Spring Magazines: Editor of the Year – Graydon Carter

In a media world littered with synergistic failures, Graydon Carter, 53, has become a model editor for the 21st century. And he has done so at a general-interest magazine, no less, a publishing genre that in recent years had been written off in favor of more defined, more vertical offerings. Under his watch, Vanity Fair has remained a bastion of solid storytelling and lush portraits, expertly blended. In every issue there is something for those interested in popular culture, politics and business: Vanity Fair’s February 2002 cover included an impressive gathering of President Bush’s national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; August chronicled the self-immolation of fallen superagent Michael Ovitz in a piece by Bryan Burrough; and in the September issue, Gail Sheehy profiled a year in the lives of 9/11 widows from Middletown, N.J.

“Vanity Fair is a magazine that everybody seems to put on their list of the 10 most important magazines in America. The definition of ‘important’ being the magazines that are controlling or affecting the popular dialogue,” says David Verklin, CEO of Carat North America. “It’s one of the easiest magazines to get approved on a media plan.”

Vanity Fair’s editor in chief has not only continued to deliver a consistently vital and profitable editorial package each month but also broadened his interests into television and film. In recognition of these achievements, Carter has been chosen Adweek Magazines’ Editor of the Year for the second time in six years—the only person ever to win two such awards.

Carter’s workload last year extended beyond the pages of Vanity Fair and into the business of moviemaking. A number of VF articles were optioned by studios in 2002, including Marie Brenner’s April piece on the Enron meltdown and Ned Zeman’s February article on real-estate tycoon and suspected murderer Robert Durst.

More directly, Carter signed on as one of the executive producers of the Naudet brothers’ 9/11 documentary. (Readers first got a taste of what was to come in the March issue.) Some 40 million viewers last March tuned in to the Emmy Award–winning film on CBS. Four months later, Carter’s own documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, about legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, opened in movie theaters across the country.

Since July 1992, when Carter took over as Vanity Fair’s editor, the magazine’s paid circulation has risen 3.4 percent to 1.1 million, and newsstand sales have increased 11.8 percent. Ad revenue for the 10 years ending in 2002 rose 121 percent to $140 million, and ad pages grew 28.5 percent to 1,968. In a tough economic year, VF’s ad pages in 2002 inched up 1.7 percent to 1,968, according to the Publishers Information Bureau; revenue dipped 1.1 percent to $140 million.

Carter’s elevation to the top of New York’s publishing heap began modestly—in Ottawa, far from the glamorous world that now encircles him. After the failure of his first magazine endeavor, the Canadian Review, Carter set off for New York, where he quickly rose to iconic status in the publishing world. In the late 1970s and ’80s, he worked at Time and Life before cofounding the satirical Spy magazine with Kurt Andersen in 1986. Five years later, he took the helm at The New York Observer and then in July 1992 moved to his perch at Vanity Fair. How he made this great leap is a story best told in the words of those who helped get him there.

Margaret Carter, mother: I always thought he’d do something amazing. He had big ideas, big ideas. Ideas that I always had to say, “No, I’m sorry, it’s out of the question.”

James Kelly, Time managing editor: E.B. White said, “You don’t come to New York unless you’re prepared to be lucky.” [Carter] was prepared to be very lucky. He was a risk-taker, and now, of course, you look back and think he was fated to be in the position he’s in now. But everything about him today is what he has created. He puts out a magazine that very much plays to his interests and strengths. He loves places that used to be posh and are no longer, and places that look like they’re becoming posh. He loves architecture, he loves photography. All these things are able to play out in the pages of Vanity Fair.

Mrs. Carter: He could draw like a dream, and for a while he did caricatures for Tatler in England. He could have made his money, I swear, doing that or being a stand-up comedian when he was younger. He was really, really funny.

Bruce McLennan, childhood friend: Here was Graydon operating out of a little hole in the wall—[the Canadian Review] was a small-time magazine, but the guys and women there had the air of people who were running something fairly significant. They got that through Graydon. When you look at the people that work with him right now, there’s an extraordinary loyalty there.

Following the collapse of the Canadian Review, Carter set off for New York with a handful of clips and a good story that in 1978 helped get him in the front door of Time magazine.

