A Vanity Fair Exclusive
In one corner of the room, Hugh Grant whispers in Nicole Kidman’s ear. She giggles. Nearby, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke greet Gwyneth Paltrow. Salman Rushdie huddles with his girlfriend, model Padma Lakshmi. A grinning Ron Perelman has his arm around Ellen Barkin, who is decked out in diamonds. Rupert Murdoch weighs an Oscar in his hand. Oprah Winfrey receives endless well-wishers.
But the center of the room belongs to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, host of this mystique-laden Oscar night gathering.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. March 27, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Vanity Fair editor--A headline on a story in Tuesday’s Southern California Living incorrectly referred to Graydon Carter as publisher of Vanity Fair. He is the editor.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Philanthropist’s name--In a Tuesday Southern California Living story about Vanity Fair’s Oscar party, the first name of philanthropist Wallis Annenberg was misspelled.
With a guest list of 1,000 it’s not the most intimate party in Hollywood. And in the land of the $20,000 gift basket, its estimated $1-million cost may not make it the priciest. But its ability to manufacture desire and a sense of exclusivity is unrivaled. Everybody wants into the Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton’s.
“Now that ‘Swifty’ [Lazar, who died in 1993] doesn’t do his parties at Spago anymore, everyone comes here,” says Tom Hanks as Grant comes up to shake his hand. “Vanity Fair has become sort of a show business bible.”
The party, says Carter, is all about the mix--of celebrity and power, friendship and obligation, decorum and scandal. In constructing the guest list, “you like movie stars,” he says. “Even more, you like movie stars bearing golden statuettes. Moguls, studio heads. You mix it up ... Barbara Walters. Legendary columnists like Liz Smith. Sports figures, like Tom Brady of the Patriots. European aristocrats. New York socialites. Somehow, you put it all together.”
What members of this select group see when they look around the room on Oscar night is a collection of faces straight from the perfumed pages of Vanity Fair’s fat April issue on Hollywood, their fame undiluted by entourages.
“It seems everybody is here,” says Rushdie. Nearby, Elvis Costello talks with friends as Mickey Rourke approaches Chloe Sevigny. Model Sophie Dahl, in a sparkly dress, smokes a cigarette as Hanks breezes through.
“Even the stars get excited looking at the stars,” says Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne, a party regular.
In such rarefied company, the room feels safe, says Suzanne Somers. “You get to feel normal, everybody is so famous.”
The party’s universe is Carter-centric. “You take your friends first,” he says. “Spreading out, you [invite] people who other people might like to meet. It’s like the ... Ed Sullivan show: the two Canadian skaters”--silver-turned-gold medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were on this year’s guest list--”certain agents, industry people. I feel obliged to help them out.”
But appeals to Carter’s sense of obligation--and appeals in general--rarely succeed. “I remember Graydon telling me one year, ‘It’s not who you say yes to, it’s who you say no to,’” says Toby Young, a former Vanity Fair contributor, whose “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” (to be published in the U.S. by Da Capo Press in July) chronicles his years (and parties) with the magazine.
The very need to request an invitation signals the ultimate futility of the effort. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. One famous anecdote has it that Carter was offered $300,000 for entree to the party. “It’s true,” Carter confirms, and the amount was only slightly less than reported. “If it had been $300,000, of course I would have taken it,” he jokes.
The cajoling is ceaseless at Vanity Fair’s offices during Oscar season. “You overhear the following conversations over and over,” says Young: ‘“Who? Oh my God! How the hell are you? I haven’t heard from you in, like, 10 years.’ Beat. ‘Gee, I’d love to help but there’s really nothing I can do. I have no control over that. That’s Graydon’s decision. Sorry.’ Click. Dial tone.”
Minutes before a reporter talked by phone with Dunne in New York, he had received a call from someone in Paris “asking, ‘Can you get me into the party?’ No! No!” Dunne exclaimed, adding, “I get a lot of calls, but they are very short ones.”
Dunne, a guest since the beginning, says he would never try to get friends and acquaintances onto the list. Consequently, “you make a lot of enemies.”
A brush with scandal can boost one’s chances for an invitation. The impeachment chronicles pushed Monica Lewinsky onto the list twice, and skater Nancy Kerrigan came in 1994, after her run-in with Tonya Harding. Scandalous behavior at the party, on the other hand, is a sure-fire way to have visiting privileges revoked. Elizabeth Hurley and Pamela Anderson weren’t in the crowd this year, after some found their attentions to one another at 2001’s party unseemly. (“They can go to a Maxim party,” says Carter.)
To ensure an abundance of award-bearing winners, the calligraphed invitations aren’t hand-delivered until after Oscar nominees are announced in February. Most prized are those sent to 150 or so of Carter’s closest friends and business associates, who are asked to a 5 p.m. dinner and Oscar-watching party. An additional 1,000 invitations go out for the cocktail party afterward. The higher one’s status, the earlier the specified arrival time.
