Vanity Fair's long-serving editor in chief, Graydon Carter, has announced that he is stepping down at the end of the year after a quarter-century leading the magazine.
The charismatic, silver-maned editor, possessed of a keen wit and a sly delivery, would have been a worthy subject of his own publication had he not led it. Carter embodies the urbane style and sensibility reflected in Vanity Fair's pages, at once engaged and detached, immersed in observing the world swirling around him.
Under Carter's leadership, Vanity Fair published some of the most accomplished magazine writers in the country, chronicling the worlds of finance, politics, fashion, media, and culture. Serious topics often receive thoughtful treatment: Carter wrote repeatedly about his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Just this summer, Carter has published William Langewiesche on the extreme threat posed by climate change, Michael Lewis on President Trump's Energy Department and nuclear weapons, and Sarah Ellison on the power and ineffectuality of the president's two closest advisers: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Above all, however, Carter's Vanity Fair has paid attention and, at times, fealty, to celebrity. He perfected a formula for covering the famous and soon-to-be-more-famous that somehow knit together (or alternated between) reverence and exposé, complicity and accountability. Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys and the British royals were all reliable standbys. An Annie Leibovitz photo treatment in Vanity Fair was a desperately coveted prize by many of the people the magazine covered.
As a result of Carter's urging, the magazine itself fully participated in the culture it covered. Several stories became fully realized movies, including The Insider, Proof of Life, and Shattered Glass; the magazine staged outrageous parties after the Academy Awards ceremonies in Los Angeles and the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington (though the D.C. party was handed over to Bloomberg News as financial pressures grew); and Carter even literally played bit parts in several films.
There was a built-in conflict: a relentless pursuit of respect from those belonging to tribes (financial chieftains, super-agents, museum directors) that Vanity Fair simultaneously sought to lacerate. Yet the can't-miss VF Oscars after-party gave Carter leverage over those he covered.
Until last year, many who knew Carter only from his current incarnation had forgotten the young former Time magazine writer, a new arrival from Canada who founded a satiric magazine called Spy with his colleague Kurt Andersen. The two wanted intently to punch up — to take on the already famous, wealthy and celebrated. Among their favorite targets: a real estate mogul on the make named Donald Trump. Carter and Andersen would trade epithets to slap repeatedly on their quarry. In Trump's case, the one that stuck was "short-fingered vulgarian," a tag Carter loved for its "juvenileness."
The label got under the future president's skin for decades. When Sen. Marco Rubio jibed that Trump had "small hands" during last year's Republican primary race, Carter reveled in it. "I know it just gives [Trump] absolute fits," Carter told NPR last year. "And now that it's become sort of part of the whole campaign rhetoric, I'm sure he wants to just kill me — with those little hands."
Vanity Fair has in just a few years become a much more nimble player on the web, but Carter never quite mastered the rhythms and demands of the digital age. He admitted early last year that he hadn't yet written about Trump's candidacy because he was convinced it wouldn't last past the six-week lead time to publication.
And Carter's departure was announced just a few days after reports that Vanity Fair's corporate parent, Condé Nast, appears intent on yet another reorganization and round of cuts.
Carter has always been intrigued by other ventures; along with his flirtation with the movies, he has produced a play on Broadway and opened several restaurants.
Now, Carter says, he's looking for a third act, yet to be publicly announced, after a six-month interlude in France with his wife and the youngest of his four children, unplugged and unbowed.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I want to turn now to NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. He's been following the announcement by longtime Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter that he is stepping down.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: His is a distinctly pre-digital sensibility, yet Graydon Carter casts an outsized shadow on the New York media scene, a mentor of many of the nation's most prominent magazine writers and a tormentor of many of the nation's most famous figures. His magazine focuses on the fields of media, culture, fashion, finance and politics, and above all, on celebrity. Vanity Fair covers tend to feature shots of Marilyn Monroe, a Kennedy or a British royal as often as not. And while there are whispers of kid glove treatment of certain celebs, Vanity Fair's investigations periodically inflamed relations with powerhouses, including its exposes on Tom Cruise and Scientology.
Carter ultimately swam in those waters himself, hosting elite parties following the Academy Awards in LA and the White House Correspondents Dinners in Washington. All that hobnobbing made it easy to forget his origins as a young Canadian with literary tastes, underwhelmed by the staidness of the magazines for which he wrote in the 1980s.
Carter joined Kurt Andersen to found the satirical Spy magazine - irreverent to its core, punching up at those already wealthy, powerful and famous. One of its frequent targets? A striving real estate mogul from an outer borough of New York City - Donald Trump. The two young magazine editors decided to make fun of the size of Trump's hands repeatedly merely because it bothered him, as Carter told me last year when Marco Rubio teased Trump on the trail.
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GRAYDON CARTER: I know it just gives him absolute fits. And now that it's become sort of part of the whole campaign rhetoric, I'm sure he wants to just kill me with those little hands.
FOLKENFLIK: That hasn't happened. Instead, Carter is yielding the editor's suite voluntarily, just days after reports that his parent company is intent on making far-ranging cuts. Carter is 68. He says he's leaving now to ensure he has time for an undisclosed third act after a six-month refresher in France with his wife and daughter, unplugged from the media matrix.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.