Farewell, Graydon Carter! (Now When Does Janice Min Start?)

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Graydon Carter with his wife Anna Scott at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Graydon Carter with his wife Anna Scott at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Credit: C Flanigan/Getty Images

So today we find ourselves suddenly talking about a media icon as if he's dead—though he's still very much alive. As The New York Times' Michael M. Graynbaum writes in an obit item titled "Graydon Carter to End 25-Year Run as Vanity Fair's Editor,"

Mr. Carter's influence and stature in the magazine and entertainment world is so great that to call his exit a changing of the guard seems insufficient: This is more of a regal passage. One of the few remaining celebrity editors, Mr. Carter—famous for his double-breasted suits, white flowing hair and a seven-figure salary—is a party host, literary patron, film producer and restaurateur who presides over a monthly publication that can still break news in a round-the-clock media age.

It's another testament to Carter's influence and stature that he got to carefully stage-manage his exit, as is also clear from the Times piece:

"I want to leave while the magazine is on top," Mr. Carter, 68, said in an interview on Wednesday at the kitchen table of his West Village townhouse. ... He informed his staff of his departure on Thursday.

The reality is that rumors have been swirling for at least a couple years that Carter's departure was imminent. And that, in fact, management at Vanity Fair parent Condé Nast has been not-so-subtly courting a successor: Janice Min, who brilliantly reimagined dowdy trade paper The Hollywood Reporter as an uber-glamorous glossy—in the process stealing much of Vanity Fair's heat. (Also-brilliant New York Magazine Editor-in-Chief Adam Moss is similarly being floated today as a possible Carter successor, but my money's on Min. I've even heard that Condé has considered trying to buy THR and combine it with VF under Min's leadership, so eager are they to bring her on board.)

In retrospect, it's amazing how central to the Hollywood celebrity-industrial complex Graydon Carter was able to make Vanity Fair, given that it's based in Manhattan (and Graydon Carter is, gasp, a Canadian). He accomplished that with a cunning bit of strategic co-opting—of the Oscars, by creating the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party. As I wrote in Ad Age back in 2008,

It was, of course, the Oscar party, which he launched in 1994, that essentially invented Graydon Carter, that transformed him into an icon. Sure, other factors have contributed to his mythology (the trademark hairdo, his previous success as the co-founder of Spy magazine), but it's worth noting that in his early years at Vanity Fair, his work as editor was vastly overshadowed by the legend of his predecessor, Tina Brown. The true genius of Graydon Carter may be that he grasped the awesome power of event marketing more keenly (and earlier) than most of his competitors in this age of rapidly declining cultural power for magazines. For the legions of nonreaders in Hollywood (who might skim the captions in Graydon's very, very wordy publication if they happen to find it in an airline seat pocket), the Oscar party is the Vanity Fair brand.

One of the things that people are saying today in their fond remembrances of Carter is how courtly he is. He is, for instance, a gracious correspondent — quick to send notes (sometimes by email, sometimes by hand on elegant stationery) to offer thanks and praise to those in his circle. Carter reached out to me several times over the years in response to what I've written about him and Condé Nast in this Media Guy column, but my favorite email from him came in response to that 2008 piece.

I should note that in addition to the passage above, I wrote that in 2004 he'd been "under siege for extracting a $100,000 payment from Universal Studios for having passed along the idea for 'A Beautiful Mind' — a brazen conflict of interest that would have gotten just about any other glossy editor shit-canned" and I also gently made fun of one of his Vanity Fair Oscar party outfits: "a tuxedo jacket paired with, of all things, green plaid pants."

The day of publication he sent me a generous note by email, thanking me for "tending to get things right" and acknowledging that "the pants are faintly ridiculous, but then so is just about everything associated with a dinner jacket."

You'd be surprised how tender many big media-world egos are. Over the years I've gotten so many pained and angry notes from media grandees who took issue with what I wrote about them. Carter could have just as easily been annoyed that I reminded everyone of his "Beautiful Mind" scandal or taken issue with my saying that nobody in Hollywood actually reads Vanity Fair (because they don't read anything but screenplays, but still).

Some media people seem to think that the way to deal with antagonists is to antagonize back. But Graydon, a true survivor in the increasingly grim world of glossies, was/is way smarter than that. And, God bless him, he has a sense of humor about himself.

And so he leaves now on, more or less, his own terms — and the legend of Graydon Carter, a confection so fabulous it could be a Vanity Fair feature, lives on.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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