Graydon Carter, the publishing icon who steered Vanity Fair for 25 years and hosted many a Mediterranean téte-á-téte, is returning to Antibes and the legendary Hotel du Cap this year for a party partnership between his digital dispatch Air Mail and Zaslav’s Warner Bros. Discovery.
Ahead of the May 23 event, Carter talked to The Hollywood Reporter about curating the perfect Cannes event, the shortlist of people who have his cell phone number, and why anything longer than a 15-second toast is too long.
How are you feeling about returning to Cannes?
It’s funny because the dinners we used to do during the Cannes Film Festival were the most enjoyable nights of the job [at Vanity Fair]. In my 25 years there, the Oscar party became so enormous that it was stressful and big business, in a way. Cannes was about movies and enjoyment and just having a great time.
That’s a big statement, what made those dinners the most enjoyable?
The Hotel du Cap is my favorite hotel in the world and it’s got the most extraordinary setting with the Mediterranean and the boats out there. We’re doing a number of different things for the party that we’ve never tried before. I’m doing it with a great, longtime friend of mine, David Zaslav, and we’re having a blast.
How long have you known David Zaslav?
Probably more than 25 years. David was involved with the Newhouse School in Syracuse, and I met him through that.
Whose idea was it to partner for the Cannes event?
David wanted to do an Oscar party this year but I thought we should give it a breather for the time being. But then I said, “Why don’t we throw a party during the Cannes Film Festival?” He jumped on it. We had come here together two Novembers ago just after the lockdown was over. He loves the hotel and this area of the world. I mean, the weather is exquisite; it’s 72 degrees, sunny and dry. The nice thing about having the dinner there is you get a mix of people. You get writers, filmmakers and some people from Italy and France, just a wonderful mix. I’ve always enjoyed it.
There is something special about parties in Cannes because the guest lists span industries and host filmmakers, artists, and dignitaries. As someone who has perfected the art of curating a good room, how do you create the perfect Cannes party?
The way the hotel works is that rooms are sold in batches. So, a film studio will take a room for six nights and if they have two films at the same time, they’ll book an actor in one room for three nights and then another actor for the next three nights so that you have to take your chances on who is going to be there and accommodated on the night you throw your party. We are mixing in with all of that scheduling. Mick Jagger usually comes, people like that. There are people outside of the industry who are just interesting people. A lot of the film people will come out after their premieres. Wes Anderson has a film opening that night [Asteroid City], with a typically large Wes Anderson cast so we’ll expect all of them after. We’ll have artists, architects, just a great mix.
Let’s go back to something you said earlier about doing new things at the party. What did you mean?
One thing that we’re doing — and we’ve never tried this before — is there’s a beautiful infinity pool at the du Cap out where the party will spread following the dinner. We will be projecting an hourlong compilation of a hundred years of Warner Bros. movies onto the swimming pool. That means, you have to put Perspex just underneath the surface, and even though we’re projecting on what is probably a 45-degree angle, it’ll be perfect within the pool. Perspex keeps the water stable so this will be going throughout the entire party and it will just replay itself. We’ve tested it, and we think it’ll be amazing.
Will there be a toast or any speeches from you or David Zaslav?
I’ve never done this in the past but I think that, yes, we’ll do a 15-second toast from each of us. Anything longer than that is too long.
It’s one thing to curate a nice guest list and another to deal with the incoming calls and requests from people who want to get in. You have a lot of experience on how to handle that, what is it like this year?
The nice thing is that the only people who have my cell phone number are my office, my children and strangely enough, Annie Leibovitz, and it’s always off. I get emails but most of the requests are managed by a three-person team. It’s not like the olden days of the Oscar party when there was just a landline in a hotel room, which was just a nightmare. I felt like a switchboard operator during those years.
I had to ask the hotel to start screening the calls for me because the phone was ringing every four or five minutes. This is more relaxed because we have people taking care of it so it works out well. In Cannes, you’re limited by the fact that there are only so many hotel rooms down there, so it’s not like you have tens of thousands of people who want to get in the way that you would for the Oscar party from people who live in the neighborhood.
Speaking of the neighborhood, I forgot to ask, are you living in France right now?
Yes. I come and spend a couple of months here in May and June. I’m only 20 miles from the du Cap.
I read that you decamped to France after leaving Vanity Fair …
We rent a house in this little town called Opio, about 20 minutes north of Antibes. We rode out the pandemic here, and we were here three days after I left Vanity Fair. This was long in our plans.
What is it that you like about France?
I like the food. I happen to love the French, especially those who live in the southern part of the country rather than the northern. They’re less angry in the southern part of the country. They realize they’ve got it good. I also love the smell, the sun and the sunrises. There’s a rooster we can hear way off in the distance that wakes us up in the morning and puts us to bed at night. I also love the peacefulness and being ahead of New York by six hours. I can get all my stuff done, relax, go for a walk, swim and read before anybody wakes up in New York.
Back to Cannes. I read about this memorable experience you had once during the festival when an unnamed French actress passed out at one of your parties. Any other stories that stick out during your time at the festival?
We’ve had a couple of instances like the one that happened with that woman. I’m sure men do the same thing where they don’t eat anything in order to pour into something smaller than what they would normally wear but they drink the same amount. The unnamed French actress that you’re referring to, I actually thought she was dead. She was as gray as pavement but they found a pulse and got her on a gurney to an emergency room nearby. She was fine. It was too little food and too much alcohol. She wasn’t drinking a ton but the food-to-alcohol ratio was off.
Any other favorite memories in Cannes?