Kelly: He started out writing the business section at Time. He was always putting very spritely leads on stories, which somehow got edited out. He was clearly destined for other things. Of course, it’s at Time where he met Kurt Andersen.

After Time, he moved to TV Cable Week, where he became an editor. Mercifully for everyone, including Time Inc., TV Cable Week died after about three months. Then Graydon got picked up at Life magazine, but that’s when he decided he wanted to become the master of his own destiny. As soon as he got there, he basically was plotting his own magazine. Just like Canadian Review, Spy was a magazine he got to run. He didn’t have to answer to anyone.

Kurt Andersen, novelist, cofounder of Spy: We became friends and began having lunch, and then at a certain point, maybe ’83 or ’84, realized that we had a similar notion for a magazine. Beginning with the bull market in ’82, and four years into that kind of party decade, was a good moment to have an entity come along that would prick the balloons that had been inflated—and do so in a funny, good-natured way that wasn’t traditionally strident, or traditionally muckraking, but was tough.

Kelly: When he started Spy, it’s true he poked fun at the Donald Trumps of the world and the Reagan era. He has this uncanny ability to find the one thing that someone might feel insecure about and kind of make fun of it.

Andersen: I’m pretty sure the “short-fingered vulgarian” was [Carter’s idea], because he had written a profile on Donald Trump for GQ and was struck by his short fingers.

Donald Trump, real estate mogul: When he was running Spy, he would go after folks like me, but it was done in a certain spirit. And actually I have quite long fingers, but that’s OK.

Aimée Bell, VF senior articles editor, Spy, The New York Observer: You can still see many of the qualities of Spy in today’s publications, from both the design standpoint and a journalistic standpoint—the way the columns are designed, the little cutout heads, the typefaces, the way of doing lists.

In September 1991, Carter and a handful of Spy staffers moved to The New York Observer, where they transformed the sleepy city newspaper into a must-read for the cultural elite.

Bell: Spy was bought by Charles Saatchi and Jean Pigozzi. It was a different time. The ’80s were over at this point, and it was not as easy to poke fun at people, so I think he wanted a change. But I was a bit surprised, because the Observer at that point was not something people outside of 10021 really read. I picked up an issue of the Observer, and there was an article on crossing guards or something. And I thought, “What am I getting myself into?”

What Graydon proved at the Observer was that he didn’t make the Observer into Spy. He showed that he had more than one way to do things, and I think that is a very rare quality. Most people really only know how to do one thing, and they may do it very well and it may work at different publications. But to be able to do things so differently and so brilliantly with the same amount of energy and vision is quite unique.

A year later, S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Condé Nast, came calling. The New Yorker’s Robert Gottlieb was out, and a game of musical chairs ensued. Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown moved to The New Yorker, and Carter took the helm of Vanity Fair, bringing along Bell and others from his Spy and Observer days. Carter, however, did not get the welcome he had hoped for.

Bell: There were a lot of loyalists in place, and to Graydon’s credit he did not fire anyone, not one person, and boy, did I wish he had. They were so scary. I had never experienced the level of politics that was here, and we were new people and unknown.

Dominick Dunne, VF special correspondent: When Tina left, she asked me to go to The New Yorker, and I don’t know why, but I had this feeling about Vanity Fair. It took Graydon and me almost a year to connect. I think he perceived me as a Tinaphile. At some point, I wrote him a note. I said, “Graydon, I don’t think you think I’m a team player, and I am. Why don’t we have lunch?” And that was the beginning.

Steve Florio, Condé Nast president/CEO: My first lunch date as president with Graydon we went to ‘Silvano. He was very guarded. The magazine in ’94 was not doing well, ad pages were way off, circulation was way off. I said something to him like, “You are a brilliant editor. How come I’m not seeing it on the page?” I said, “Graydon, you have something that I will never have and I envy you for it.” He kind of gave me a smirk; he said, “What?” I said, “You have WASPy good taste.” He smiled. I said, “I’m here to help you. I’m not the enemy. I think you’re brilliant. I think this magazine can be brilliant.”

Christopher Hitchens, VF contributing editor: Graydon’s gift is the one of making things appear easy and fairly leisurely. I don’t think he comes in that early. He quite likes to take lunch. I don’t think he minds sticking around late. It isn’t all work and drama. The thing about that is, it’s deceptive. Because actually he works extremely hard and he concentrates very much.

