I became something of an e-mail penpal with British journalist Toby Young, who’s been in Los Angeles since April working on two books, when we were both writing columns for the alt-weekly New York Press in the late ’90s. Toby had at the time written a kicking-over-the-traces story for the Press about his years at Vanity Fair, where he’d distinguished himself mainly by his complete failure to understand the tacit rules of the celebrity interview. Assigned to profile Nathan Lane, Toby asked the actor “Are you Jewish?” followed by “Are you gay?” At that point Lane’s publicist declared the interview over.
Afterward, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, who’d hired Toby in a burst of Anglophilia he soon came to regret, summoned his new employee into his office. “Toby,” Carter sighed, “You can’t ask Hollywood celebrities whether they’re Jewish or gay. Just assume they’re both Jewish and gay, OK?”
Then there was the time Toby cornered Mel Gibson at the Vanity Fair Oscars party the year Gibson swept the Oscars for Braveheart, about the Scottish national hero. Toby wanted to know why Gibson had such a grudge against the English. “Suddenly I felt this tug on my collar,” Toby told me. “It was Graydon yanking me back, hissing, ‘Toby! Stop bothering the celebrities.’”
The long-suffering Carter finally fired his British import after a drunken dispute about a restaurant bill landed Toby on the New York Post’s Page Six. Toby wasn’t bitter; his troubles in the world of U.S. media had as much to do with himself as with the prevailing glossy magazine attitude of celebrity a**-kissing, as he well knew. He drank so much at the time that even Anthony Haden-Guest, the famously well-marinated journalist who was the model for the feckless British hack in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, told him to cut back.
“Given how much I was paid and how little I produced,” Toby told me–about $85,000 for 3,000 words in five years–”I was probably paid more per word than anyone else there.” (As a Vanity Fair contributing editor, though, his job included more than just writing. He helped appease sulky British celebrities by bringing cocaine into London’s Groucho Club for Vanity Fair’s 1997 “Cool Britannia” shoot, for instance, a revelation that got him expelled from the exclusive hangout.) Toby parlayed the Press piece into the British bestseller How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, a tell-all about failing to make it in the world of celebrity-driven New York magazines, which was published in the U.S. two years ago and also became a hit stage show in London.
Graydon Carter comes across in the book as a towering figure of comic pretense. But his only real complaint about the manuscript–Toby sent him an advance copy as a courtesy–was a line that described him as having the second biggest office at Conde Nast. “‘You got that wrong,’” Toby mimicked in the Canadian-born Carter’s faux tough-guy North American accent. “‘Toby, people just aren’t gonna take you seriously!’”
“I always thought [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour had the biggest office,” Toby shrugged, over lunch in L.A. recently. “But not according to him. It’s almost as if he’s been cursed by the gods to become exactly the sort of character he used to lampoon when he was editing Spy.”
Toby continues to be the go-to guy for Graydon Carterology, a media subspecialty that’s in demand now that Carter’s in hot water for accepting that $100,000 “consultancy fee” from Universal Studios–a pretty clear conflict of interest, even for a celebrity-friendly magazine like Vanity Fair.
Last week the editor’s friends began suggesting that the White House was behind the Los Angeles Times reports about Carter’s questionable Hollywood ties. (Carter has been attacking Bush in his Vanity Fair editor’s letters and has an upcoming book, What We’ve Lost, arguing against current U.S. foreign policy.) But even the leftist L.A. Weekly found this spin absurd.
“Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried,” wrote the Weekly’s Nikki Finke in her column about the Carter camp’s disinformation campaign. Finke added that a Vanity Fair source told her that Hollywood agent Tom Stricker (who happens to be a Republican) is a “Republican operative” feeding anti-Carter stories to the Times, a suggestion that Finke dismissed as “paranoid musings” and noted: “Stricker’s as much a Republican operative as Martin Sheen is president of the United States.”
Toby also considers all this laughable. “Graydon’s attempt to blame his bad press on a vast right-wing conspiracy is typical of his own vast self-importance,” he told me. “As if George W. and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are burning the midnight oil in the Oval Office, poring over Graydon’s editorials in Vanity Fair and thinking, ‘We’ve got to stop this guy. He could lose us the election.’ Yeah, right.”
Now cleaned up and settled down, with a wife and baby daughter, Toby is on leave from his London journalism gigs (restaurant critic for the Evening Standard, theater critic for the Spectator) while he researches his two-book deal about Hollywood culture. He’d hoped to visit a friend in Mexico before returning to London in July. But after recent airport incidents involving U.K. journalists entering the U.S. from a third country without special visas (only recently required), he decided not to risk it.
Toby’s father was the late sociologist Michael Young, a social democrat who coined the word “meritocracy” in the ’50s. Toby, however, describes himself as a libertarian who supports the war on terrorism and has little sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. A few months ago he was deluged with hate mail after appearing on the British political show Question Time. His offense? Being the only panelist to defend France’s proposed ban on headscarves (and other religious paraphernalia) in public schools.
“Liberals in the U.K. immediately threw up their hands in horror,” Toby recalled. It also didn’t go over well when he added that he thought by and large Bush’s and Tony Blair’s policies in the Mideast have produced positive effects. Another panelist, former Home Secretary Lord Hattersley, furiously informed Toby that he must be reading the wrong kinds of newspapers.
Because of his accent, and also perhaps because he’s staying in the politically insular Brentwood area of L.A. (Arianna Huffington switched from right to left after she moved to the expensive west-side neighborhood), people here are shocked to discover Toby doesn’t share their disapproval of the Bush administration. “They become apoplectic,” he said. “They accuse me of being an American poodle.”
One book he’s working on now is a How to Lose Friends… sequel, this time about failing to succeed in Hollywood rather than the New York media world. The other is a futuristic novel in which celebrities are rounded up and placed in internment camps.
But back to Graydon Carter. “I always feared he would sell out eventually,” Young wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last month. “I just thought he would have commanded a higher price.”
“To me the real story is just how pitiful he’s been in his efforts to establish himself as a Hollywood player,” Toby told me. “He’s tarnished his reputation, and for what? So he could be one of nine producers on The Kid Stays in the Picture, which so far is his only real credit?”
“I think a lot of New York magazine editors assume they can just waltz into positions here,” Toby continued. “They think, ‘If things don’t work out in New York, I’ll just go west and run a studio.’ But really, Graydon is like the headmaster at a very trendy preschool. Yes, Hollywood players will jump through hoops to get their kids in the school, but they’re not going to make him their business partner. He’s essentially the help.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.