The Last Hurrah of Graydon Carter, and His Special Kind of Vanity Fair
After 25 years at the helm, Graydon Carter announced he was leaving his position as editor in chief of Vanity Fair. Will the magazine’s compelling mix go with him?
Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Graydon Carter, who on Thursday announced plans to retire in late December after 25 years of running the glossy Conde Nast magazine, is perhaps the foremost example of Canadian cultural imperialism.
The 68-year-old Carter was a college dropout from the Ottawa suburbs when he arrived in New York City nearly 40 years ago to work as a writer-trainee for Time magazine.
A mere two decades later—after launching Spy magazine and editing the New York Observer, both publications that under his reign displayed a wicked penchant for puncturing the pompous—Carter was lord of his own fiefdom in the giant superpower just across Canada’s southern border, presiding over a mighty media enterprise that mixed hard-edged reporting and epic storytelling with a love of classic Hollywood glamour, as reflected in the magazine's lavish photo shoots.
Meanwhile, he remade himself into a formidable cultural and social force, a fearsome arbiter of taste and fame. After he leaves, of course, he will no longer enjoy such rarefied status—a reality he cheerfully acknowledged in an interview at his Greenwich Village townhouse with The New York Times.
“I’m completely prepared that it won’t be easy,” he said about his post-Vanity Fair work life, adding that he plans to pitch a story idea to his Conde Nast colleague David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.
“He’ll probably say no—‘How do you spell your name again, Graydon?’”
Carter didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. In a statement, he said: “I’ve loved every moment of my time here and I’ve pretty much accomplished everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m now eager to try out this ‘third act’ thing that my contemporaries have been telling me about, and I figure I’d better get a jump on it.”
Carter’s friend Barry Diller, who, along with wife Diane von Furstenberg, traditionally has hosted a picnic in Carter’s honor during the weekend of the Academy Awards show—a hot ticket attended by movie stars and moguls alike—predicted that Carter will do well after stepping down.
“He’ll do it with the same dignity and good manners he’s displayed throughout,” Diller, chairman of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company, said in an email. “And I’d bet he’ll do a new something that will keep him in that silly ‘A’ lane.”
Diller, who attributed Carter’s longevity to the fact that “he’s a damn good editor,” added that he hasn’t decided whether to keep feting Carter once he leaves the magazine.
The identity of Carter’s successor at the magazine was not disclosed Thursday, and is probably unknown even to the executives that will choose the new editor, although industry speculation, the Times reported, has run to Adam Moss, the editor of New York magazine, and Janice Min, who led the transformation of the Hollywood Reporter from a tired trade publication into a powerful must-read.
Carter, whose pending departure has been the subject of gossip for the past few years, was seemingly uninterested in grooming an in-house successor—who will be vetted by Conde Nast editorial director and Vogue magazine doyenne Anna Wintour, with whom he enjoys a relationship distinguished by icy cordiality.
“Reading between the lines, it seemed clear that Graydon does not know who the person will be,” a Vanity Fair insider told The Daily Beast, citing Thursday’s New York Times story that broke the news of Carter’s retirement. “It was as if Graydon feels they’re going to pick somebody he doesn’t want.”
With his alpha-male swagger and capacious curiosity about the world, Carter has proved adept at producing a sharp yet wide-ranging general interest magazine while inspiring loyalty among his staff, which has undergone very little turnover over the years as young editorial assistants rose to the positions of seasoned editors. (Full disclosure: Carter gave me a contributing editor contract for four years in 1990s while I worked full-time for The Washington Post.)
Carter has also been adroit at the public persona part of the job. Starting in the mid-1990s, Carter hosted Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar Party as a way to demonstrate the magazine’s—and his—unrivaled power in the movie and entertainment business, a dominance that has waned in recent years.
“I believe that his leaving will create a large vacuum,” said Jeff Klein, owner of the fashionable Sunset Tower where Carter had staged Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party for several years until 2014, when it became so huge and unwieldy that it was moved to a nearby parking lot (and inevitably lost some of its cachet). “His party here was incredible. He’s larger than life, a lion of the media—and to me, this is sad news.”
In the past decade, Carter’s ambitions have also led him to try his luck as a Manhattan restaurateur—creating celebrity-friendly, aspirational havens where ordinary folk might have trouble getting a reservation, let alone a good table.
“Graydon is, among other things, a self-made man, and his story is democratic and sort of magical in that Cinderella sort of New York way,” said longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Ned Zeman. “He didn’t come up the traditional route, and somehow ended up at the top of the food chain. Not ‘somehow.’ He did it through a lot of hard work and personality in a job that requires charisma as well as pure skill as an editor.”
Kurt Andersen, who started Spy with Carter and has been friends with him since they worked together at Time in 1981, noted that Carter’s flamboyant command presence, punctuated by an iconic coiffure that appears to be ready to take flight, “is not a Canadian stereotype; they tend to be pretty low-key.”
“Look, I grew up in Nebraska, and, like Graydon, I came here with a certain vision of the high life in New York City. And in his case, he was a guy from the provinces. Forget Canada! And he was seeing New York and life through the lens of cinema and television, that really enabled him to see and depict life, entertainment, the corporate struggle, and all the other stuff as a storyteller.”
Andersen added that Carter’s impending departure signals the end of an era. “A 25-year run in any job is extraordinary and remarkable. I think he oversaw a magazine that came in before there was barely a Web and managed this big media, big glossy magazine from the pre-Internet to the digital revolution.
“I would say there won’t be magazine like Vanity Fair under Graydon Carter—those will cease to exist as a grand and physical thing full of all this aspiration, celebration and glamour and news… It’s not going to be gone tomorrow or next year. It’s going to be around for awhile. But this is a last hurrah of the magazine, and it will be a slow death for magazines—not for journalism, though.”