

But his transformation -- from celebrity spoiler to celebrity Boswell to celebrity himself -- has produced its share of casualties too. In Carter's breathless, perpetual forward ascent, he managed to disown not only much of his past but some of his friends as well.

In certain ways, Carter still remains an outsider, a tantalizing exception in the exclusive world of New York media. He hates Park Avenue sit-down dinners. At large parties, he doesn't glad-hand his way around the room but remains off to the side, a grounded sailboat, watching, observing. And until recently, he was a deeply serious family man, eschewing most of the 25-plus invitations he receives each week to spend quality time with his wife, Cynthia, and their four children.

"He has always professed that the haute bourgeois pleasures -- a good life and family and all that -- are what satisfies him the most," says Kurt Andersen, who co-founded Spy with Carter, "and that work, in some ultimate sense, is secondary."

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