A friend of mine, Henry Porter, was the London editor of Vanity Fair. He went to use the bathroom at the Hotel du Cap during the party. When he tried to turn the doorknob, he couldn’t get out. He started banging on the door and this went on for a minute or two. Because the party was noisy, he thought he might have to spend the rest of the night in the bathroom. He kept banging and banging and then all of a sudden a man said from the other side of the door, “Step back from the door and stand on the toilet.” Henry jumped on the toilet and then the door was kicked in. Standing on the other side was Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Another time, in 2008, I took all my sons to the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I was walking across the street after with my younger son, Spike, who was probably 21 at the time. These photographers started shouting at us and I apologized to my son saying, “I’m really sorry about this.” And they said, “No, no, you get out of the way. Shia LaBeouf!” They thought my son was Shia who was in the film.
One thing about being here is that this is a group that really loves movies. I came in 2000 with a film I had produced on Robert Evans called The Kid Stays in the Picture. It was fun seeing Cannes through Bob’s eyes and taking him to the premiere. I got to watch his face as we got a two-minute standing ovation. He wrote later that it was a 15-minute standing ovation but it wasn’t, it was about two minutes, which is a long ovation. They do that after every film. I’ve been there with films. I’ve been there as a guest. I actually prefer the dinner over going to the film festival because it’s a huge commitment of time just to go to one movie.
Will you see anything this year? There are some big films and some of your friends will be here, like Martin Scorsese with Killers of the Flower Moon …
I didn’t bring a dinner jacket, so that’s my excuse for not going into town. We also have house guests during this period so I don’t want to disappear on them. I’ll be busy enough with this party. We do a lot of work in advance to make sure that everything goes smoothly and that people have a really good time.
I noticed Roger Friedman posted a list of the confirmed attendees. Is that the accurate list so far?
It’s pretty accurate. And Marty’s coming with Bob De Niro and all the Wes Anderson cast afterward.
Forgive me, I know this must be annoying to be asked about your old stomping grounds but Vanity Fair is also back at the du Cap this year with a party over the weekend. How do you feel about perhaps crossing paths with some of your old colleagues? What is the relationship like these days?
I don’t have a relationship with the people at the magazine other than Sarah Marks who organizes the events for them, that’s because I don’t know anybody there anymore. I would say, may the best man or woman win. They are doing theirs with Prada and we’re doing ours with Warner Bros. so it will have a different feel to it.
The talk of the town right now is the writers strike. Are you getting the sense that it will have any impact on your party?
Not to my knowledge. If there is a writer who is here striking outside the gates and they’re well dressed, I will invite them in. This party is a celebration of their work so I hope there are no incidents. I’m on their side but I have no idea what will happen.
Air Mail seems to be doing so well. You got in a bit ahead of the curve in terms of the crush of newsletters that have launched over the past couple of years. How are you finding running this operation right now?
First of all, it’s one of the happiest professional experiences of my life. We’re doing better than I ever thought possible. In fact, this year is dramatically even better than last year. We’ve sold out our advertising basically throughout the year. We’re launching new verticals, probably two more this year. We describe the staff as the has-beens and the rookies. The old timers are people from Time magazine in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Spy magazine and Vanity Fair. Then there’s a bunch of 20 to 30-year-olds who are the next generation that we’re training to become editors.
To what do you attribute the success?
We call Air Mail a digital dispatch and I think we have a lane to ourselves. There’s nobody who does exactly what we do. It’s like the weekend edition of the non-existent international daily newspaper. We have a single advertiser so there’s no advertising that keeps bouncing all around the site. It’s beautifully designed. We spend a lot of time on design, photo research and there’s a lot of art in it. It’s very international and not tied to any industry like so many of the newsletters. We have a huge audience. I don’t know anybody among my friends who doesn’t read it, and not just because they’re friends of mine. The brilliant thing about the “newsletter” format is home delivery. Air Mail comes every Saturday morning to your mailbox at 6 a.m.
It’s a great read. The worst thing you can do when someone is working on a memoir is bug them about progress but how is it going? What’s the latest?
Some days I think it’ll be fine, other days I think it’ll be an absolute disaster, like who would care? I’m working with James Fox, who worked on Keith Richards’s memoir. He’s organizing all of it for me and we got about 85 percent done. I love working with him but I’m pretty lazy. I like my day job, which is so much fun and I love assembling Air Mail every week. It’s hard to set aside enough time to finish it but I’ll get it done this summer.
Eighty-five percent is a big accomplishment. Is it your entire life story or is there a focus?
It’s largely professional. There are so many elements to it and now it’s just about filling in all the gaps and trying to make it entertaining to somebody who never picked up a magazine, perhaps. It’s about being in New York during the last great golden age of magazines. I was fortunate enough to be there.
I love magazines and reading about the industry, especially that time in publishing with all the free-wheeling expense accounts …
It was extraordinary. I remember talking to Si Newhouse as we used to have lunch every two weeks. At one point, he asked if I had anything new and I said that I had some good news and some bad news. “What’s the bad news?” he asked. I told him that we were in the middle of a cover shoot that had gone slightly out of control and the price was approaching half a million dollars. It was for a Vanity Fair Hollywood cover and he thought about it for a second and then he asked, “What’s the good news?” I told him that it looked like a half-a-million caliber cover. I loved big gestures like that. The thing is, we were so profitable that we could spend vast amounts of money on journalism. Writers would sometimes spend eight to ten months on a single story and they were paid well for it.
The last thing I’ll ask you about is back to Oscar night. Since you set the bar, what do you make of the current landscape with all the new entries from people like Beyoncé and Jay-Z or Madonna and Guy Oseary still being in the game? Do you pay attention?
Not in the least. In fact, I haven’t watched the Oscars since I left Vanity Fair. I’ve probably seen 25 percent of the films. That was hard work and I was glad to leave it behind. I think Hollywood’s going through a revolution right now and revolutions are never painless. I have no idea what will come out of it at the end but I have a feeling it will be better.