On Tuesday, the content proletariat of Condé Nast rose up on social media to say they were “burned out,” exhausted by “sad desk lunches,” and tormented by “midnight Slacks,” and they announced their intent to unionize. The next day, former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter got the ancien régime together for a party in honor of his longtime lieutenant Dana Brown. It was held at Carter’s restaurant, the Waverly Inn. Brown, who started out as Carter’s assistant in 1992 and clambered his way up the masthead to deputy editor, has written a memoir, Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph, and Disaster, with a photo of a somewhat younger him, debonaire in a tuxedo and smoking a cigarette, on the cover. Brown’s book is unabashedly brownnosing, a semi-dishy account of his very good luck and the fun he had while working hard and spending wildly in the now-lost era of big-budget glossies. It’s the opposite of The Devil Wears Prada. It’s the coming-of-age story of an assistant who stays loyal to the end.
“We didn’t realize how good we had it,” says Brown, 49, who recounts in his book the moment he was promoted to articles editor and got a corporate American Express: “As I sat there looking at that green card with my name embossed in silver … I made a decision: I would spend until they told me I couldn’t anymore.” In that, he was like all the editors at the once-flush company. “There’s just no money in journalism now,” he says. “They pay these kids fucking nothing to sit on a computer all day and look at what’s trending.”
Carter left in 2017, replaced by Radhika Jones, who promptly purged the masthead of Carter loyalists, firing some 20 people in February 2018 in what is still referred to melodramatically by this crew as “the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (not unlike how Carter had to cull the lingering Tina Brown fifth column when he first got to the mag — something recounted in the book). Many members of his former inner circle were on hand, a bit grayer now but just as natty as ever. “It’s like a Madame Tussauds wax museum of our past in here,” joked David Kamp, who was wearing a velvety midnight-blue Anderson & Sheppard jacket. He was there with his wife, another bygone VF big shot, Aimée Bell, now a top dog at Simon & Schuster. Gina Gershon was drinking with the writer Lili Anolik. Sandra Bernhard and Cynthia Rowley were there. A pinstripe-suited Patrick McMullan pinballed around with his flashbulb. Carter’s enduring battle ax James Wolcott unfurled his scarf. I asked him if he still reads the magazine. “I read occasional things online,” he says, “but you know, they stopped sending me the comped issue.” Jane Sarkin, who once ruled over the Vanity Fair Oscars party and its rigorous arrival-times status hierarchy, was on hand along with magazine vets including Nancy Jo Sales and Michael Hainey, outfitted in an olive corduroy Officine Générale suit.
I cornered Carter to hear what he thought about the unionization efforts under way at Condé. “Why not?” he asked. “They don’t even have desks anymore. They don’t have landlines. They probably share a pencil. I think, in this case, a union is probably fine.” One defining image of this year’s Academy Awards was Will Smith singing along with “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party. If Carter were still king, would he have let the Fresh Prince attend? “No,” says Carter. “I would have sent a car for Chris Rock, though.”
There is a screwball element to how Carter often finds his assistants. It recalls many a mid-century movie — the kind he loved to feature in his pages — in which an obscure worker suddenly gets fast-tracked into a luxurious world. Think Jean Arthur playing a stenographer in 1937’s Easy Living, riding a double-decker bus down Fifth Avenue when a Russian fur coat suddenly falls from the sky and lands on her head. Or Audrey Hepburn in 1957’s Funny Face, working in a Greenwich Village bookstore when the editor-in-chief of a top fashion magazine enters. (“A magazine must have blood and brains and pizzazz!”) I once heard a story of Carter trying to hire his Starbucks guy to work at VF. “He was a fabulous barista,” Carter exclaims. “He knew everybody’s name. My wife interviewed him. I don’t know where he is, but he’s probably running a restaurant now.”
In 1992, just after Carter took over Vanity Fair, he hired Brown as his assistant. Brown was a lowly barback at Brian McNally’s 44, the restaurant inside the Royalton Hotel that was known for being a Condé Nast hangout. (Carter and McNally were close; as Brown recounts in Dilettante, McNally would sometimes snitch to Carter when Vanity Fair editors could be heard complaining about their boss over lunch.) “It was absurd,” remembers Brown. “I was living in the East Village, and I was a minor drug addict and alcoholic, out until five in the morning. But Graydon had an instinct.”
Carter tells me he’s likely had 35 assistants over the years and ranks Brown in the top four, calling him “the Chris Rock of assistants — funny, good-looking, and he could handle any sort of sudden change. Bonus: He looks good in a velvet dinner jacket.”
