In the end, Graydon Carter exited Vanity Fair on his terms.
While there had been continual speculation over the last five years or more that Carter was a) being pushed out since he was editor-in-absentia; b) leaving to become a restaurateur, Broadway or movie producer; or c) not having his multimillion-dollar contract renewed because he was demanding too much money, the silver-maned editor caught Condé Nast’s top brass — and the industry overall — off guard on Thursday by revealing he was retiring at the end of the year after a 25-year run.
While the announcement was issued by Condé Nast at around noon, it was clear the timetable had been set by Carter. He had given an interview to The New York Times in his kitchen at home on Wednesday (only a few hours before he happily sat front row at Tom Ford’s show) to talk about his retirement — even before he informed Vanity Fair’s staff and Condé Nast president and chief executive officer Bob Sauerberg the next day.
Carter said in the announcement Thursday: “I’ve loved every moment of my time here and I’ve pretty much accomplished everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m now eager to try out this ‘third act’ thing that my contemporaries have been telling me about, and I figure I’d better get a jump on it.”
But sources said Carter’s patience had been wearing thin following Condé’s restructuring last year. One insider said that Carter’s decision to exit may have been sparked by his being asked to develop another property — a classic case of being given more work with fewer resources. Another source said Carter’s resignation sent Condé’s leadership — including Steven Newhouse, Sauerberg and artistic director Anna Wintour — into a tizzy since there is no clear and immediate successor for what is still one of the publishing company’s key revenue drivers.
Insiders at Condé Nast had often pointed to friction between Carter and Wintour, who was elevated to artistic director in 2013. In late 2014, a few potential names had been bandied about as successors for Carter and they were again mentioned as possibilities on Thursday. They included Guggenheim Media’s Janice Min, New York Magazine editor in chief Adam Moss, GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson, as well as dark horses such as British GQ’s editor Dylan Jones and Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of the Food Innovation Group.
Whoever succeeds him as Carter enters what he told The Times will be his “third act” will inherit a magazine that, at the moment, is riding high thanks to the election of Donald Trump. Carter has made headlines once again for publicly battling with Trump. (His feud with the developer turned reality star turned president goes back several decades to Carter’s days at Spy, the magazine he cofounded with Kurt Andersen in 1986, and Carter is responsible for terming Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”)
The Trump bump followed Vanity Fair’s cover on Caitlyn Jenner, post-transition, in July 2015 that reversed a several years decline in the title’s relevance as it became known for featuring a string of dead celebrities on its covers. The July 2015 issue would go on to win awards, major buzz and help Vanity Fair drive 9 million unique visitors in a 24-hour time period since posting the image to vanityfair.com. It also helped stir more tension between Carter and Wintour since she is said to have been kept in the dark about the Jenner shoot until the last possible moment.
Even though Carter has been riding high on the Trump wave, sources said company morale has been lower than usual since new chief business officer and president revenue Jim Norton restructured the firm earlier this year. There has also been an episode at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, which likely did not improve matters. Condé Nast did not provide comment. But, more changes are said to be ahead at the publisher this month, including more staff cuts — which also could have factored into Carter’s decision.
Whatever the palace intrigue at One World Trade, on Thursday at least all were playing nice.
“I’ve had the most extraordinarily talented staff, which has made my longevity in this job possible,” Carter said in the announcement. “Indeed, many of the senior staff at the magazine have worked alongside me for my whole time here. We built a magazine with sophistication, wit and an international outlook, on a bedrock of solid journalism. And Vanity Fair has been tremendously profitable. I don’t think there’s a monthly magazine anywhere with a greater reach.”
“Others will do a far greater job of chronicling the successes and highlights of Graydon’s groundbreaking career, but I will simply say that Condé Nast wouldn’t be the same company had we not hired him 25 years ago,” Sauerberg told WWD. “Graydon is a friend, an icon, a one-of-a-kind leader, and he has built an incredibly strong and powerful foundation that ensures Vanity Fair’s future and continued success.”
Carter, 68, has been editor in chief at Vanity Fair since 1992, when he succeeded Tina Brown, who left to run The New Yorker. During his time helming the magazine, he instituted franchises including The New Establishment and made the magazine’s annual Oscar’s party into an A-List must.
The Canadian-born editor became a larger than life figure in elite New York media and cultural circles. In addition to presiding over Vanity Fair and attracting a stable of well-respected writers, Carter is the co-owner of two restaurants, the Waverly Inn and Monkey Bar, and produced several movies and a 2013 one-woman play starring Bette Midler.