But this July, Carter's wife of eighteen years packed her things and took the children to her sister's place in Beaufort, South Carolina. Then publicists made it official: The Carters were getting a divorce.
For months, the talk of the publishing world had been that Carter was having an affair. He had also just turned 51. In October, it would be eight years since he'd started editing Vanity Fair -- almost the same length as Brown's tenure before she flew the coop -- and Hollywood was tantalizing him with lucrative job offers. To the outside world, anyway, it looked clear: A midlife crisis was in full bloom, just when Carter should have been exulting in his success.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that it's easier to penetrate a state dinner at the White House than the Vanity Fair Oscar party. This past March, as I pulled my rented Dodge Neon up to the first of three checkpoints, a man reached through my open car window -- the car was still moving -- and grabbed my purple parking pass off the dashboard. "That won't get you valet," he told me.
"I was told it would -- "
He gave me a harsh, exfoliating stare and signaled me to keep driving.
For Carter, Oscar night is like Christmas Eve. He flies out a week early and hunkers down at the Beverly Hills Hotel like a field commander, finalizing seating arrangements, poring over the dinner menu, and making sure the Swedish roses are all in place. The point is to create the millennium version of Ciro's in the forties, with its heady mix of the powerful and the glamorous.
At checkpoint No. 2, I am greeted by a friendly county sheriff. "I don't think they'll let you in with that," he says, staring at my pass. He consults a color-coded chart. "Green gets you in. But what do I know? I'm just a flunky at the first checkpoint."
"Second," I tell him.
"Really?" he asks. "Wow."
Spy often treated movie stars and Hollywood types with unfettered, delectable brutality. One of the magazine's most memorable coups, in fact, was getting hold of a fawning note Tina Brown sent Michael Ovitz, hoping to lure him into cooperating with a profile -- for Vanity Fair. (Spy ran the complete text with footnotes, making deconstructive jambalaya of her servility.)
Yet Carter's Vanity Fair is more obsessed with starlets and moguls than it ever was under Brown -- and is arguably more fawning. Carter invented the magazine's annual April Hollywood issue, an inch-thick orgy of perfect skin and peerless talent. Every October, he offers the New Establishment list, a who's who of movers and shakers that still leans heavily toward studio executives. This October, Carter came out with Vanity Fair's Hollywood, an even thicker compendium of flesh and fantasy, this time between hard covers. (It is currently No. 35 on the expanded New York Times nonfiction list.)
I move ahead to the third checkpoint and give my name to a surgically modified brunette with a headset. Success. I hand my keys to the valet.
Morton's is packed, a glittering seascape of 1,000-watt Somebodies, all gathered in happy clusters or streaming toward the back of the restaurant, which glows in an orange-red hue. People are pressed so densely together it's almost impossible to move, much less scrutinize their outfits, and Carter is nowhere to be found. So I go with the flow: past Uma and Ethan; through Tom and Nicole; around Christina Ricci and Courtney Love and Jude Law.
Gwyneth, Matt, and Ben are standing in a knot. Paltrow is a West Village neighbor of Carter's. I ask her if she has any good stories about him.
"He's very charming," she offers. Her makeup is bleeding slightly under her eyes. I find this strangely reassuring. "And he's very sincere with his flattery."
Affleck says he has "a great story" about Carter, but Paltrow cuts him off.
"He wouldn't want you to tell that story," she scolds.
"Why?" he asks, a bit guiltily. "It's . . . true."
She shakes her head.
I wend my way to the restaurant's back room. Carter is on the dance floor, twirling a bushy-haired blonde. (His own curvilinear hairdo, as usual, is spectacular. Who's his hairdresser, anyway? Frank Gehry?) I try to say hello, but before I get close, his publicist materializes, seemingly from nowhere, and requests I put my notebook away. When I turn back around, Carter has vanished, like a warlock.
It occurs to me at this point that it's been easier to chat up Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck than Graydon Carter. The power he wields here is palpable. In Hollywood, says Bryan Lourd, a partner at CAA, "everyone is always courting Carter to some degree." Back in March, when the Internet was still blooming with cash and possibilities, Brian Grazer, co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, tried to lure him out to run pop.com, his Internet venture with DreamWorks and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. "You're the king of New York!" he gushed at the time. "You're like the pretty girl in high school that everyone wants!"
Carter declined -- wisely, since pop.com subsequently imploded -- and he dismisses all talk of a future move to Hollywood. "He'll edit Vanity Fair for the rest of his life," says Jim Kelly. "It's the ultimate puppet theater." (Besides being an amateur watercolorist and amateur magician, Carter is an amateur puppeteer.)
But Carter can't resist dipping at least one oar in the West Coast's warm waters. He is currently producing a documentary about film producer Bob Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown), whose delicious autobiography is a cult favorite in Hollywood. It's a modest project, tailor-made for Showtime or A&E. But because Graydon Carter is Graydon Carter (and Vanity Fair is the ultimate puppet theater), he plans to first screen the film in . . . Cannes. (Who knows? Carter could even collect an Academy Award the following March -- and then attend his magazine's Oscar party as both host and honoree, statue in hand.)
Arnold Schwarzenegger, as debonair and structurally formidable in person as he is in the movies, is just off to the left of the dance floor, giving an interview to a Washington Post reporter about his political aspirations. I take a chance and whip out my notebook. Arnold smiles gamely. Does he have any stories about Graydon Carter? "Only spiiicy ones," he answers.
"Yah." He nods. "But I'll haf to check with heeem first."