28 SEPTEMBER 2004
GRAYDON CARTER - A PARTY THROWING BUSH-BASHING DANDY
Graydon Carter: 'I always end up looking like Barbara Bush, minus the silk shirt and pearls'.
Graydon Carter insists that he is not an Anglophile, but he does, he says, absolutely adore spending time in Britain.
He loves the fact that, here, you can still smoke in public places (unlike in New York, where he was fined recently for having an unused ashtray on his desk at the office). He loves, too, the way people drink at lunchtime. "I remember being invited to lunch with Steven Spielberg at Amblin [Spielberg's production company] and being asked what I wanted to drink," he recalls. "I said, what I'd really love is a martini, and they ended up having to send a van out to get the vodka."
It is 10am and we are sitting in a suite at the Dorchester where Carter, 55, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, is staying while in town. Despite claiming that he "felt like Vivienne Westwood" when he woke up this morning, he looks as much the celebrity media titan as ever in his navy blazer, Nantucket reds and imposing sweep of grey hair.
A big man with a hint of paunch – "Do I go to the gym? Ha! I make cameo appearances" – he has a languid, expansive presence that is only slightly betrayed by his darting and defensive grey eyes.
Carter is in Britain to promote his new book, What We've Lost, which details what he sees as the catastrophic failings of the Bush administration. Last night, on stage at the Criterion Theatre, London, the book was the subject of a debate between himself and James Naughtie – one of a series of conversations between high profile figures, Greg Dyke and Clive James among them, that make up this autumn's Orange Word Talk season.
To readers of Vanity Fair, the book might seem a little like an elongated editor's letter – Carter has been using that slot in his magazine to bash Bush on everything from healthcare to military spending ever since the war in Iraq started. His detractors, who see his magazine as a repository for fawning articles on movie celebrities, say he is merely acting as a mouthpiece for all his ultra-powerful, Bush-hating friends in Hollywood.
So is the book part of Carter's long-term political agenda? Is he, as Toby Young (the journalist who was hired and fired spectacularly by Carter and who turned the experience into a book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) recently theorised in a New York newspaper, planning to oust Michael Bloomberg as mayor and bring back smoking to the city?
"Oh, God, that's the most asinine thing I ever heard," he says, wearily. "And Toby Young is just the most asinine person. Look, the book comes out of a passion to get Bush out of government. I'm no polemicist; in fact, I've always thought of myself as a pretty middle-of-the-road person when it comes to politics, but I do think there is a line, and that this administration has stepped over that line.
"We have got ourselves into an appalling mess. I mean, if you hire a security guard and you get a break-in, you fire the security guard, right? I've got a platform and I'm going to use it as best as I can."
Born in 1949, in a middle-class suburb of Ottawa, Canada, Edward Graydon Carter always dreamt of becoming a big shot in New York City. Though he has described both his parents as rather "Barbara Pym-ish, the sort of people who wore tartan jackets for cocktails", he paints a wonderfully anarchic portrait of his father, a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who died in 1991.
"There was this small movie theatre in Toronto, where they were courting back in the early Forties," he says. "One night, the movie hadn't quite started and, suddenly, my father farted. It was so loud – he was, like, the Toscanini of farting. So he stood up, turned to my mother and said, 'Oh, Margaret, how could you?' and started moving away from her. It was the cruellest, funniest thing. It was a miracle they ever got married."
After a series of blue-collar jobs, including grave-digging, working as a lineman on the railroad and stock-checking at a local department store – and also a brief marriage to a pretty French-Canadian museum worker – 28-year-old Carter finally moved to New York in 1978.
With not one useful contact, save "an uncle in Buffalo", he spent a month wandering around the streets of Manhattan, scrabbling for change for the subway and marvelling at the skyscrapers. Eventually, he managed to get a job at Time magazine and got "invited to all these parties where nobody would talk to us, but where we could eat and drink for free".
Four years later, he met Cynthia Williamson, a legal assistant at a law firm, and, within three weeks, had proposed. They separated in the summer of 2000 when Cynthia and their children – Ash, Max, Spike and Bronwen, to whom Carter has dedicated his book – moved to South Carolina, and were amicably divorced soon after.
