Carter reigns over Vanity Fair

Magazine continues to maintain energy

At roughly five o’clock every afternoon the list arrives: There’s Bono, Hilary Swank, Barry Diller, Brad Pitt and Angelina among others, each arrayed at their respective tables. But this is not about a benefit — rather, it’s about a New York restaurant, a rather small restaurant at that, and the guests will actually pay for their dinners (unusual for a celebrity).

Studying the list while chain-smoking Camels is the restaurant’s unlikely proprietor, Graydon Carter, the quirky Canadian who balances his roles as bon vivant, occasional film producer and editor of Vanity Fair, the magazine he’s presided over for a remarkable 15 years.

The magazine business is famously fickle about editorial reigns, and few in Carter’s eclectic circle of friends would have predicted that the brilliantly restless man who gave birth to Spy would ever be a candidate for a longevity record. But his magazine continues to maintain its energy and unpredictability, interweaving strands of political rhetoric, social commentary (a bit upper-crusty perhaps) and celebrity dish.

While other magazines have sold out to the PR tyrants of celebritydom, Vanity Fair again reminds readers of its cultural cool with its July issue on Africa, superbly guest-edited by Bono and boasting contributions by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tom Freston, Brad Pitt and Binyavanga Wainaina, not to mention a panoply of Annie Leibovitz photos.

Where else could you find out what Freston, Jimmy Buffet and Chris Blackwell were really doing together in Timbuktu, learn how Desmond Tutu feels about ubuntu (it’s all about “interconnectedness”) and discover that Chris Rock proposed calling Niger the “n country.” (It’s perplexing why Condoleezza’s face adorns the cover because she’s a non-person in the issue.)

According to Carter, Bono turned out to be an assiduous guest editor, reading all the articles and monitoring headlines. The rock star even elicited decrees on African policy from every political candidate. (Mike Huckabee pledges to invite Bono to the White House under his presidency to advise on the “moral imperatives” of fighting poverty.)

Clearly Carter likes to keep his readers off-balance, a worthy objective for an editor, and he’s done that with his occasional documentaries as well. “The Kid Stays in the Picture” was a hit, though the “Chicago Ten” has stumbled. He’s still working on two other typically diverse docs, one about surfing and another about the career of Hunter Thompson, whom Carter admired.

Carter also continues to deliver forceful diatribes targeting the Bush White House while, at the same time, still mobilizing constellations of film and fashion superstars to his glitzy events at the Cannes festival and, of course, at the Oscars. Presiding over these events, he looks at once highly focused yet ill at ease, reflecting both the sensibilities of the Professional Host (he knows which fashionistas hate one another and demand separate tables) and the Editor (he expertly copes with the symptoms of advanced egomania).

These traits coalesce at the Waverly Inn, the restaurant he helped found, which has transformed Elaine’s celebrity traffic to the funky streets of Soho. Carter clearly likes to hold court at his bistro; he also relishes the fact that it’s a few steps from his house, to which he can take occasional refuge from the celebrity onslaught.

I asked Carter the other day how long he plans to continue his reign at Vanity Fair. Stubbing out a cigarette to ponder his response, he replied: “It’s still just about the best job in journalism. I can’t wait to get to the office in the morning. Of course, I also can’t wait to get out of here at night. This is, after all, a great and hectic adventure.”

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