“I was such a good partyer,” says Brown when I meet him for a cappuccino the day before his book party. We’re at Morandi, which is a short walk from the Waverly and owned by Brian McNally’s brother, Keith. “I was so good at it,” continues Brown, tossing a chiclet of nicotine gum into his mouth. “Like so good. And by the way, in publishing in the ’90s, that was a skill set.”
The book is picaresque. He delivered pages of Dominick Dunne’s O.J. Simpson trial coverage to Carter at home in the Dakota and worked the Oscars party when it was still at Mortons. Brown became drinking buddies with Christopher Hitchens and sat at the center of the magazine’s swirl when Mario Testino was photographing Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky was vamping for Herb Ritts in Malibu, and Maureen Orth and Bryan Burrough were regularly filing investigative knockouts. When Brown became an editor, his first writer was the caustically brilliant A. A. Gill. “Your first is always special,” Brown writes.
An assistant is a status symbol, one few in publishing have anymore. “I remember getting my first,” says Brown. “You start to wonder, like, Are they going to fit in on staff? Do they dress well? Should I start being concerned about how they look? It’s like a car or something.”
There isn’t much score-settling in Brown’s jaunty story, certainly not against Carter. “I never had any issue with him,” Brown says. “And if anyone was ever like, ‘Didn’t he yell at you?’ or ‘Wasn’t he a dick?,’ I’d be like, ‘No, he kind of wasn’t,’ and you know why? ’Cause I fuckin’ worked hard, and I never bitched about anything, and I got my shit done.”
He does recount the time Anna Wintour tried encroaching on Carter’s turf. “They had always gotten along, were even friendly, but things had turned frosty between them after Anna was named Condé Nast’s creative director, in 2013,” Brown writes. “Over lunch one day soon after, Anna asked Graydon if she could offer him some advice on the fashion styling in Vanity Fair’s pages. Graydon snapped back, ‘Can I offer you some advice on Vogue’s writing?’ It had gone downhill from there.”
Oh, and he reveals that Fran Lebowitz might now be a millennial Netflix icon, but she was never popular with the magazine staff. “Fran would hang around the office,” Brown writes. “If you walked in and saw her, it took every ounce of your energy not to groan. She would balk at every idea and say it was stupid, every writer terrible. Her unhappiness and misery were contagious.”
And still, for some reason, Carter kept her around. “She’s a perfect example of a persona taking over a person,” says Brown. “The one thing so many people would always say to me, and especially veterans of the business, they’d be like, ‘What the fuck is Graydon doing? She’s such an ass-kisser; she gloms on to whoever is powerful to get a free ride. How come he doesn’t see that?’” Brown says Lebowitz “is friends with people who have private jets purposely because they have private jets” and calls her “the Paul Manafort of the magazines business. She’ll work for the Russians, she’ll work for the Ukrainians — it doesn’t matter.”
Like many a midlife magazine editor disrupted from his plush job, Brown was horrified to learn that much of his skill set — knowing how to use K4, trading media gossip at the Odeon — counted for little in a new digital economy in which, as he writes of his time making video content, “upscale and smart doesn’t really work.” “It was fucking scary,” he recalls. “I couldn’t tell my wife, like, ‘I think I’m fucked.’ So I internalized it, which destroyed me, and it took two years of therapy to sort of be like, What am I going to do with my life?” He now has a film in the works with his creative partner, the actor Paul Bettany, inspired by how he and his then-estranged wife, forced to quarantine together with their kids during the pandemic, found their way back to each other.
What does Brown think of VF these days? “I have nothing bad to say about it,” he says. “I have nothing good to say about it either.”
He thinks for another moment and says, “I think they’re making a mistake, thinking they need to appeal to a younger audience. You know, like, that Grimes cover? First of all, aesthetically, don’t even get me started on it. I think it’s horrendous.” He adds, “Before, it was like a sophisticated magazine for adults who liked to read and look at pretty pictures. It was like The New Yorker for a slightly more shallow person. I don’t know its mission; I don’t know its goal. And I don’t think Radhika is to blame for that because I think she’s trying to figure out what it is also.” Physically, the magazine is finally as anemic as the stars who appear on its cover. Any fewer pages and it might have to switch to saddle stitch. “It feels like a boarding-school pamphlet,” sighs Brown.
But doesn’t he wish he could still go to the big party?
“I don’t care,” says Brown. “I mean, at this point …” He trails off then adds, “It was a really long night.” If you want to read about the one in 2009 when he got very stoned with Seth Rogen and Danny McBride, you’ll have to read his book.