NEW YORK — Growing up in Canada, Graydon Carter fueled his youthful obsession with New York and Hollywood with frequent trips to the neighborhood movie house.
“I loved any movie about New York — ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ ‘Desk Set’ and ‘My Man Godfrey’ — and I loved movies about journalism like ‘His Girl Friday.’ They taught me about the outside world,” he says as he takes in the view from his corner office on the 22nd floor of the Conde Nast Building.
Carter is no longer on the outside looking in; he’s a major player in New York and Hollywood power circles. In addition to editing Vanity Fair, the glossiest — and one of the most profitable magazines — in Conde Naste’s publishing stable, he’s recently added the title of producer to his resume.
It was Carter, 53, who helped broker the deal between CBS and Gedeon and Jules Naudet, the French filmmakers whose footage shot inside the Twin Towers during last year’s terrorist attacks resulted in the documentary “9/11.” He received an executive producer credit and an Emmy for his efforts. He also produced “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” based on Robert Evans’ autobiography, for USA Films after convincing longtime pal Barry Diller to finance the project.
“Without any previous experience he emerged as the complete producer,” says Diller, who adds he’d work with Carter again any time he wants.
So how did the co-founder of the take-no-prisoners Spy magazine, known for its gleeful skewering of the power brokers of the ’80s, become the ultimate Hollywood insider?
“Graydon’s success is no accident,” says Sue Mengers, a close friend. “He’s always had excellent ideas, great taste and the brains to hire the right people.”
When Carter replaced Tina Brown at Vanity Fair in 1992, there were rumblings that his job required him to be nothing more than a custodian of his predecessor’s glittering creation. Undeterred, he set about reworking the magazine to reflect his urbane tastes, adding stories about art, architecture, gangsters and politicians to the magazine’s age-old obsession with scandal-plagued, old money scions.
But it’s Carter’s unending fascination with every aspect of the entertainment business — some crtitics say an over-emphasis — and his ability to serve it up in a sexy package that has made Vanity Fair one of publishing’s biggest success stories.
He created the magazine’s annual April Hollywood issue to coincide with Oscar-mania, and advertisers poured in, hoping to cash in on the magazine’s stardust. This year’s September and November (the 4-year-old music issue) issues carried the largest number of ad pages ever for those months, no mean feat in today’s tenuous magazine world.
“Advertisers go to high ground in tough times,” says Carter. “Not to put too fine a point on it, they go to the better magazines.”
Of his latest innovation, he says, “when we first started, musicians didn’t think of Vanity Fair as their first choice to have stories done on them but that’s changed.” The new issue features 10 artists including Jennifer Lopez and Alicia Keys photographed by Annie Leibovitz on its foldout cover. “Only Vanity Fair could pull those people together for a shoot,” says Carter.
He claims the magazine’s celebrity covers are simply a means to an end. “I would die to put statesmen and scientists on but we’d be out of business,” he says. “It’s like wrapping paper. It gets the thing off the shelves. Also, movie people happen to be better looking than most of us so if someone is going to sit on somebody’s coffee table for a month, much better that it be a picture of Brad Pitt than someone who looks like me.”
Although he is loath to admit it, Carter’s celebrity has helped heighten the magazine’s profile. At no time is that more apparent than at Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party — another Carter creation — that’s the hottest ticket in town besides the awards ceremony itself.
“It started out very small (in 1994) and grew in this ridiculously organic way,” he says. Although he describes himself as naturally very shy, Carter does his best “without seeming like a stalker” to circulate among the 1,000 or so guests that come through Morton’s during the evening. “To me it’s just another day at the office — but a great one.”
Before “The Kid Stays in the Picture” opened in theaters, Carter kept a tight lid on things by hosting a handful of screenings at Evans’ L.A. home during last year’s Oscars. “We showed it to about 25 people in Hollywood that other people listen to like Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, David Geffen and they liked it,” he says. He pulled out all the stops, though, when the film opened at Cannes.
Of future producing efforts, Carter says he has “a bunch of little things I’m tinkering with but nothing really serious right now. A lot of people make announcements about what they’re doing but I’d much rather work in relative privacy until you make sure whatever you’re working on is not going to be a complete embarrassment.”
For now, though, he isn’t about to abandon Vanity Fair. He’s working on developing a book imprint and says he’ll turn out seven books over the next five years. “We’ll do books on various topics — not huge-circulation books, but ones that will have a long shelf life.”
One author who probably won’t be on his shortlist is former staffer Toby Young who offered up his version of the behind-the-scenes goings on at Vanity Fair in the recent book “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”
Carter’s review: “He makes me out to be a much bigger character than I actually am. But Toby is not without his charms.”
Who should play Carter should his biopic ever reach the bigscreen? He smiles and answers without hesitation, “George Clooney, of course.”