CLOSE-UP: GRAYDON CARTER

Power from an acid pen

LISA VAN DUSEN May 25 1987
CLOSE-UP: GRAYDON CARTER

Power from an acid pen

LISA VAN DUSEN May 25 1987

Power from an acid pen

CLOSE-UP: GRAYDON CARTER

Sondra and Allan Gotlieb had never heard of Liz Embry, much less invited her into their home. But “Liz Embry” was the byline on one of the most unflattering articles yet written about Gotlieb, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, and his wife. The article, entitled “The rise and fall of Washington’s pushiest couple,” which appeared in the March issue of Manhattan-based Spy magazine, described Gotlieb as “moon-faced and beetle-browed.” And according to Embry, Sondra Gotlieb, who had been lauded in other magazines as one of Washington’s most successful hostesses, would “fawn like an excited puppy when guests were around.” The vitriolic piece was as puzzling as it was shocking. But the mystery had a simple explanation. “Liz Embry” was just one of the pseudonyms of Toronto-born Edward Graydon Carter, co-editor of Spy—the saucy monthly magazine that has become favored satirical reading across New York City since he founded it last October.

Carter adapted the name “Liz Embry” from a character who worked

as a gossip columnist for a society magazine called Spy in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Stor'y. Declared Carter of the Gotliebs, whom he did in fact visit in 1985 while on assignment for Life: “I read every clipping on them, so I thought I was going to meet the two

Backed by $1.9 million from private investors, Graydon Carter's irreverent Spy magazine is the toast of New York

finest people God ever put on this earth. I found that quite the contrary was true. The question is—why hadn’t we ever seen that in print?” Indeed, it was to take gleeful jabs at living celebrities such as the Gotliebs, dead ones such as Rock Hudson, and trendy New Yorkers at large that the irreverent Carter launched his own magazine.

To do so, Carter drew on a previous,

although less successful, attempt to create a new magazine. At 24, while still a political science student, Carter cofounded and edited The Canadian Review, a monthly collection of fiction and political writing produced on the University of Ottawa campus. After five years the magazine folded, leaving Carter with a broken marriage and $100,000 in unpaid bills to printers and other creditors. The three investors who risked venture capital money on the magazine lost it, and within months Carter threw his belongings into his BMW and fled to the publishing mecca of New York. Having limited funds, he allotted himself one month to find work. On his last planned day in the city, he was interviewed by senior personnel of Time magazine—but with no results. “I climbed up my five-floor walk-up, completely depressed,” Carter recalled. “When I got to the door, the phone was ringing. It was Time telling me to report for work the following Monday. I had never actually written a magazine article in my life.”

Six years as a staff writer with Time were followed by a two-year stint at the resuscitated Life magazine, where Carter also worked as a writer. But in 1983 Carter began a freelance career on the side and became known for his hardhitting profiles of prominent people such as New York real estate developer Donald Trump and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner for GQ magazine. Soon Carter was working full time on what would become Spy magazine with his partners, former Time writer Kurt Andersen, a Nebraska native, and New York investment banker Thomas Phillips. “We wanted to make a magazine,” explained Carter, “that would be our favorite magazine in the whole world.”

After two years in gestation, the first brash issue of Spy, awash in unorthodox type and daring headlines, appeared on the stands. Carter had garnered $1.9 million in backing from private investors. Declared Torontoborn Lome Michaels, producer of NBC’S Saturday Night Live in New York: “It was a tremendously brave thing for Graydon to do.”

According to those who know the 37-year-old entrepreneur, Carter has a well-deserved reputation for risk-taking. Indeed, his renowned selfconfidence and ability to talk his way to success often arouse passionate responses. “Graydon is totally promotion-oriented,” said John Sawatsky, an Ottawa-based freelance journalist and author who lost the $2,500 he invested in The Canadian Review. “Graydon did not really care about what went in the magazine,” added Sawatsky. “After a while, I realized his ambition outstripped his talent.” Countered Toronto investment executive Steven Probyn, a friend and former colleague of Carter’s on The Canadian Review: “He is the kind of guy who lights up a room, whether it is in Ottawa or New York—a genuine character.”

Since the debut of his new project, Carter has become as fashionable as his magazine. According to Carter, after eight months on the New York newsstands Spy has competitively high newsstand sales among general interest magazines in the city. Out of a total circulation of 40,000 in 16 U.S. markets in addition to Toronto, Vancouver and London, England, 18,000 are newsstand sales. By comparison, New York-based Harper’s magazine sells 34,000 on the newsstands, and the venerable 62-yearold weekly The New Yorker—which Spy pundits are fond of satirizing—sells 33,000 And although Carter said that he paid off the last of his Canadian Review creditors only last year, he added that he and his partners Andersen and Phillips are now living “quite well.”

With his career well in hand, Carter said that he does not intend to return to Canada. He and his second wife, Cynthia, and their two children, Ashley, 3,

and Max, 1, live in Manhattan’s fashionable Upper West Side neighborhood. But his fondness for his Canadian roots is evident in his office, where a bust of Sir Wilfrid Laurier sits on a table behind his desk, and a 1930s Royal Bank calendar graces his wall, overlooking a chair that Carter claimed once sat in Lester Pearson’s office. Carter’s more material interests remain in the United States, however: although he says that he does not expect Spy to break even for another 18 months, he has received proposals for related television and movie projects

and is publishing a line of Spy books on a variety of themes, possibly including a humorous guidebook to Manhattan.

Carter does not foresee a time, despite Spy’s growing popularity, when its satirical fearlessness will be compromised by its own celebrity. “We are filling a need,” he declared, adding that “so far, all it has gotten me is better tables in restaurants.” It is likely that Carter and his renegade writers and editors, whose diverse backgrounds include The New York Times and television’s David Letterman Show, will be taking aim at the famous and rich for some time to come. Saturday Night Live’s Michaels, for one, does not underestimate Carter’s celebrity. “New York, as [Jean] Cocteau once said of Paris, is a city of bonfires,” said Michaels. “If you are at Spy magazine right now, you are very, very hot.” Carter’s uncomfortable victims will soon learn, if they have not already, that there is no easy exit out of the kitchen if they cannot stand the heat.

LISA VAN DUSEN