Graydon's Big Get: Raids Portfolio for Michael Lewis
by John Koblin
About a month ago, Vanity Fair deputy editor Doug Stumpf took Michael Lewis out to dinner at his boss Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn. Mr. Stumpf brought along fellow Vanity Fair editor Punch Hutton and contributing editor Bethany McLean to help split the $55 truffled macaroni-and-cheese plates for the table.
Mr. Lewis, who has been (and still is, at press time) on contract with The New York Times Magazine and Portfolio, had been wined and dined by magazine editors before. But this trip to Graydon Carter’s own private-public domain was a first.
And now, Mr. Lewis has given Vanity Fair an oral agreement that he will drop both of those contracts, and he will sign exclusively with them.
It’s an incredible get for Mr. Carter: Vanity Fair gets perhaps the most important financial journalist in the country to move from Conde Nast’s only financial title.
“In the pantheon of great narrative journalists, Michael Lewis is pretty much at the top,” Mr. Carter, who followed up that Waverly meal with an email exchange with Mr. Lewis, told The Observer in an interview for this article.
But it hasn’t been easy, not just because Mr. Lewis can have any job he wants, but because of something that happened over ten years ago.
In June 1997, the late Marjorie Williams wrote a brutal profile of journalism’s then-36-year-old golden boy Mr. Lewis for Vanity Fair which included an uncomfortably close examination of his love life, his journalistic practice, and his personality.
(Mr. Lewis did not respond to an email asking for an interview for this article.)
“The thing is, Michael, I think, had attitude about the magazine because of that,” Mr. Carter said. “I think I had to convince him that was then and this is now,” he added.
Apparently he did.
It’s not quite fair to pinpoint this most recent negotiation as the beginning of Mr. Lewis’ détente with Vanity Fair. Mr. Lewis agreed to write a piece for the July issue about Cuban baseball; Mr. Carter told The Observer that even then it was important to make the edit “a pleasant experience,” which for a writer might have included the 16,000 words of space he was allotted for an arguably offbeat topic.
“I don’t think he had been reading the magazine, but then he started reading it and he was surprised at how good the journalism was in it,” said Mr. Stumpf. “He was really complimentary.”
And since Vanity Fair wrote its 1997 profile, Mr. Lewis has only become a bigger star in journalism. His 2003 book Moneyball spent 18 weeks on the best-seller list and sold over 280,000 copies in hardcover and nearly 350,000 in paperback—in addition to altering the way fans watch the game of baseball. Count the walks!
And he’s settled down, marrying ’90s heartthrob and MTV News reporter Tabitha Soren later in 1997 and mining the relationship for material: His book about raising his three children (Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood) is due on bookstore shelves in 2009.
So what about those editors he’s about to leave behind? Can The Times hold onto Mr. Lewis with its typical $30,000 story fee for its most cherished stars? What can Portfolio do to counter?
“As I understand it, Michael and Vanity Fair haven’t closed the deal yet,” New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati wrote to The Observer in an e-mail, “but I, of course, wish Michael well should it come to pass—we’ve worked together for a dozen years, he’s done so much memorable writing here, and my sense is he’ll still be writing for the Times Magazine from time to time. And I totally understand the move, should he make it—I think Graydon is offering not only a whopping contract but has agreed to buy up all Michael’s debt-swap derivatives.”
“Michael is a contributing editor for Portfolio and he’s continuing to work on pieces, and he has done a phenomenal job predicting the current crisis we’re in right now,” said Joanne Lipman, the editor of Porfolio.
It wouldn’t be totally unlike Mr. Lewis to be a tricky negotiator. Last year, according to the Condé Nast source, Mr. Lewis suggested to Ms. Lipman that he wasn’t going to return to Portfolio, but was eventually lured back after he was given more money.
And according to a Portfolio source, until Mr. Lewis brings pen to paper on his Vanity Fair contract, the magazine intends to start an aggressive campaign to retain him. But at Vanity Fair, the victory party has already begun. And Off the Record wondered: Does Mr. Carter consider Mr. Lewis a friend now?
“We’re not friends yet because I don’t know him that well,” Mr. Carter said. “But it would be very nice if we became friends.”