Longtime Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s West Village townhouse is embellished with a dime-store Halloween scare kit: fake cobwebs, a dangling bat, a rubber rat, and a small plastic sign clutched by disembodied ghoul fingers that reads ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. It’s impossible to take that warning seriously, even on the front stoop of the man who controls some of the most coveted guest lists in the country, from that Vanity Fair Oscar party (with its legendary phased entry based on your place in the Hollywood social order) to the banquettes at his nearby Waverly Inn restaurant, to the contributor’s page of the magazine, where all the journalists always appear marvelously first-class.
“It looks like a gift shop,” Carter, 64, says, letting me in by the door under the stoop, careful to step around his 5-year-old’s tiny pink bike. The kiddie holiday décor is his wife Anna’s idea, he explains. He walks me through the comfortable first floor of their house, with its long dining table and subway-tiled, white-marble-countertop kitchen—the whole place is a Keith McNally vision of Francophile Manhattan—and offers me a cup of coffee. He asks if I mind goat’s milk in it. Anna, 46, his third wife, wants him to be healthier, which includes imploring him to quit smoking—frustrating for a Camel Lights fiend who took on Mayor Bloomberg’s indoor-puffing ban as something of a personal affront and political crusade.* She’s upstairs dealing with a female ADT security employee with a flattop haircut who’s fiddling with the alarm. We wander out back, in the shady, brick-walled garden, a tranquil place made less so today by the bang-and-whirr of several nearby gut renovations. “It never ends,” he says, waving. “We’ve had five major rebuilds on this little corridor of the street right here. The whole West Village is under construction.”
I’m here to discuss the sorta-centennial of his periodical. The first issue of a magazine called Dress & Vanity Fair appeared in September 1913, the sister ship of Vogue, both owned by a dapper dress-pattern tycoon from St. Louis named Condé Nast—yes, long ago, there was once an actual person, first name Condé, last name Nast. For most of its first two decades (the magazine dropped Dress in 1914), it was edited by Frank Crowninshield, known as Crownie, a courtly confirmed bachelor, exceptionally talented dinner-party guest, and well-known-at-the-time advocate for modern art. After Nast’s divorce, he and Crownie shacked up for six years on Park Avenue and were, according to Vanity Fair 100 Years, the lush and burdensome $65 coffee-table book that comes out this week, “inseparable,” both in New York and while traveling abroad. (“I suppose people thought we were fairies,” Nast is cited as saying; Carter, for his part, refuses to speculate.) In the middle of the Depression, Vanity Fair was merged into Vogue.
Then, in 1983, the title was relaunched as its own slick entity by Si Newhouse, whose family owns the publishing company Condé Nast. A young British editor named Tina Brown made a name for herself there, before Newhouse gave her The New Yorker in 1992, at which point Carter got the gig. “There is something wonderfully gratifying about a magazine that was started 100 years ago, which was at the birth of modernism, and is still alive and somewhat vibrant today,” he tells me.
Carter is a grandly puckish Canadian college dropout who’s always dressed like an Oxbridge barrister from a classic Hollywood film. He relishes the shadow of provenance, as any reader of his magazine would notice, and has an eye for flea-market finds (he tells me he found his cool zinc double kitchen sink himself). This house had been in the same family for 100 years when he bought it. He personally helped fuss up three restaurants—the Waverly, the Beatrice Inn, and Monkey Bar—to summon an evocatively classy New York that ought to exist but stubbornly refuses to. People from his days working at Time, when he first moved to the city, still remember his wearing spats to a party. I bring that up, and he scoffs. “As a joke! I found them at a flea market.”
Carter gained editorial fame, and no small degree of enmity, for co-founding, with Kurt Andersen, the satirical magazine Spy. It engaged in what he called, back in 1989, “overdog-bashing.” But that was long ago, and for some time now Carter has been quite comfortably kenneled himself.
If Vogue not only depicts but in some way actually is indistinguishable from the central workings of the fashion industry, Carter’s Vanity Fair has done the same thing in Hollywood, and sought similar influence in other venues of power. And like Vogue’s Anna Wintour, Carter long ago stopped being a mere editor. In a relationship business, he gives great relationship—not to mention publicity and prized invitations. For every scandal story in his magazine, there’s a power list or a Hall of Fame mention or a choreographed tale of redemption (like what it did for designer John Galliano). And on the side, he has become something of a one-man conglomerate. Besides those restaurants, he’s produced documentaries about legendary Hollywood figures Robert Evans and Jerry Weintraub, and he’s currently making one about Nora Ephron. He’s played a character based on Jamie Dimon in the Richard Gere thriller Arbitrage (he tells me he was fed his lines through an earpiece), among several other movie cameos as himself. Last spring, he produced a one-woman Broadway show, starring Bette Midler, about legendary agent Sue Mengers.
