It is three years since Meghan Markle used a Vanity Fair interview to tell the world that she and Harry were “two people who are really happy and in love”. The magazine’s then-editor, Graydon Carter, remembers it possibly for all the wrong reasons. “I’d never heard of Meghan Markle”, he tells me from Provence, where he now lives.
Casting his mind back to 2017, he recalls the day a member of his staff strolled in to the office and announced: “I was thinking of trying to get Meghan Markle for our cover.” “I said: ‘I don’t know who she is.’ She said: ‘She’s on a TV show called Suits.' ‘Never seen it,’ I replied.” Carter pauses, frowns, then gives a small smile. “The issue didn’t sell particularly well. Maybe it was too soon, maybe it hadn’t settled in peoples’ minds yet that this woman was going to marry an English Prince.
Today, public opinion seems to have settled – and not necessarily in the Duchess of Sussex's favour. Which doesn’t surprise the Toronto-born 71-year-old. “British people are clearly just saddened that this star, in their eyes – and I mean Harry, not Meghan – has left the country and gone his own way. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of them.”
Does he think Harry will come back to the UK to live? “He’d be crazy not to. Los Angeles is not a place for people who don’t have a part in the professional firmament. Meghan was on a middling TV show that a lot of people didn’t see, and as for Harry: being a soldier and liking football are just not saleable talents out there. You can get it right if you stay on message in LA,” Carter points out. “But I think it’s very hard to start telling people about the fate of the planet when you’re flying in private planes, living in a 14-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion and living off the state. I really don’t think you can lecture people from that position.”
After leaving the glossy monthly that same year, after a tenure which lasted 25 years, Graydon began to divide his time between New York and the 15th century French village of Opio with his wife, Anna Scott. His idea was to launch a digital weekly newsletter, called Air Mail, which covered high society, cultural affairs and indeed the Royal beat with the same elegant and pithy tone that had become his trademark. He managed to convince various former contributors to join him, alongside the top New York Times journalist, Alessandra Stanley, who is now Air Mail’s co-editor. “We really wanted a civil voice,” he explains, “that would rise above the shrillness of social media.”
Saying that, he is certainly not above a good old-fashioned gossip and is happy to riff and digress on the themes and people that titillate him as either an editor or a human being throughout our interview.
Whilst off on a Megxit tangent, we agree that a lack of self-awareness is one of the most glaring high societal issues right now: “It’s vastly rich billionaires trying to bully everyone. And I don’t think that ever went over well, but it’s really not going to go over well over the next four or five years, as the world climbs out of this pandemic.”
So his media advice to modern royals? “Well I would say that Kate and William do things almost to perfection. And to Prince Andrew I would simply say this: ‘Lock yourself in a room, stay there, and don’t ever say another word to anybody ever again – with the exception of testifying in a New York court room.” Prince Andrew has of course denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
Nobody, however, inspires quite as much derision as Donald Trump – a man Carter got to know in the early 1980s, when he was commissioned to do a piece on the businessman “in his stretch limo and mauve suits period” for GQ.
“I noticed then that he had abnormally small hands,” he says with a low chuckle. “Small hands and large cufflinks, a strange combination. So we started calling him a ‘short-fingered vulgarian’, which he absolutely hated. Oh, well he also had small…feet.”
Carter belly laughs. “But really it was just an observation; I haven’t seen any other part of his anatomy.”
Trump hated Carter’s GQ story, “but then when I came to Vanity Fair the transactional businessman in him decided he had better make up with me, so he invited me to his wedding to Marla Maples. It was over and done in two hours at the Plaza Hotel, like a watch launch.” Only when Carter started writing more about Trump at Vanity Fair the feud “went nuclear.” “He’s the sort of person who, if he’s being thrown out of a bar, will smash the window with his elbow on his way out. Which means there will have to be very sturdy guard rails placed alongside him during that period between the November election and January.”
As the editor of a magazine so powerful it could either deify a celebrity – in one of its plush cover stories – or destroy them – in one of its forensic investigative reports – Carter became almost as high-profile as the people interviewed in his magazine over the decades. And some believed that the original outsider, who came to New York on an H1 visa in 1978, had got a little too cosy on the inside.
One of those was the former Vanity Fair journalist, Vicky Ward. Ward has become a slight thorn in Carter’s side over the past few months. In the Netflix documentary, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, the journalist claims that after being commissioned to write a profile of him for the magazine in 2003, a well-sourced accusation of sexual misconduct was removed from the piece before publication. Carter, however, maintains that Ward's reporting on this aspect of the article did not meet Vanity Fair's legal and editorial standards.
Today, like the rest of the world, he is waiting to see what happens at the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. Whether Maxwell would serve time even if prosecuted remains to be seen. Trump’s warm words for her earlier this week – when he publicly declared: “I wish her well” – were understood by many to be a ‘you scratch my back’ code of silence. “Because look: he’s giving amnesty to just about every other nefarious person in his circle, so of course we read it that way.”
There is one last Epstein detail, however, that Carter is bemused enough by to discuss: a claim, also made in the documentary, that Carter “found a severed cat head in his garden,” as well as a “bullet on his doorstep.”
These extraordinary things did happen, says Carter, “but two years after we did the story on Epstein. So there is no connection whatsoever. The police chalked it up to a disgruntled Bush supporter. And then a year or two later there was this bullet on the doorstep. I didn’t do anything; I didn’t even tell my wife about it. But then the next month Michael Bloomberg and I got a joint death threat, so I told the police about the bullet, which I’d kept, and they chalked it up to a Conservative prank.”
Not terribly funny, as far as pranks go, and surely the scariest thing ever to have happened in his career?
“Oh no,” Carter deadpans, “throwing the Oscar party was much scarier.”
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