On this year’s awards night, Morton’s vine-covered stucco exterior disappears behind a 20-foot-tall scrim of backlit muslin. The words “Vanity Fair,” projected on the material in blues and reds swirled and looped on the fabric, transform the structure into a giant ad.
Limousines line the block, which is closed to all but party traffic and crowded with deputies, security guards, and members of the county’s bomb squad, who pace the sidewalk with their German shepherds. Hordes of fans who’ve been cordoned off across the street roar as guests arrive. Inside, the restaurant is shrouded in calm. The dining room’s usual wicker and palms have been cleared to create an open, airy space. A few booths line the walls. Against an opposite wall, a bartender stocks his stylish bar, which is backlit in warm tones.
Beyond this room is a large retreat swathed in white. This is the dining room where the dinner crowd has gathered around 17 tables for 10 to view the Oscar telecast beamed live onto several large television screens hung around the room.
Carter, as he does every year, dines with Kelly Lynch and her husband, screenwriter Mitch Glazer, Barry Diller, Diane Von Furstenberg and Fran Lebowitz. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening joined the party last year. This year, Perelman and Barkin did too. David Geffen, who usually sits at Carter’s table, was missing.
“People move to us,” says Lynch. “A lot come over to speak to Graydon, telling him who they love, who they hate at their table.” But, she adds, “Billy Wilder, wherever he sits, may be the place to sit. “Royalty,” she explains.
Winfrey, with whom everyone wants a photo taken, chats with Donna Karan and Julian Schnabel.
At the commercial break, Diane Sawyer hovers at Carter’s table to talk with him and Barkin. Across from them, gossip columnist Liz Smith leans over to whisper in Beatty’s ear. Most people remain seated and the noise level in the room rarely rises. For all its hype, the party is fairly subdued.
But as an overcome Halle Berry appears on screen, the mood shifts. Winfrey, whom Berry cites as a mentor and supporter, rises to her feet, and stands for the whole of the speech. Beatty stands as well when Berry thanks him. Guests wipe away tears. “It actually felt as if something in society shifted,” says John Cleese later in the evening. Every evening has its story. People still talk about looking on as Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche met at this party and shared a first kiss. But on this night the same three names drift through the crowd all evening: Halle and Denzel and Sidney.
After 10 p.m., the party shifts into high gear. Dinner guests are leaving and the late-night crowd arrives. Joan Collins stops on her way out to show off her $3-million borrowed diamonds. Jay Leno tests new material. His reasons for coming to Vanity Fair’s fete? “You get a free meal at this one,” he said. “The other ones, you just get hors d’oeuvres.”
The party comes together over months and overnight. “It’s the turbine behind the scenes that makes the party work smoothly on the night,” says Carter. “The trick is to make it look easy.”
The turbine starts spinning in early fall, when the first planning meetings take place. By November, the party’s core planners--its producer, architect, lighting designer and on-site supervisor--have begun to fly between offices in London and New York, exchanging ideas, hatching plans and drawing up the designs that turn a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that usually seats 190 into an 11,000-square-foot fantasy backdrop lighted by Patrick Woodrooffe, who also does work for the Rolling Stones and Queen Elizabeth II.
By late February, the details have been agreed upon: Glass bricks imported from London. Dutch tulips flown in from the Netherlands. Lighters and ashtrays embossed with the Vanity Fair logo, commemorating Oscar night.
A couple of weeks before the party, the group sets up a “war room” at the Beverly Hills Hotel to coordinate the work of a team that, at its height, swells to several hundred people: construction and video companies, florists, on-site seamstresses, the restaurant staff, security and the city of West Hollywood. There is even a “field office”--a construction trailer parked at Morton’s.
Carter himself comes out to supervise the final week of preparations.
Sara Marks, the 43-year-old Brit who holds the “party producer” title, manages an 8-foot-long schedule that’s posted on the war room wall. “It’s an army maneuver,” says Marks, who also heads up Vanity Fair events in Cannes and London. “It’s all about organization.”
“Every activity is allocated a certain number of minutes,” says Basil Walter, the team’s architect, who creates the look of the party each year. “It’s a fascinating sight.”
Time is a fixation because work on the Morton’s space doesn’t begin until the Friday before the Sunday night party, when the last diners leave the restaurant just before midnight.
Workers take sledgehammers to the back wall to create a 20-foot square entrance to the 7,000-square-foot tent that rises over the parking lot behind the building. Woodroffe’s intricate lighting systems for the interior and facade are erected. Curtains are sewn on site. Undulating 20- and 30-foot white couches are arranged.
