Graydon Carter will be delighted by the amount of coverage his departure from Vanity Fair has received. Having edited the magazine for 25 years, he is leaving at the age of 68. The New York Times has devoted the amount of space to the story it would normally give to a departing Secretary of State.
It would be inaccurate to describe Graydon as the last of his kind — Anna Wintour is still at the helm of Vogue — but there are unlikely to be many more magazine editors like him. He has homes in New York and Connecticut, part-owns two restaurants, hosts the most glamorous party in Los Angeles on the night of the Oscars and has succeeded in crossing the threshold from cynical chronicler of the world of celebrity excess to eager participant.
I got to know Graydon in the early 90s shortly after he’d been appointed editor of Vanity Fair. Back then, he was still a wise-cracking outsider — the persona he’d perfected as co-founder and co-editor of Spy, a dazzlingly good humour magazine that was a cross between Punch and Private Eye. It was named after the imaginary magazine that the Jimmy Stewart character works for in A Philadelphia Story and Graydon reminded me a little of him. He was cynical and tough-minded, determined not to be impressed by America’s ruling class, but, at the same time, clearly susceptible to the aristocratic embrace.
This ambivalence towards glamour and class manifested itself in his on-again, off-again Anglophilia. The first time I met him was at a lunch hosted by Andrew Neil in London in 1993 and I pitched him the idea of a photographic portfolio of Britain’s best-loved novelists in their favourite watering holes. ‘What, are you kidding?’ he said. ‘It would look like a fucking dental catalogue.’
But a couple of years later, by which time I was working for him in New York, he lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars on a photo-feature about London’s theatreland that was a celebration of British style.
I didn’t last long at Vanity Fair, partly because I behaved as if I was a fellow, anti-Establishment rebel cocking a snook at the pomposity and hypocrisy of New York’s liberal elite. (You can read an extract from my book about my adventures here.) There were still traces of Graydon Mark 1 at this stage, but he kept them in a locked drawer of his enormous partners’ desk in his corner office at 350 Madison Avenue. He’d re-invented himself as an arbiter of who was in and who was out in the upper echelons of American society — a poacher turned gatekeeper, rather than gamekeeper. His model was less Jimmy Stewart at this point and more Truman Capote in his organiser-of-the-black-and-white-ball phase. But unlike Capote, who could never quite forgive himself for attaching himself to the rich and famous, Graydon wasn’t assailed by doubts. ‘My children need shoes,’ he once retorted when I teased him about this transformation.
Perhaps the literary figure Graydon is closest to is Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. He has come a long way, given his origins as the son of a member of the Canadian airforce. What’s so striking, reading all the encomiums, is that he was able to do this by becoming a journalist. That’s why his departure is (almost) the end of an era. Who today would seek to scale the dizzy heights of American society by becoming a magazine editor? Graydon made it look easy and I doubt anyone will be able to repeat the trick.