Even the Terminator is slightly afraid of Graydon Carter. I wave my near-blank notebook at him. Is there nothing he can say right now?
"No!" he barks. "I must get his permeeession." His eyes twinkle. "But you ah doing an excellent job at your profession! Have you met my wife, Maria Schrivah?"
As I head for the door, I see Jay Leno standing alone with his wife, Mavis. Maybe he has a Graydon Carter story? Leno looks at me apologetically and says that sadly, he does not. Then he stops himself. "You know," he says, "Graydon amuses me. I like how he moves -- like a true patrician. Not in a bad way. He's a breed of New York-Connecticut Yankee patrician you didn't know still existed."
I smile, thank him, and tell him Carter is from the suburbs of Ottawa.
"There's probably a half-dozen movie actors I really like," says Carter six months later, on his way to lunch, sitting in the puff-pastry comfort of his chauffeured Lincoln Navigator. "But a lot of them just aren't that interesting."
So who's a movie star he likes?
"Tom Cruise. Very cool guy. Great company. Beyond that . . . he's more the exception than the rule."
He lights a cigarette. "But Robert Redford -- very self-serious. He was in my office to scout locations for The Horse Whisperer. At one point, he was standing at my door -- he was with some woman -- and he said, 'Could you excuse us for a second?' So I said, 'Sure, absolutely.' And he said, 'No, no: I mean, could you leave your office?' "
Carter's eyes widen.
"I was totally taken aback. I said, 'Yeah, okay.' Can you imagine saying that? I was horrified. It was just rude."
Sergei, his handsome Russian driver, pulls the SUV to a stop outside Da Silvano. All the waiters give Carter a warm hello. One shows us to his table, located in the restaurant's high-rent district (front corner, just to the left as you walk in the door). Carter helps me off with my coat and orders us two $18 glasses of wine. "Love the cod here," he gushes. "There's a book that came out about how cod changed the world. Cod is more responsible for the discovery of the New World than almost anything else. Drove the Vikings across the North Atlantic, and John Cabot discovered America by looking for cod. The stirrup! The stirrup was a huge thing; people could engage in battle properly on horseback . . ."
All Carter's friends say he's the most entertaining person they know. He has a gift for making people feel larger and lighter than they are, and smarter too, like a drug; this quality would be intoxicating to anyone but is especially intoxicating to the company he keeps -- journalists and Hollywood people -- whose egos, as a rule, tend toward the fragile.
". . . how air-conditioning changed America! These little things, they have huge effects on life. Much more so than the personal computer, almost. Is my smoking bothering you? Are you waving away my smoke?"
"Graydon is someone of unbridled enthusiasms, multiple enthusiasms -- enthusiasms, in fact, that change, and change suddenly," says Kelly. "He's like your favorite camp counselor. He's always got projects going; he's always got ideas about what to do. As far as I'm concerned, that's the key to understanding him. His enthusiasms are a terribly seductive thing."
Planes. Mid-century American architecture. Movies from the forties. Thumb carefully through Vanity Fair, and you'll see it's an art-directed manual to Carter's obsessions. The nostalgia stories, for example, about old Hollywood joints, gangsters, and movie stars: pure Carter. And the magazine's fizzy visual quality and fanatical attentiveness to design are all a product of Carter's own abiding sense of style. He was a fop long before it was fashionable for heterosexuals to be foppish, gussying himself up in crisp English shirts and Nathan Detroit pinstripes. (Kurt Andersen calls his former colleague "one of the best-dressed men on Planet Earth.")
Yet for a creature of such studied elegance, Carter is surprisingly excitable. The first time he sat down with S. I. Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, Carter was pulsing with so much nervous energy he sent a glass of iced coffee flying across the publishing mogul's immaculate white carpet. "Nervousness," shrugs Walter Isaacson, the new editorial director of Time Inc., "is part of the charm."
He's also an epic gift-giver, deluging friends not only with stationery, bound volumes of blank paper, and other writerly accoutrements but quirky, highly personalized curios collected at flea markets. For his closest friends, he flies off the deep end: Stacks of china. Ancient bottles of port. Rare, human-size plants. And he knows how to bolster the confidence of his anxious writers. After each story, Carter sends them notes, either by fax or on Bennetton Graveur Paris stationery, isolating some special aspect of their work he enjoyed.
But if he has a hawkeye for people's tastes and talents, Carter also has a merciless eye for their weaknesses. Just as he can build people up, he can make them feel quite small.
"He's funny about people's mannerisms," notes Henry Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair. "And he's quick to spot other people's delusions and motives: why they bought the new car, why they got the trophy wife."
"Some of Graydon's humor is based on making light of your foibles," adds Kelly. "To your face."
"If you trip up somewhere in the world," agrees Mitch Glazer, "he's there gloating about it. He misses nothing."
Most people know Carter is from Canada. After that, the details get fuzzy. One former colleague heard he was raised in Moosejaw. Another seemed certain it was Toronto. A third thought Carter split his time between Ottawa and London because his father was a diplomat -- in fact, wasn't he partially raised in the Savoy Hotel?
Carter was born on Bastille Day in 1949. He did live abroad between the ages of one and 6, because his father was stationed in both England and Germany as a flier of Lancasters with the Royal Canadian Air Force. But he spent the rest of his childhood in the middle-class suburbs of Ottawa.
This is how Carter describes himself as a kid: "I was just, just out of control. I don't mean on drugs or anything like that -- just out of control."
"Too many grand plans."
"Just -- plans! You know, I'd come up with some grand plan to build something, and my mother would be like, 'No, you can't, we need that furniture.' "