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From Irreverent Chronicler to Hollywood's Good Friend

Vanity Fair gets a new ethics code amid a debate over the business dealings of its editor.

June 16, 2004|Josh Getlin, Michael Cieply and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

When it comes to protecting the Oscar trademark, the motion picture academy is notoriously ferocious, often threatening lawsuits for infringements. Except, maybe, if your name is Graydon Carter and you're the editor of Vanity Fair.

For several years, academy officials overlooked the 18-foot Oscar-shaped topiaries that graced the entrance to Carter's annual awards-night bash at Morton's restaurant in West Hollywood. Considering their crackdowns on others, the academy brass could no longer wink at the infraction as the party reached its fourth year. But the message from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came not in a roaring lawyer's letter, but on cat's paws.

"We had been turning a blind eye to the shrubbery that materialized each year outside Morton's in late March," the academy wrote, "in the hope that root borers or an incautiously flipped Cohiba [cigar] would eventually save us the awkwardness of raising the issue with you."

Carter obliged. After all, the man who savaged Hollywood's elite in his days at Spy magazine had by then become far more agreeable. He now was running a publication that glorified celebrities with soft stories and glossy photos. "If you can get that cover, it's the gold standard," Pat Kingsley, Hollywood's most powerful publicist, said of Vanity Fair's sway in the movie world.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Graydon Carter -- A subhead on a June 16 Section A article about Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter said the magazine's staff had recently been given a new ethics code. A code of conduct had recently been distributed to staff members of Conde Nast, Vanity Fair's owner, but the company said the code was not new.

In recent years, however, Carter has ventured to the other side of Hollywood's velvet ropes. He has entered into personal business projects with people who have a stake in Vanity Fair's coverage. Despite his many accolades during the last 12 years as editor, Carter and the company that owns his magazine, Conde Nast Publications, are at the center of a controversy over journalistic ethics.

The issue, simmering behind the scenes, erupted after The Times recently reported, among other things, that Carter had demanded and received $100,000 from Universal Pictures. According to sources familiar with the transaction, Carter believed he was owed the money for encouraging his filmmaker friends, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, to read an unpublished manuscript, which would later form the basis of their Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind."

Carter is continuing to pursue deals. He's been negotiating, for example, with American Express Co., a frequent Vanity Fair advertiser, to fund a documentary on the life of his writer friend Fran Lebowitz, a contributing editor. "It certainly might happen," said American Express marketing chief John Hayes.

That Carter's extracurricular dealings have drawn so much heat is testimony not only to the high voltage of Vanity Fair, but to the larger-than-life persona the 54-year-old editor has created for himself, complete with dapper suits and a mane of gray.

Few could have predicted the ease with which Carter has gravitated toward the rich and glamorous of Hollywood since he took the helm at Vanity Fair in 1992 from Tina Brown.

Brown had revived Vanity Fair with a sizzling mix of hard-edged stories and profiles of Hollywood power players. The British-born editor had given cover, of sorts, to readers interested in serious topics but who also had a taste for the tawdry. Advertisers adored the magazine's high-end demographics.

When publisher Conde Nast tapped Brown to become editor of Vanity Fair's prestigious sister publication, the New Yorker, Graydon Carter's name was not on many lips as her successor. By all accounts, he was a creative editor but he also seemed to take particular pleasure in delivering a witty kick to the kind of people who might find their way into Vanity Fair's slick pages.

It was a taste he indulged -- and for which he became best known -- at the now-defunct Spy magazine, which he edited and co-founded. The publication roiled Hollywood and New York in the mid-1980s with its pseudonymous reports on the foibles of developer Donald Trump, super-agent Michael Ovitz, columnist Liz Smith and anyone else unlucky enough to catch its eye.

But Spy's appeal was limited. As its finances began to crumble, Carter jumped to the moribund New York Observer weekly newspaper. As editor, he set the same irreverent tone for the paper's coverage of the cut and thrust among Manhattan's power players. Within a year, he got the attention of Conde Nast Chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr.

With a stable of nearly two dozen magazines, the New York-based publisher is among the country's most influential. Besides Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, it publishes Architectural Digest, Gourmet, GQ, Vogue and Self.

Newhouse offered Carter a shot to gain national prominence, a break that some associates said he had pursued since his early days as a reporter at Time magazine.

After what many characterized as a shaky start, Carter found his footing with Vanity Fair's richly compensated journalistic stars. By inside accounts, the magazine's approximately 70 writers thrive on Carter's "blue notes" -- handwritten praise on powder blue stationery.

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