Graydon Carter is ending his quarter-century-long turn at the helm of Vanity Fair, leaving large shoes (or, more precisely, a large, probably smoky, corner office) for whomever inherits the post to fill.
Michael Grynbaum at the New York Times broke the story of Carter’s departure, recounting a conversation held over Carter’s West Village kitchen table, in a room that is, of course, “adorned with a stuffed perch fish from the 19th century (an idea Mr. Carter said he borrowed from the Earl of Snowdon, ex-husband of Princess Margaret), a ‘Resist’ poster and a “Dump Trump” illustration by their 8-year-old daughter.”
I spent a recent weekend at my grandparents’ house on Long Island with my friend Alexis, who noticed a basket in their living room holding decades of back issues of food magazines, as well as a well-curated archive of Vanity Fair issues dating back to the mid ’90s. My grandmother had kept every issue featuring British royals (particularly Princess Diana, whose death marked the only time I’ve ever seen my grandmother — who lost her own mother very young — cry) or Kennedys (American royals) on the cover. The only outlier was a “Game of Thrones” cover (also royalty, technically). We spent the weekend poring over all of them, gleefully reading aloud to one other from regular features like Dominick Dunne’s Diary (my favorite included a defense of Martha Stewart, at the time both a felon and a friend, and an excoriation of a Kennedy who had spoken ill of Dunne on television) and noticing a delightful formula that seemed to serve as the architecture of each issue: a luxurious profile of some obscure royalty or old money scion; a less flattering look at some arriviste nouveau riche; a true crime story, ideally committed by someone wealthy or pretending to be wealthy; a glowing writeup of a new Hollywood darling; a reverent paean to a worthy Old Hollywood icon. These tropes were the bones of each issue and they held up well, decades later.
In a sweet farewell to the famed editor, V.F. contributing editor David Kamp shared, “To this day, Vanity Fair circulates to its editors a list of Graydon-verboten words and terms, among them doff, eschew, hooker, celebrity, moniker, opine, and A-list.” V.F. has a very specific vocabulary and tone. It is aggressively understated, with the arid wit of the most delightful dinner party guest you hope to be seated beside. Sarah Ellison’s recent Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump profile is a great example, noting that the nation’s most loathed couple are known in D.C. as dismal party guests who keep to “platitudes and pabulum,” and quoting a lawyer with experience in security clearance who deemed Kushner’s multiple updates “unusual.” In a 2012 profile of Women’s Wear Daily editor-in-chief John Fairchild, Fairchild’s top aide Michael Coady’s “habit of secretly peeing into a wineglass” is described as “unappealing.”
That habit was first revealed in a scathing Spy magazine piece about Coady calling him the meanest man in fashion, which, a source who worked at WWD in the 1980s attests, “he absolutely was.” According to the source, the Spy piece took Coady down a peg (“he was less of a jerk after that”) — just one of Carter and Spy‘s pieces of media service journalism.
Carter is almost never mentioned without an accompanying nod to Spy, where he first coined the gleeful Trump moniker “short-fingered vulgarian.” As Kamp notes in his farewell, Carter has devoted nearly all of his editor’s notes of late to taking Trump down — and the obsession is apparently mutual. Grynbaum’s scoop recounts:
“He’s tweeted about me 42 times, all in the negative,” Mr. Carter said. “So I blew up all the tweets and I framed them all. They’re all on a wall — this is the only wall Trump’s built — outside my office. There’s a space left for one more tweet to complete the bottom line. So if he does, I’m just going to call our framer, and say we need one more.”
As a V.F. scholar, I think of Carter often. But Grynbaum and Kamp’s pieces made me realize I didn’t know very much about the man on whom I project various opinions (a bad party guest is the worst thing you can be, for example). I did not know Carter is Canadian, or that his pre-journalism life included stints as a railway lineman and a cemetery digger, or that as a young man who revered America and especially New York City, he once pretended to be Jewish. That anecdote comes from this great 2000 New York Magazine profile by Jennifer Senior:
The crew was eating some mysterious meat dish, “and Graydon said to me, ‘This is good — what is it?’
“And I said, ‘It’s pork.’
“And he said, ‘Oh, my God, my mother would kill me!’
“And I said, ‘Why?’
“And he said, ‘Because I’m Jewish.’ ”
Walls lets the phrase hang.
“We never knew whether to tell Herbie, our foreman,” he says. “He’d been a German POW and was purported to have S.S. tattoos on his body.”
The story stands out in Walls’s mind for a reason: He’d never met a Jew before. But to anyone who knows Carter now — the bespoke suits from Anderson & Sheppard, the Connecticut country home, the Anglican bone structure, the Gray Goose martinis, the pilgrimages to London — it stands out for a different reason: Carter isn’t Jewish.
“I was reading a lot of Kerouac and a lot of Ginsberg,” says Carter, sitting on a bench in Bryant Park 30 years later, struggling to explain it. He smiles sheepishly and jiggles one leg up and down. “And . . . and I thought, If you’re going to be an intellectual in New York, you gotta be Jewish. It wasn’t some experiment, like Gentleman’s Agreement, or anything like that. It was just . . . I thought . . . I just found it . . .” He trails off. “I don’t know. It was so much more exotic than what I really was.”
Digging around just makes the man seem more interesting. For example, what inspired him to put out an entire issue devoted to sisters as a respite from “the dismaying hamster wheel of American presidential politics” last year? I would love to hear that story. And as Kamp notes, while the bones of the magazine have long remained the aforementioned tropes (royalty; money; Hollywood; true crime ideally combining money, royalty and/or Hollywood), Carter has also published exceptional photography beyond Annie Leibovitz’s celebrity portraits, such as the late Tim Hetherington’s documentation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and scoops such as the identity of Deep Throat — a bombshell to which, as Grynbaum notes, “even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to play catch-up.” And it was under Carter that Monica Lewinsky broke her 10-year silence, not to a reporter, but in her own words. She remains a contributing writer for the magazine, most recently with a timely and important piece on male vulnerability. It speaks volumes of Carter’s vision that he gave Lewinsky the space and opportunity to show what an incisive observer and writer she is, affording a once-silenced woman such a worthy second act.
Here is my contribution to the canon of Carter stories: An ex-boyfriend of mine once scored a meeting with Carter, who smoked in his corner office for the entirety of the approximately 10 minutes it took him to completely traumatize an unemployed 25-year-old (who had just quit smoking, incidentally). He asked my ex a total of two questions, but because the first was “who are you,” no one remembers the second, only that my ex left the building and cried in Times Square, possibly the saddest experience one can have in New York City.