His big break came in 1986 when he was invited to edit the hugely popular satirical magazine Spy. He remembers with fondness one of the magazine's most popular stunts – mailing out 64-cent cheques to the wealthiest people in New York to find out who would actually cash them. "To the people who did cash them, we then sent out cheques for 32 cents. To the people who cashed those, we sent out cheques for 16 cents. Two of the people who cashed those cheques were Adnan Khashoggi and Donald Trump."
Things have changed a bit. Indeed, Carter and "the short-fingered vulgarian", as Spy nicknamed Trump, are now on such friendly terms that the latter invited the former to his recent wedding.
"Oh, God, I can't even remember which wedding that was," protests Carter, with a dismissive wave of his Camel Light. "There were, like, 10 million other people there. I had no idea why I'd been invited. He tried to sue me a year or two before."
Carter has been accused of kowtowing to the people he used to send up so mercilessly, and for not being quite transparent enough for the rigorously correct American press. In May, the Los Angeles Times revealed that he was paid a "finder's fee" of $100,000 by Universal Pictures for suggesting that Sylvia Nasar's book A Beautiful Mind, the story of the troubled mathematician John Nash, be made into a film. One American newspaper editor called for Carter's resignation.
But he is not one to apologise and is not afraid of upsetting his friends. He once offended Robert Evans, the Hollywood producer whose life was chronicled in Carter's feature-length documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture. "I called him puffy and he didn't talk to me for two years," chuckles Carter. And despite Vanity Fair's celebrity profiles, he says he is not interested in other people's private lives and does not see why anyone would be interested in his.
As a waiter wheels in his breakfast – boiled eggs and a silver pot of coffee, a telephone rings. By the affectionate tone of his voice and the way he addresses the caller as "Sweets", one must assume this is Anna Byng Scott, 36, his beloved British fiancée. He and Byng Scott, daughter of the Queen's former deputy private secretary, Sir Kenneth Scott, met several years ago when she worked in the PR department of Vanity Fair.
Carter insists that although he has plenty of rich, glamorous friends, he lives a fairly low-key existence, dining three nights a week in the same restaurant, a little place down the street from his townhouse in the West Village called San Ambroeus. He likes being anonymous, and says that nobody ever knows who he is "except lunatics outside TV studios", adding that whenever he stands outside a hotel entrance, someone will inevitably hand him their car keys. "Something about my comportment, I know not what, says valet parker."
The man who, every Oscars night, throws the world's most glittering celebrity party, says he hates large crowds and gets rather a sinking feeling every time his annual bash at Morton's rolls around. He wishes that, instead of being in attendance, he could, like Proust, watch it all from far away.
"The fun is in the planning," he says. "Honestly, you should see the way they do it: they have this war room and Sarah Marks, the woman in charge of the crew – who, by the way, are all English – is like a field marshal. If I sent that crew out to Iraq, right now, I swear they could do a better job than the administration."
His hobbies are fishing, canoeing and – according to one acquaintance – puppeteering. "Well, I used to buy these hand puppets for the kids when they were younger. I think if I tried bringing them home now they'd think I was [serial killer] John Wayne Gacy."
Although he loves New York, he and Anna spend as much time as possible out at his beach house in Connecticut, where he likes to poke fun at water skiers. "It's the most vainglorious sport. The one sport in the world where you have to be watched by someone!"
Anna, he says, is passionate about the environment, and has, he sweetly admits, fired him up even more on the issue. "I mean, I've always recycled fanatically," he murmurs, while trying to locate a spoon for his egg. "When the kids were young, we always got the cloth diapers as opposed to the disposable ones, but you could say my fiancée's involvement has made me much more concerned about things."
He says he wouldn't mind having more children, "although I guess that would mean I'd have to work nights, too," he says, a little nervously.
It is well past my allotted time; there is a television crew pacing outside and a photographer is eager to take Carter's picture. Carter frowns slightly as he rolls down a white screen over the far window to use as a backdrop. "Wait a second, I don't know if I really like being photographed that way," he says. "Whenever they do that, I always end up looking like Barbara Bush, minus the silk shirt and pearls."
Obediently, the photographer agrees to shoot him in natural light, but Carter is still not entirely satisfied. "Nuh-uh," he says, with a warning smile. "I think you're trying to do that Barbara Bush thing again. I'm telling you, trust me on this one, I've been doing it a lot longer than you."