But his day job isn’t as easy as it once was. Take newsstand sales, a mainstay of a place that prides itself on its lavishly produced (and painstakingly negotiated) covers of the significant person of the moment (Jay-Z this month), or of the storied past (Lady Diana, a tried-and-true sales success, in September). “Nothing is working right now,” he says. “Nothing. For anybody. It’s like that whole part of the business fell off a bridge, and I don’t think it’s coming back.” Newsstand aside, he insists the “economics of this magazine are still very healthy.”
Last month, a Times story alleged that the magazine wasn’t so important to Hollywood any longer, having alienated, among others, Scientologists (by a cover story on Katie Holmes’s marriage) and Gwyneth Paltrow. The powerful publicist Leslee Dart declared, “It’s not important to them to grovel as they once did.” Carter just rolls his eyes at this. “It didn’t hurt us,” he says.
Carter’s magazine isn’t an exact continuation of Crownie’s jazz-age chronicle, but some idea of it is the same: a Deco mirage of New York, all wit, dazzle, and a place at the right table. Crownie’s Vanity Fair helped popularize modern portrait photography by deploying Edward Steichen, and it was also an early home for Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the woman who became Clare Boothe Luce. Carter has continued with blockbuster, pore-free stagings of celebrity by photographers like Mario Testino, Norman Jean Roy, Bruce Weber—and, of course, Annie Leibovitz. Not to mention his stable of high-priced writing talent, from his late columnist Christopher Hitchens to Michael Lewis to the exposé expert Maureen Orth.
What’s changed is the world Vanity Fair was built to cover. “Our culture is a little crasser now in the last ten, fifteen years,” he says. The Internet moves at such an exhausting pace; the web is just as snotty, if not more so, than Spy ever was. “The funny thing is that the growth in celebrity weeklies has coincided with the decline in the basic art of celebrity,” he laments. “The fact that they call reality-TV stars, stars—it’s just an issue with me.”
In his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a former editor at Vanity Fair named Toby Young quotes Carter as saying: “ ‘You think you’ve arrived … I hate to break it to you but you’re only in the first room. It’s not nothing—don’t get me wrong—but it’s not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further.’ ”
Did he really say that? “A version of that, yes,” Carter says. And does he believe it? “I do,” he says. “It’s part of what makes a big city like New York effective. New Yorkers are constantly moving along and going to another stage. In a lot of societies, you get your car, your boat, your house. And then you stop. New Yorkers are constantly propelled to move on to the next thing. And that’s what makes the city a turbine of the culture.”
Carter has always described Vanity Fair’s variety of stories as striving to be like a fantasy dinner party: It’s about the mix. He has a board in his office that tracks the state of stories by category: world affairs, literary, scandal, fashion, art, and business. Think of it as a seating chart. (He’s so careful about this idea that he makes sure his restaurants’ seating charts are to his liking nightly.)
“Nobody in our industry can put together a guest list like Graydon Carter,” Harvey Weinstein recently said. (“My lasting achievement in life,” Carter tells me, half-facetiously, is “the two-sided place card. So you don’t have to walk around the table to find your little name”—or ask the name of somebody sitting across from you.) The dinner party looms large for Carter, which explains his fascination with its master practitioner Mengers, whom he met after Swifty Lazar’s Oscar party in 1993. “Wendy Stark brought me to Ray Stark’s house. And Sue and her husband were there. We met and we hit it off. ” I ask if he learned from her. “Only in the way you could learn from Mickey Mantle. There was no one out there on her level. The only person in New York on that level is Louise Grunwald. She loved movie stars. She didn’t like second-tier players. She only wanted the headliners at her house.”
But he is worried that the city as he knew it, the site of his own self-creation, is going away. He went out to Williamsburg a couple of years ago with one of his grown-up kids from his second marriage. “Literally I could have been going to Chad. It was not what I expected. The architecture wasn’t as interesting or as baroque or as industrial—it looked like Queens to me.
“I was talking to Fran Lebowitz the other day,” he goes on. “She said that 50 percent of New Yorkers are new every ten years. Half of them leave—the city beats them down. It’s always been tough. But it’s exponentially more difficult now than it was. When I got here, I made, I think, $21,000 a year at Time. I had an apartment in the Village, which was $200 a month. That apartment would be $4,000 a month now.”
But he’s got his place here, and his place in magazine history, if there will be such a thing, and his job. I ask him how much longer he expects to do this. “Until the Newhouses get sick and tired of me, I suppose. I love my job, I’ll be honest. There’s a million frustrations. I make lists upon lists upon lists upon lists.” He thinks some more. “All of the documentaries that I’ve done are about people who, at the end of the day, had huge reservoirs of goodwill around them.” I ask him if he thinks of them as research for how to live successfully among the very successful. “No,” he says. “Because those lives are already done. Whatever train those people have taken, that has left the station. There’s no more changes I can make in my life. I mean, other than the evolution of the magazine.” And that job, he says, is just driven by “a constant state of fear.”
*This article has been corrected to show that Carter’s wife Anna is 46, not 47. The original version of this article also misspelled Clare Boothe Luce’s name as Clare Booth Luce.