This is how Carter describes his father, who died in 1991: "A fucking character. Like Basil Fawlty. I have a feeling he was Basil Fawlty, and I was his Manuel. I really do. He looked sort of like David Niven, pencil-thin mustache, funny, eccentric, sort of a sportsman. Loved bridge, loved my mother, loved having beer. And, um, he loved wood. He had this obsession with wood . . ."
Nailing down the particulars of Carter's past is a tad difficult, especially the period between high school and college. "I did a bunch of blue-collar jobs," he says, "because I knew I'd wind up with a white-collar job at some point, and I wanted to, I don't know, I just wanted to taste life. I dug graves for a while, I worked as a stock boy in a big department store, I worked in a bank . . ."
This was during a one-year period? "Yeah. And I worked for the railroad as a lineman in Western Canada. Best seven months of my life."
There's just one problem: The University of Ottawa has no record of Carter until 1974. That would have meant an interregnum of seven years between high school and college, not one.
Carter attempts to clarify the discrepancy by explaining that Canadians spend five years in high school, not four, and he'd been such a lousy student it took him six. Then he adds that he spent nine months as an assistant to a deputy minister in Parliament, though he can't remember the man's name ("Alec . . . um, Alec, fuck, um, it'll come to me") or his political party.
Carter does give some specifics about his young-adult life. At 22, he got married to a French-Canadian museum worker. Three years later, he enrolled at the University of Ottawa. Within months, he was spending all of his time at the offices of The Canadian Review, a tiny literary rag started by a classmate. Carter quickly took charge, and by the time the Review folded in 1977, he had transformed it into a full-fledged, New Republic-style culture-and-politics magazine with a circulation of 50,000.
"It was a really courageous thing to do," says Bruce Maclennan, a childhood friend of Carter's. "Here he was in Ottawa, and he was starting a magazine. I mean, Ottawa! It's a horribly drab place."
Of course, Carter was also failing out of school at the time ("I had, like, a record number of incompletes") and didn't do any better, in the winter of 1975, when he transferred to Carleton University. The magazine, when it finally sputtered out, left Carter almost $50,000 in the red.
By that point, he was ready to move on. In the summer of 1978, he left for New York in an old BMW, leaving his soon-to-be ex-wife and some furious investors in his wake. Carter gave himself one month to find a job, and on the last day, he talked his way into the managing editor's office at Time magazine and got himself an offer. God knows what he told him.
"We all edit our pasts," shrugs Tom Phillips, another co-founder and the first publisher of Spy. "Graydon just does it with more flair and fanfare. I actually admire this about him -- his ability to move beyond The Canadian Review and whatever life he had in Canada to create a new life, a new marriage, a new career, and to become, in his way, the king of New York."
He ponders this point a moment.
"It's a very practical set of lies that he tells," he continues. "Vanity Fair is all about creating an aura, a version of the world. If you're going to be good at that, you're going to have to create your own fiction and communicate it in an appealing way. So the fact that he doesn't deal head-on with reality, or that he doesn't exactly feel encumbered by the truth, works to his great advantage. In fact, I'd go further: I'd say it's a prerequisite for him to do his job well."
His very first week as a writer-trainee at Time, Carter went out to lunch with Jim Kelly, another writer-trainee, and told him that he wanted to launch a magazine called Spy. Seven years later, over the course of many lunches and jaunts to the video arcade in Times Square, he and Kurt Andersen, also a member of the Time tribe, planned the launch of their new magazine together.
Both men had the same journalism lodestars: Esquire from the sixties, The New Yorker from the thirties, Mad. What they produced, with Spy, was an odd hybrid of tough reporting and mordant satire that, despite its brief, six-year life span, left an indelible mark on the magazine world. Besides ridiculing the shiny-tied brutes of the eighties (Trump, Ovitz, Tisch), Spy created a trademark set of features and columns, including "Separated at Birth," which paired unflattering photographs of celebrities caught in similar poses, and "Logrolling in Our Time," a chronicle of who was scratching whose backs in book blurbs.
The magazine could be ferociously cruel. Liz Smith, for example, was a routine target of their ridicule, once referred to as "the old doughy one kissing everybody's ass." (Says Smith today: "It was kind of unpleasant. They seemed to be on my case about things I couldn't help, like my age or how I looked. But it was what it was, and it was funny, some of it.")
As co-editors, Andersen and Carter were equally engaged in molding the content of the magazine, but their styles differed significantly. Andersen was the quieter, more serious one; Carter was the office motivator and bon vivant. If people's moods were flagging, he'd drag them all out to the San Genaro festival. At Spy's boozy, bacchanalian Christmas parties, he'd dress up in a Santa suit (probably the only non-bespoke suit of his adult life) and sit his employees on his lap for a year-end evaluation of their behavior.
For the staff, Spy was a way of life. It meant working until midnight, great parties, and boozy idea lunches at Buffa's and Jerry's. "It was like being on The Dick Van Dyke Show or something," recalls Tad Friend, a former Spy senior editor.
Then, in February 1991, with the magazine's financial future in doubt, it was sold to Jean Pigozzi and Charles Saatchi, two publishing neophytes with money to burn. Carter started foraging on his own for funding for a new newspaper venture. One of the people he spoke to was Arthur Carter, the publisher of the fledgling New York Observer. Arthur invited Graydon to come edit his paper instead.
While Andersen was attending a family reunion in Colorado, Carter called to tell him he was leaving. His partner was stunned. "I wish," admits Andersen, "in some ideal world -- I guess I wish that, you know, there'd been some conversation beforehand. But we all had our own lives. Clearly, the bomb-bay doors were open. He jumped first."
Was Carter apologetic, at least?