Two party planners who asked to remain anonymous went category by category through the costs of producing an event like Vanity Fair’s in L.A. and put the tab at $800,000. That estimate didn’t include the salaries of the core staff over the months of planning, nor the cost of flying in additional support staffers from New York the week before the party. There’s also the cost of relocating a number of the restaurant’s neighbors to hotels for the night. Add an estimated $33,500 to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for overtime paid to 39 officers for crowd and traffic control, and $9,100 to the city of West Hollywood for permits and the use of scores of parking meters, and the total would seem to surpass $1 million.
Is it $2 million? When asked, Carter deflects. “Nowhere near that. It’s less.... Half. Less than half.”
For Carter, the party is a bargain. It “is a huge source of favor-giving,” says Young, the former Vanity Fair contributor. “When negotiating with advertisers or other associates, it can be brought up, as in ‘and I can get you in to the Vanity Fair party.’ That’s case closed, done deal.” (The magazine includes 50 advertisers among its guests.)
Perhaps most significant, the magazine has tapped the party buzz with its now-fat Hollywood issue and, says Carter, “between the party and the issue, April becomes a blockbuster month.”
This year, Carter has also used his time in L.A. to promote a documentary on legendary producer Robert Evans, of which he is the executive producer. Yet, he maintains, “I’m independent of Hollywood. I’ve got nothing to sell,” he adds. “We’re not of Hollywood.”
How did an “outsider” become the social arbiter of Hollywood’s biggest night? He appointed himself inheritor of “Swifty” Lazar’s legendary Oscar night party.
Lazar’s gatherings “provided the dazzle of what old Hollywood must have been,” says Dunne. When the fetes began in the early ‘60s at the Lazars’ home, they drew stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns and Shirley MacLaine, and it didn’t take long for an invitation to become the ultimate status symbol.
In 1985, the expanding bash moved to Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s new spot above Sunset Boulevard. Fans lined the steep slopes of Horn Avenue to cheer the arriving limos driving up to the restaurant.
Lazar ruled the room and kept a tight rein on his guest list. “It was like 200 people tops,” says Joan Rivers. “I once asked him [if I could] bring Wallace Annenberg and he said ‘No room.’”
Lazar’s death at the close of 1993 left a vacuum that both Carter and producer Steve Tisch rushed to fill. On New Year’s Eve, the day after Lazar died, Tisch called his friend Peter Morton to reserve his restaurant for Oscar night. “I said, ‘Look, Swifty Lazar has died and along with his death goes his legendary Academy Awards party,’” Tisch recalls. “‘Why don’t we do one for our generation?’”
A few weeks later, Tisch heard from Carter, who wanted to co-host the event. As the two worked together, Vanity Fair’s guest list quickly surpassed Tisch’s, he says. “I was very aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
By year three, the party was all Carter’s. “I remember what I thought was going to be a lot of fun ... turning into a nightmare,” Tisch said. “People were coming out of the woodwork ... with subtle and not so subtle threats. They were saying: ‘If I don’t get invited, it’s going to affect your ability to do business.’”
Under Carter, the guest list grew, reaching 1,500 last year, before fears that it would lose its exclusivity led planners to pare this year’s cocktail party by 500.
At 10:45, the party is gathering momentum.
The tables have been removed, and the only pieces of furniture inside are 20- and 30-foot-long curving sofas lining the wall, small plexiglass coffee tables, and a couple of tall tables with flower decorations. A DJ on a topiary-covered elevated platform gets to work, though his music will be background, not the main event.
As some dinner guests are leaving (producer Robert Evans sneaked out, closely followed by Vogue’s Anna Wintour,) others went party hopping (“We’ll be back,” Joan Collins to the assembled paparazzi with a wave of her hand,) and the crush of after-dinner guests began arriving.
“It’s great people-watching,” says Bening.
“You do tend to have too much champagne and you do tend to leave barefoot,” Sally Kirkland says. “I don’t think I’ve ever left Morton’s with my shoes on.”
Hollywood being Hollywood, eyes are caught, lunches are scheduled, the seeds of deals are planted. The most famous? “Ellen Barkin and Ron Perelman,” jokes Carter. New York-based Trey Laird, a Vanity Fair advertiser who handles the Gap and Donna Karan accounts, hatched at least one high-profile idea: Jeremy Irons modeling Donna Karan clothes, for a campaign that ran in Vanity Fair, among other places.
“He walked in, and I thought, I’ve got to work with Jeremy Irons,” said Laird.
As the evening wears on, “moments flash by, almost like a silent film,” says Lynch. “I see dresses, faces, bits of conversation, dramas.”
Ringmaster Carter winds through it all, central and apart. One year, he recalls, he stood outside around 10:30 p.m., smoking a cigarette and watching as three Oscar winners, clutching their statuettes, waited with 20 other people before being waved in. It was the moment, he says, that epitomized his party.
“I felt like Nathanael West.”