A Peek Into The World Of Graydon Carter

Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine
Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine

Vanity Fair magazine has been impressing readers with its pictures and writing for the better part of a century now, a tradition strictly enforced by its current editor, Graydon Carter. Tracy Smith has a Sunday Profile:

If there really was such a thing as the center of the fashionable universe, a place where art could share a laugh with beauty over a bottomless glass of champagne, it would likely look something like a Vanity Fair party.

And, as always, at the center of a glamorous gaggle is Vanity Fair magazine's editor in chief, Graydon Carter.

He is usually not by his own account one of the most attractive people in the room, but there is never a doubt that it is always his room.

Carter is host of some of the world's most exclusive events, like the annual Oscar night bash in Hollywood. Don't even think of trying to crash this one.

But this is the Graydon Carter most people never see: the father of five at his weekend home in rural Connecticut.

Why Connecticut?

"I wanted to get away on the weekends and not see everybody that I saw in New York - and in shorts."

Carter says he is actually a very retiring person - even shy.

"Yeah, I usually don't speak until spoken to."

The guy who throws the biggest party of the year, the Oscar party, is a shy guy?

"Well, I had to overcome that," Carter told Smith. "You know, I'm very Canadian. And Canadians are very (unintel) to-- retiring-- you know-- not forceful people. I had to sort of train myself to be a host.

"I'd have a couple of drinks before everybody got there. But then I just would go out and show great enthusiasm even though I was, like, trembling inside."

Raised in Ottawa, Graydon Carter moved to New York and worked at Time and Life before co-founding Spy Magazine in 1986.

In ten issues a year, Spy mercilessly lampooned actors, politicians and publications - including Vanity Fair, the very magazine Carter was chosen to run a few years later.

"How difficult was it for you, though, in the beginning?" Smith asked.

"Well, they all hated me!" he said. "So that was a difficult part, because of things we had said in Spy."

"I don't understand how you go to work every day if everybody hated you," Smith said.

"It was tough. And then I finally got rid of, sort of, three of the biggest troublemakers all in one day. I'd only fired four or five people in my entire life! Three in one day. And it was like opening the curtains. And this was two years into being there. And once that happened, the whole sort of thing changed. The staff sort of realized that this was what it was going to be, and I could make the magazine my own."

Under Carter, Vanity Fair's photographic heritage has continued, with pictures that range from merely beautiful to breathtaking.

In the 95 years since it was first published, the magazine has become what many consider to be the gold standard in portraiture … legends shot by legendary photographers, reflecting power, genius, royalty.

Carter has assembled 300 of the magazine's most arresting images into a book, "Vanity Fair: The Portraits" (Harry N. Abrams).

"There's a wonderful shot of Douglas Fairbanks and Joan Crawford on a beach with their backs together that is as modern as any picture you can take today," he said. "And in the modern magazine, many of Annie Leibovitz's portraits, I love the picture of Robert Mitchum with his trench coat sort of billowing in the wind and he's smoking on a small cheroot.

"But in each case, there's something there that becomes slightly iconic about the person. And it's the picture you remember when you think of that person, if the photographer's done their job right."

But in Graydon Carter's world, it isn't only about the words and pictures: a former Vanity Fair employee wrote a book that seems to impugn Carter's management style: "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People." The movie version comes out next month.

(MGM Pictures)
(Left: Jeff Bridges, with Simon Pegg, in "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.")

"I didn't read the book," Carter said. "I read the screenplay and I saw the movie. I thought the movie is fine. I mean, the thing is, look, Jeff Bridges plays me. How can I complain that much? (laughter) Just if he played me in real life would be so much better."

Carter said a scene where Bridges/Carter throws someone's T-shirt out the window did not make him out to be a jerk.

"If you see it in context, no, I'm not, I don't think I'm a jerk. (laughter), but if you see it in context it's not that bad a thing. He doesn't come off as a jerk at all. He comes off as gruff."

"Did it actually happen?" Smith asked.

"No. We can't open the windows in our building."

After work, Carter now hosts what amounts to a party every night. He's part-owner of the Waverly Inn, a Manhattan restaurant that hasn't officially opened, although it's been doing a brisk business, with a celebrity clientele, for the better part of two years.

Anybody can get in … but the place has no phone number, so you need to show up in advance to ask for a reservation, or know somebody who can get you one.

Carter oversees the seating chart personally.

"I sort of do a table sitting each night and because that's a very essential part of a restaurant. And restaurants [are] a lot like a magazine. It's all about selection and the mix and the final edit. It's one of the few things in the world I'm qualified to do. Doesn't take a lot of brains, just experience."

"I actually don't know how magazines are produced, I'll be honest with you. I have no idea."

What he does know is what makes a magazine great. After the articles and carefully chosen photos, each issue of Vanity Fair closes with the "Proust Questionnaire": 20 or so questions, ranging from "What is your greatest fear?" to "How would you like to die?" - put to a different celebrity each month.

Carter has never answered the questions himself, at least on camera, but he agreed to take a few for us.

What is your greatest fear?

"Oh, you know, easy: I mean, something happening to one of my children."

What is it that you most dislike?

"War and bad manners. And there's a lot of territory in-between those two. War is a form of really bad manners, in a strange way. (laughter) Invading a country I think is just the worst possible manners. 'You're not invited!' Gate crashing on a large scale!"

Does he feel Vanity Fair is a magazine accessible to everyone or is it aimed at a certain elite?

"It's not for the full-time television watcher," Carter said. "It's for people who read and get out and do things."

"And if some people see that as elitist, if some people call you an elitist, what would you say?" Smith asked.

"Well, I'm fine with that. And the fact is we're not in the business of reality TV here. We're putting out a great, muscular magazine of great journalism and great photography. Anybody can come in and read it, you know. No velvet rope in front of the magazine!"

Perhaps … but the appeal of Graydon Carter's world is that it's a party you're probably not invited to, but one you're still dying to peek at through the windows.