Bell: With each issue Graydon became more confident of how to do the job, of what he wanted the magazine to be. The most obvious change was the visuals. There’s a lot more art going on—a lot more photo research, vintage pictures, a lot more involved design-wise. Graydon is very collaborative with the art director, and I think that really does make things fun. He created some signature issues—the annual “Hollywood” issue, the annual “Music” issue, and the “New Establishment” feature.

Hitchens: The word “magazine” means “shop,” and it also means “arsenal,” as in “powder magazine.” What it means in journalistic terms is it should have something for everybody, and that’s not a shameful thing to want to do. I’m quite sure that a lot of people who buy Vanity Fair are sure that there will be one article at least that they’re glad to have read—maybe two—that they couldn’t get anywhere else. There’s a whole lot of stuff in the magazine that I wouldn’t read if I was in prison. Obviously some people think, “Hot damn!”

I know that Graydon isn’t all that interested himself in Iraq. And he’s quite skeptical about intervening in Iraq. And he knows that readers, if they want to read about Iraq, will probably read something else. But he’s decided that we ought to do a fair amount on it.

Andersen: The bargain that Vanity Fair as an entity makes with [Hollywood] is that the feature pieces that require the cooperation of celebrities are not going to be muckraking jobs, and that’s just the way it is. When one has better writers doing those pieces, as the magazine has had, I think more nuance, a kind of reading between the lines, a sharpness sometimes can get in there in a way that it didn’t used to.

Robert Evans, movie producer: There have been many profiles of me in the magazine. It ain’t no fan magazine, I’ll tell you that.

Legendary agent Swifty Lazar’s death in late 1993 left a void in the post-Oscar party scene. But not for long. In March 1994, Carter and his VF crew took over Morton’s. Now there’s no other place any star would rather be seen. It’s here that the pages of Vanity Fair come to life.

Fran Lebowitz, VF contributing editor: Every year I’ve gone, I sit at the same place with the same people. I sit with Graydon, Barry [Diller], Diane [Von Furstenberg]; I think [screenwriter] Mitch [Glazer] and his wife Kelly [Lynch], and Warren [Beatty] and Annette [Bening] the last couple of years have sat with us. The sun is shining. You go into a dark restaurant, and you sit in your formal clothing and watch television. You eat dinner while you watch television. To me, the thing I really enjoy of that party is to sit in the booth and just watch people come. People don’t come over to Graydon and say hello. Graydon stands. He barely sits down. He greets every single person that comes in.

Trey Laird, Laird & Partners president, creative director: It’s such an amazing collision of film and music and fashion and art and politics and society and the whole world of it, it’s inspiring. I was doing the advertising for Donna Karan at the time, and we were casting the 2001 campaign. I saw Jeremy Irons at the party; there was something really interesting and amazing about him. We called him up and he was in the campaign for a year.

Evans: I went to the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 1999. I really didn’t want to go because I wasn’t very well. He took me himself as his date. It’s more than loyalty. It’s called “character.” At the party he said right in front of everybody, “S.I. Newhouse, I’m making a film of his life.” I said, “Graydon, you’ll lose your job.”

Bell: Just no detail is too small for Graydon, from the matchbooks, the ashtrays, the food that’s going to be served.

Kelly: He’s very detailed-oriented and he likes to be in control. I don’t think it’s an accident that he tends to go to one restaurant. I don’t think it’s an accident that he likes to create the space that he’s in, and he likes to control that space. More than anyone else, he has created a reality that suits his perception of how he wants him and the world to operate. I don’t think he’s very big for life’s vagaries.

Lebowitz: I probably eat dinner with Graydon every couple of weeks at Da Silvano’s. Well, he has a certain table and so do I. It’s not the same one. If I go with Graydon, we sit at Graydon’s table. He so much prefers it.

Hitchens: Not many journalists are particularly fashion- and clothes-conscious, and many of those who are—what shall we say?—they’re gay, or that’s all they’re interested in, or it’s too much of an interest. Graydon has an eye for fashion without being a sort of fashion queen.

Kelly: He’s always had the hair. It’s gotten a little fluffier, but he always had the hair.

