Graydon Carter: Steely-penned socialite

The recently departed editor of the hugely influential ‘Vanity Fair’, Graydon Carter will be hugely missed as one of a disappearing breed of fearless reportage, says Kyran Fitzgerald

Graydon Carter: Steely-penned socialite

One of the most influential media figures in North America has departed the fray after a quarter of a century in post as editor of Vanity Fair, the magazine which the wealthy and fashionable most like to delve into during their spare time.

Few doubt that he will be missed, though there may be a few smiles of relief in the Oval Office at the White House.

At 68, Graydon Carter can look back on a career that really began when he moved from Canada to New York where he soon co-founded a satirical magazine called Spy which made its name baiting figures like Donald Trump, who was then on the make in the Manhattan of the 1980s.

In 1992, he succeeded the well known English journalist, Tina Brown, in the hot seat at Vanity Fair, the society magazine which the media mogul, Si Newhouse, owner of parent company Condé Nast International, had revived back in 1983 — Vanity Fair had been originally established in 1913 before eventually folding at the height of the Great Depression.

Carter and his magazine have been greatly boosted by the surge in the fortunes of the top 20% earners and asset holders in America since the 1980s.

His boss, Newhouse has seen the value of his Condé Nast empire soar. Last year, revenues reached $2.4bn (€2bn).

The Newhouse family’s holding company, Advanced Publications, is one of America’s largest privately owned companies.

Its Condé Nast stable includes the Vogue magazine group, presided over by the wintry Anna Wintour, who is now playing a key role in the ongoing restructuring of the empire.

This restructuring has been enforced by the digital revolution which is threatening the group’s largely print-based revenue base.

Si Newhouse, now almost 90, has stepped back to become chairman emeritus. He was not slow to diversify while at the helm over more than 30 years, adding titles such as The New Yorker and Wired, as well as cable television and online entertainment.

The future of the company’s newspaper division looks somewhat murky, but a determined effort is being made to adapt. Wintour and chief executive Bob Sauerbach have been implementing cutbacks. Advertisers are being wooed with bundled offers. There is a new focus on video journalism and on cost cutting.

It all sounds a bit familiar, but in the case of Condé Nast, the strategy has to date been working.

Vanity Fair has stood out as the thoroughbred stallion in this glossy stable.

Its glossy front covers have always been in a league of their own.

The best known is the 1991 cover picture of a pregnant and naked actress, Demi Moore, that generated a huge reaction.

The image was produced by the leading photographer, Annie Liebowitz, one of a long list of top names, also

including Mario Testino of Princess Diana fame, and Herb Ritt, hired by Carter.

The magazine likes to be not merely in touch with the current zeitgeist, but to be up with the best when it comes to predicting the future.

Its group photos featuring emerging stars and starlets are legendary.

Actress Saoirse Ronan was among those to feature recently.

Carter is something of a showman, the nattiest of dressers, he knows how to maintain his profile among his well heeled readership base, presiding over the annual Vanity Fair Oscars party. Invites to this event are much coveted.

But the magazine also hosts a strong selection of serious writing, breaking serious stories on topics as diverse as the tobacco industry, dirty tricks at the Bush White House and shenanigans in Wall Street.

Vanity Fair revealed the identity of the key figure in the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat. It emerged he was an FBI executive, Mark Felt.

Regular contributors have included the author Dominick Dunne, known for his in depth coverage of high profile court trials, and the late controversialist and essayist Christopher Hitchens.

Carter has occasionally bitten legal dust, as when he was successfully sued in the UK by the film director Roman Polanski, but behind the style there is plenty of resilience.

Monthly print circulation has held up at over 1.3 million, a slight increase over the five years from 2011.

Digital circulation jumped by 26% in the 12 months to October 2016, helped by the editor’s forthright style.

Recently, Condé Nast concluded a TV spin off deal to allow for cable TV coverage of Vanity Fair articles with the Discovery Channel. The magazine also has its own YouTube channel.

Keeping up with the times, you could say.

Carter’s contempt for the US president is not concealed in any way.

As he put it in his farewell editorial : “I decline to be impartial between the fireman and the fire.”

The president has “with Charlottesville, ushered in the ugly fringe members of our culture into the main room and given them a seat at the table,” he wrote.

The problem is that people like

Graydon Carter, for all their undoubted powers, have failed to connect with those living in the US regions that the planes overfly.

Carter himself will be remembered as a very shrewd operator, who successfully wooed the successful coastal types without ultimately managing to connect with those on the geographical and ideological edges.

He fought an excellent rearguard campaign against the digital ‘barbarians’, but perhaps this socialite with a steely pen is one of a disappearing breed.

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