His departure is likely to spark a steeplechase of sorts in elite circles of journalism. The editorship of Vanity Fair is among the industry’s most coveted positions — Mr. Carter’s predecessor was Tina Brown, who went on to run The New Yorker — and speculation about Mr. Carter’s heir has long simmered. Adam Moss of New York magazine and Janice Min of The Hollywood Reporter are often mentioned as contenders.
Mr. Carter said he had an idea for who might succeed him — he would not name names — and that he would offer suggestions to his superiors at Vanity Fair’s publisher, Condé Nast; he informed his staff of his departure on Thursday. “I want to make it really easy for the next person,” he said. “I care about this magazine. I don’t want it to go anywhere other than up.”
With its fixation on celebrities, moguls, and faded aristocrats — even dead ones, like Jacqueline Onassis and Grace Kelly — Vanity Fair was an expression of Mr. Carter’s highly particular interests: the golden age of Hollywood; the rituals of WASPdom; the European jet set; Anglophilia.
From a spacious corner office, amid cigarette smoke and midcentury furniture, Mr. Carter nurtured the musings of Christopher Hitchens, the true-crime yarns of Dominick Dunne, the portraiture of Annie Leibovitz, and the wit of Fran Lebowitz and James Wolcott, to name a few of the artists and writers in the Vanity Fair stable.
He broke news, too, publishing scores of investigative pieces and, in 2005, landed the ultimate journalism scoop, unmasking the identity of the famed Watergate leaker Deep Throat. Even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to play catch-up.
One Carter innovation, the Vanity Fair Oscar party, remains the entertainment world’s most exclusive soiree, attracting a sea of boldface names to an Old Hollywood-style bacchanalia. Even drab Washington fell under his sway: his annual bash after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner became the capital’s hottest ticket.
In his townhouse on Wednesday, however, Mr. Carter, his signature swoop of hair intact, opted for self-effacement. “I’m very uncomfortable talking about myself like this,” he said at one point. Asked if he would still attend the magazine’s Oscar party, Mr. Carter shook his head. “You don’t really need me there,” he said. “I’m like a glorified maître d’.”
He said that he had considered leaving Vanity Fair earlier this year, when his contract was nearly expired, but that the election of President Trump, a longtime nemesis, had spurred him to stay. Plus, in July, he hit the 25-year mark at the magazine, which he said “had a tidy aspect to it.”
“Editors, you know, we don’t really do anything,” Mr. Carter added. “To the owner, you’re sort of like a patch of mold on the kitchen ceiling. You’re not quite sure about it, but as long as it doesn’t start dripping, you can just let it be.”
Mr. Carter is leaving as Condé Nast, like all magazine publishers, grapples with the erosion of print advertising and pressure from online competitors. The company has invested heavily in digital initiatives, while also cutting staff and restructuring to share resources across its many titles. More changes are looming, WWD reported this week.
“The romance of the magazine business will continue, but it will be harder to maintain,” Mr. Carter said. He praised the efforts of Vanity Fair’s digital team and Condé Nast’s chief executive, Robert A. Sauerberg Jr., adding: “The next generation is much more entrepreneurial, because they have to be. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Life has been a heady journey for Mr. Carter, a middle-class product of the Ottawa suburbs, who as a youth worked stints as a railway lineman and cemetery digger. He talked his way into a job at Time in the late 1970s before cofounding, in 1986, Spy magazine, whose cheeky skewering of the Manhattan power elite would influence a generation of journalists and writers.
Spy took special glee in attacking Mr. Trump, who Mr. Carter memorably deemed a “short-fingered vulgarian.” Among the magazine’s pranks was to mail checks of smaller and smaller quantities to celebrities and wait to see who was avaricious enough to cash them; Mr. Trump redeemed a check for 13 cents.
Mr. Carter later ran The New York Observer before moving, in 1992, to Vanity Fair, which venerated some of the same celebrities he lambasted in Spy. Some grudges healed easier than others. No matter: Mr. Carter was soon a Manhattan institution himself, branching out into restaurants, films and Broadway, where he produced a show about the late talent agent Sue Mengers.
He lives with his third wife, Anna Scott Carter, down the street from his first restaurant, the Waverly Inn. Their kitchen is adorned with a stuffed perch fish from the 19th century (an idea Mr. Carter said he borrowed from the Earl of Snowdon, ex-husband of Princess Margaret), a “Resist” poster and a “Dump Trump” illustration by their 8-year-old daughter.
Mr. Carter was asked if exiting the magazine might leave him antsy. “People think I’m really antic,” he said. “I don’t think you have any idea how idle I could get. I love tinkering around with my cars, going out in my canoe, fishing and reading. I could do that for five months and not bat an eye.”
Still, he added, “I’m completely prepared that it won’t be easy.” He will continue to write; already, he plans to pitch a story during his stay in France to the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick.
“He’ll probably say no,” Mr. Carter said. “‘How do you spell your name again, Graydon?’”
Mr. Carter recently started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time, prompted by the changes in the country and his own life. “At Spy, we would tack on the epithet ‘survivor’ to somebody, as if it was a negative term,” he said. “And you realized, after awhile, it’s actually a positive term. Just surviving in life, in this life, is difficult enough.”
In the pages of his magazine and the clubby dining rooms of his restaurants, Mr. Carter created a version of the fantasy Manhattan that intoxicated him as a child: ice-cold martinis, bon vivant writers, gimlet-eyed gossip in the manner of one of his favorite films, “Sweet Smell of Success.”
That world is fading. “I’m by nature a very wistful person,’’ Mr. Carter said. “And I miss the black-and-whiteness of the 20th century.”
As for Mr. Trump, the president has frequently taunted Mr. Carter on Twitter. Now that Mr. Carter is stepping down, does he expect a gloating tweet from the Oval Office?
“He’s tweeted about me 42 times, all in the negative,” Mr. Carter said. “So I blew up all the tweets and I framed them all. They’re all on a wall — this is the only wall Trump’s built — outside my office. There’s a space left for one more tweet to complete the bottom line. So if he does, I’m just going to call our framer, and say we need one more.”
“It should be a little bright spot in his administration,” Mr. Carter added, puckishly. “And if he’s smart, he won’t say anything.”
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