Florio: It is my belief he wants to look like George Washington. I don’t know what’s with the haircut.

Lebowitz: I went to Disneyland with him and his kids last time we were in L.A., for the Academy Award thing last year. He was very fatherly to everyone, including me—telling me don’t eat that popcorn, don’t eat so much junk. He was very paternal. That’s how I would describe Graydon in Disneyland. Now he might not have been this way if his kids weren’t there. I guess he felt that I was not a responsible member of the party.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Vanity Fair, like many publications, was left scrambling to address the disaster. Amid shock, sadness and bomb threats, the staff pulled together a special edition that included the photo portfolio “Faces of Tragedy, Faces of Heroism,” by Jonas Karlsson, and an essay by David Halberstam. It was polybagged with the November “Music” issue.

Bell: On the Thursday after Sept. 11, there was a bomb scare here, the building was evacuated. One of Graydon’s greatest strengths is his paternalism. He’s a great father figure, and he very much rose to the occasion. After that Graydon got every person who works here a little kit with a flashlight; all the women were given these flat shoes. It made people feel very taken care of. And journalistically he just was entirely on it.

A few months later, two French brothers brought a 90-minute pitch reel to Vanity Fair’s offices on the recommendation of David Friend, VF editor of creative development. The Naudet brothers had been filming a documentary about firefighters and happened to be near the World Trade Center as it came under attack. Carter showed the reel to his friend, CBS Television CEO Les Moonves. The Emmy Award–winning documentary 9/11, narrated by Robert De Niro, aired on CBS last March. Soon after, Carter’s critically acclaimed Robert Evans documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, hit theaters.

Susan Zirinsky, 48 Hours, 9/11 executive producer: We came to a deal, no kidding, the last week in January. I felt like I was working with a force of nature that had a control switch, so that at any moment I knew he might come forth with some brilliance, but it was kept in check and it allowed us to creatively work this. He came in as kind of that über tornado that was gonna barrel through anything we needed. I fell in love with this guy. It’s hard to take an icon and feel warm and fuzzy about him. He’s not that kind of guy, but you know what? I have the most special place in my heart for this man. It was born out of a cataclysmic moment in our time and will never go away.

Florio: Here’s how he explained it to me one night at dinner. He said, “You know [New Yorker editor David] Remnick writes books on the side? I do movies. If you look at it that way, Steve, you’ll be comfortable with it.” And you know what? I do look at it that way, and I know Mr. Newhouse looks at it that way now, and we are comfortable with it.

Evans: I said, How do you make a film? I don’t want anyone playing me. He said, “I’m going to make it from the audio of your autobiography.” How do you make it from the audio? [He said,] “I’ll figure a way out.” It was his vision. I must tell you, if nothing else, it’s an original. I had more fun watching it than living it.

Dunne: I once made a movie for Bob Evans. That was the movie that killed my career in Hollywood, thank God. It was Ash Wednesday with Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda. I have always known Bob Evans and he is an interesting character. I think the way Graydon picked up on him the way he did, and got the take on him the way he did, shows Graydon’s reaction to a story. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to make a film about Bob Evans.

Kelly: I think he finds Hollywood to be a lot of fun. But I think he realizes that what he loves is doing the magazine, and I think he’s canny enough to know that his influence in New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere stems not from being the producer of a Robert Evans documentary but from being the editor of Vanity Fair. That is a core piece of his identity.

Hitchens: The skills required to be a good editor are relatively rare, whereas I think you could assemble the qualities of a producer in a lot of people. I hope he doesn’t get tempted by the glitz. He once told me that in his retirement he’d like to run a local paper—find some nice town and make it his hobby.

Florio: Whether you like the guy or you don’t like the guy, if you love Vanity Fair, if you hate Vanity Fair, you cannot help but acknowledge that here’s an editor who’s at the absolute top of his game right now.

Fair Play

Lisa Granatstein: Whom do you edit Vanity Fair for?

Graydon Carter: I edit for someone like me. Somebody getting on an eight-hour plane flight or eight hours spent on the beach or a one-hour lunch break or a 20-minute subway ride. When I first took over the title, I said, “This looks easy.” I didn’t realize all the levels, all the playing fields you have to play on. I have a fashion readership. I have a political readership. I have a literary readership. I have New York’s social scene, Hollywood. I have America. I have Europe. And then you have men and women. It’s a very complex magazine.

