To be the editor of Vanity Fair is less a job than a role, performed for the last 22 years by Graydon Carter. As magazines have gone into dramatic decline, Carter has maintained the illusion that he is arbiter, style master, power broker, host with the most, and absolute king of his publishing domain. Carter turns 65 in July and, while without a formal announcement of his retirement after 22 years, seems to be taking valedictory bows everywhere, most recently at his induction a few weeks ago into the Magazine Editor's Hall of Fame, a career topper.
I've written for Vanity Fair for many years. But, like most people in the VF court, while I have access to rumors, and practice reading tea leaves, I've no more certainty about Carter's plans than anyone else. Cosseted by a protective entourage, he has long cultivated both mystery and hauteur. (Before my first Vanity Fair party, a minion called to make sure I understood that "at these events, Graydon doesn't like to speak to the writers.")
There are those at Conde Nast, Vanity Fair's parent, who believe at this point Carter deserves the job for life. And many others who believe he would take it, but for his own canny sense of power and its natural drift and certain mutations — and desire to go out on top.
S.I. Newhouse, Conde Nast's presiding shareholder and Carter's patron, is 86 and all but retired. Chuck Townsend, the company's operating head, is 69 and in his final months (whether that is 6 or 12 or 18 is shrouded in secrecy — both Townsend and Carter have contracts provi! ding for their leave taking and for generous payouts).
Causing more uncertainty, Conde Nast International, encompassing all the company's foreign editions and once the poor relative of the U.S. company, is now much larger and more profitable than the American operation. (Vanity Fair Italy, in which Carter has no involvement, is nearly as large as the U.S. edition.) What's more, the fear in the U.S. is that the international company, based in London and run by Newhouse family scion Jonathan Newhouse, will export its proudly lean ethos to still-fat New York, where Vanity Fair yet remains the most pampered title.
Carter too, over his last few years of frequent vacations and short office days, has openly built himself a retirement future as proprietor of three restaurants in Manhattan.
And the magazine itself, with its growing nostalgia — e.g., its Monica Lewinsky story in the current issue — seems to edge dangerously older.
Still, it is not an easy separation. Vanity Fair is as much a personal power base for Carter as it is a business for which he is mere steward. VF's influence in Hollywood derives in part from Carter's two decades of building alliances there. (VF writers covering stars and other show business power brokers are often asked by Carter to apply "the courtesy brush.")
The internal push-pull is not only about who will actually name the next editor but what version of Conde Nast and of Vanity Fair should the next editor reflect. Has Conde Nast's idea of the imperial editorship, of which Carter is among the last and largest embodiments, outlived its day? (Office tale: at a VF party, Carter upbraids a young fact checker for drunkenly knocking entourage member Fran Lebowitz, telling her not to return to work. To which the fact checker replies: "You can't fire me — you would have to know my name to do that.")
Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, the other remaining imperial editor — recently elevated, to Carter's vexation, to larger management du! ties at C! onde Nast — has been telling people that she will pick the next VF editor. That, reportedly, has inclined Carter, like a Supreme Court justice, to consider delaying his retirement. But the rise of London as ultimate power center means the decision about who gets the $3 million a year job, with its myriad other emoluments, will likely be most influenced from there.
There are four names that are said to regularly form the shortlist of successors. Two are closely connected to Vogue House, the Conde Nast HQ in Hanover Square in London:
Geordie Greig is the former editor of Tatler, the British society magazine, owned by Conde Nast — and the launch pad of former VF editor Tina Brown — and now the editor of the powerful Mail on Sunday. Greig combines high taste, writing a book on Lucian Freud, and tabloid sensibility, recently breaking the story of former prime minister Tony Blair's relationship with Wendi Murdoch before her divorce from Rupert Murdoch — a story Vanity Fair then pursued.
Dylan Jones edits British GQ (I am a contributor) — a 300-page monthly produced with a fraction of VF's staff — which he's turned into a significant chronicler of the UK power scene, as well as one of the most successful luxury and fashion titles. Jones, is also the impresario of the annual GQ Man of the Year Awards, an event that comes close in celebrity power and complex curation to the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party.
One is a long-time Brit in New York:
Johanna Coles, the editor of Cosmopolitan, has become something of the new, improved, kinder and gentler Tina Brown and Anna Wintour rolled into one, with an ever-rising public profile, a talent for high and low— Cosmo won its first National Magazine Award earlier this month — and a strong position on women's issues.
The other is from Hollywood:
Janice Min is the editor of The Hollywood Reporter, saving it from practical oblivion and reinventing it as among the most important publications, second arguably only to Van! ity Fair,! in the entertainment business.
In some sense it is, of course, a highly equivocal passing of the torch, from one of the greatest successes in magazines to one with a wholly existential future. On the other hand, if there is to be a future and a form for magazines,Vanity Fair is not a bad platform from which to stage it.
Once, at an idea meeting in the months after the financial meltdown, Carter and I agreed that I would write a piece titled "The End of Everything." Leaving the building, I shortly began to receive urgent messages from Carter's office to call the boss ASAP. "While it may be the end of everything, just to be sure we're on the same page," Carter said, with growing ardor. "There will always be monthly magazines!"