VF is read predominantly by women. Have you made any effort over the years to get more men?

No. I think at one point I thought I’d make a concerted effort. We did sports covers. We even did a great cover of Michael Jordan, and it didn’t do particularly well. I don’t think there’s any way you can force it, and I don’t.

With the demise last year of Talk, and only Radar on the horizon, is there a future for general-interest magazines?

There’s always room for new ones. The only thing you have to be is necessary. If you’re necessary, you do it all.

What is the criteria for cover subjects?

For the first three years, you had a certain age of movie star—they’re probably like five years younger than I am now—and there were so few of them that I felt that I didn’t want to have to make any kind of deals, so I just opened it up to a whole new generation of actors and actresses. We put Josh Hartnett (July 2001) and Colin Farrell (July 2002) on the cover, and they were barely known at that point. They did well, because people walked by the newsstand, and they said, “Hey, I don’t know who that guy is. Maybe I should know.”

Do you think you cover Hollywood a little too straight?

I know that’s a criticism of the cover story. It’s one of the few stories in the magazine where you ask somebody basically to come into your house. I just find it rude to say, “Would you pose for the magazine? And then we’re going to trash you.” I think that they are more nuanced than they used to be, and so they are, in some ways, more interesting. I’ve made them a lot shorter. They used to be like 9,000 words, now they’re like 3,000 words.

Because your friends are from Hollywood, and you now even have business ties to the industry, how do you turn around and do a tough story on, say, Barry Diller, who helped fund The Kid Stays in the Picture?

I would never go out and pick on a friend, but if a friend is involved in a big story… . It’s happened before. I had a falling out with Bob Evans for two years over a story. I tried to do all these things reasonably fairly, as fairly as you humanly can. Everybody has conflicts. Editors have deals with books publishers. As you get older, life is all a conflict, and you try to maneuver the best you can. But let’s say [Vivendi Universal Entertainment CEO] Barry [Diller], who was with USA Films at the time, funded that movie, and he gets into a huge deranged war with [tycoon oilman] Marvin Davis. I’d probably do it.

Speaking of war, Christopher Hitchens says you’re not interested in putting so much Iraq coverage in VF, but you do so nevertheless.

We did more stories on Iraq way back when. David Rose did amazing stories on Iraq’s nuclear and biochemical capabilities 18 months ago. It certainly affected the British government’s decision.

A running theme with people who know you is that you have a need for control, whether it’s at Da Silvano’s or the Oscar party.

I’m a very unsuccessful control freak, but you have to be. With a monthly magazine you have enough time to go over everything. You should be able to help choose every picture, go over the captions, go over the display. It’s your job as an editor. I’m not very exploratory when it comes to restaurants; I tend to go to the same restaurant and sit in the same seat. But I pick up the check.

What role did you play in the 9/11 documentary?

My involvement was just putting together the documentary, was to bring in Robert De Niro, and I did that in a hurry so CBS wouldn’t bring in one of their sitcom stars. I thought De Niro was really important to give this thing some serious New York credibility.

Were you involved at all in the editing process?

We’d see it and we’d make notes. You’re in the hands of Susan Zirinsky. What you had to do was tell a story there, and she was good at that. There was very little that I could have said that could have improved that. On a written manuscript, I’d be better. On the Bob Evans thing more so, because there was a written body of work to work with.

Did you think that The Kid Stays in the Picture could be a commercial success?

No, I did not think it would do well. Kurt and I never thought about “Will Spy do well?,” but we thought it would do well enough. And I thought this would do well enough.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

I’m really happy here. There’s a children’s book I’d like to write in the next year. It’s a chapter book for like 10-year -olds, 40,000 words. I started off working on it for my daughter and I dropped it in 1997, and I picked it up again last year. I’m writing it just to print one copy so I can give it to my daughter for Christmas. If it’s any good, I’ll take it to a publisher.

So no big fat Hollywood career?

I don’t think so. First of all, I don’t think it’s as much fun as magazines. People think that looks a lot easier than it is. I think the people up there are really smart, and they work all the time. But I am working on another little documentary right now, and we got all the participants together. We’ll make an announcement when it’s almost done.—LG