A Final, Heartbreaking Note From My Vanity Fair Editor George Hodgman
The well-regarded author and longtime Conde Nast staffer, who died by suicide on July 20, recently reached out to Kim Masters after her Graydon Carter column to reminisce.
If you’ve ever found value in anything I’ve written about the entertainment business, you owe something to George Hodgman, a brilliant editor who was found dead at his New York apartment on July 20. He was only 60 years old.
George was a pivotal player in my life who saw something in me, moved me to the next level of my career, elevated my voice. I would say he encouraged me but he entered the picture seemingly full of confidence that I could conquer whatever challenge was set before me. Though we drifted apart for many years and only reconnected briefly before his death, I know now that the bond was never broken.
George put me in a position to chronicle the drama of the entertainment world for Vanity Fair: Disney chairman Michael Eisner’s ungentle firing of Jeffrey Katzenberg as chairman of the studio just weeks after the original Lion King roared into theaters; the flailing of one-time uberagent Michael Ovitz as an executive at Disney; the birth of DreamWorks; the death of Don Simpson, bad-boy producer of Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop.
But George had a huge impact on my career even before he brought me to Vanity Fair. He was the first editor to pursue the idea that became Hit & Run, the book I wrote with Nancy Griffin. When Nancy and I wrote a Premiere magazine article about the adventures of Jon Peters and Peter Guber at Columbia Pictures, we were thinking only of making a deadline. The piece had started out as a routine profile of two enterprising, shifty, credit-grabbing producers who were making a lot of bank with films from Batman to Rain Man. The assignment turned into something entirely different when Sony bought Columbia and reached the entirely unjustified conclusion that Guber and Peters should run the place.
It was pretty clear from the start that their tenure at the studio would be an epic debacle. Thanks above all to Peters, forever to be known as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser-turned-lover, and to some other dubious Peters and Guber associates, the story had sex and drugs and rock-n-roll. The two seemed intent only on squeezing their Japanese bosses for tens of millions and Hollywood was watching agog. It was a wild yarn in the making but still, Nancy and I were both amazed to find ourselves pursued by agents and book publishers.
George was at Simon & Schuster then, working for the legendary Alice Mayhew (editor of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men). We soon found ourselves at a lunch in Manhattan with Alice and her team from S&S, and George was like an anxious parent wanting us to do well. We did well enough that we had soon a six-figure offer even though we hadn’t even written a book proposal.
I can’t remember how far we were into writing the book when George called to tell me he was going to Vanity Fair. What seemed like bad news took a turn for the much better when he said he was going to try to bring me along. My career wasn’t exactly faltering before — I had just started as a staff reporter at The Washington Post — but now I was working on a national magazine, a different and intimidating level.
For a few years, as I have recently written, all was well. Graydon Carter was competing with Tina Brown, who was reigning at The New Yorker, and I was given a long leash to pursue stories. And I’m happy to say I made George proud. Graydon was pleased with my work and sometimes after a piece of mine was published, George would tell me he had heard the magic words: “Si loved it.” In other words, S.I. Newhouse Jr., the remote but watchful chairman of Conde Nast, had expressed his approval, which was everything.
Still on staff at The Washington Post, I took short breaks to write for the magazine. Working from home, I was in constant touch with George. In those days before internet ubiquity, I had to walk to a Kinko’s a few blocks away to pick up pages with George’s edits. I read as I walked home, fine with this or that but starting to hyperventilate at some George flourish that did not sound anything like me. (He put in some line once about Streisand needing to “take care of the instrument, darling,” and I don’t talk or write that way.) But we always worked it out. We never fought for real.
George was gossipy and he could be a bitchy tattletale. He told me about the time one writer high on the masthead called one night, stressing about a story and demanding that he come to her apartment right away. She opened the door completely nude. (As George was manifestly not interested in women, this was not an attempt at a booty call.) There was another famous author who made George come to her house, where he found only a pile of notes that had to be fashioned into a piece. He’d had to spend the night.
George wasn't above a bit of mockery but he was kind and exceptionally sensitive. I remember working on an edit in his office once when a feeling of fatigue and illness suddenly washed over me. I tried to keep on my game face and few people would have noticed anything but George looked at me and asked, “What just happened?” He was (excuse the contradiction) a father hen, always worried about his brood of writers.
Less helpful to anyone was the way George emitted a relentless buzz of anxiety. Even when we just talked on the phone, I could feel it physically. Vanity Fair was a place of intrigue and back-stabbing, but from Washington, it was hard to tell how bad things were and how much of the interference coming through the line was merely George’s taut nerves.
At one point Graydon asked Bryan Burrough to go after an interview with Ovitz. I knew the former super-agent, then in the midst of his doomed tenure at Disney, would never sit down with me. I had earned that by writing stuff about him that he hated almost from the start of my time covering the business. So I wasn’t upset that Graydon asked Bryan to take a shot. But George was petrified that Graydon was trying to ease Bryan into Hollywood coverage while easing me out.
It turned out that Bryan couldn’t get Ovitz to talk to him, either. So Graydon pulled me back in and together Bryan and I wrote a devastating portrait of Ovitz’s woes at Disney without his cooperation. Pairing Bryan and me turned out to be an inspired, if inadvertent, choice.
I would never say that George's fears about Graydon were entirely groundless, but eventually they became consuming and crippling. “I craved his regard,” he wrote later in his memoir, Bettyville. “Anyone could plummet out of favor. When the stories I supervised put me in Graydon’s good graces, I was jubilant, but after failure, when it was possible to wait endlessly outside his office for a brief and chilly audience, I could do nothing but worry and obsess over the rejection.”
George started to become physically and mentally unwell. My memory is cloudy around when exactly I was told he would be leaving and that I would get a string of new editors. The last time I spoke to him, he was barely coherent. I was shocked and I had no clue where to go from there. We lost touch.
Some time later, I heard that George had gotten sober. I never had reason to suspect that he was drunk or high when we worked together, though admittedly I was very naive about drugs. Hearing that at some point he had developed a substance problem was not really surprising. Hearing that he was dealing with it was an enormous relief. I assumed he had a support system. I had a hope that he might call me to tell me he was doing better.
I didn’t hear from him, but in 2016, when his book Bettyville was warmly received, I assumed that George was well again and had reinvented himself as a well-regarded author. Why I didn't reach out to congratulate him is a question I'll have to ask myself for a long time. Now I have a feeling that I was waiting to hear from him while he was waiting to hear from me, which just makes me shake my head.
A couple of weeks ago came Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest and the revisiting of journalist Vicky Ward’s allegation that Graydon had cut incriminating reporting from her 2003 profile of the predator. When Graydon seemed to attack Ward, I decided to write about my own experiences with him at the magazine. The day that article ran I heard from George at long last. I received a torrent of messages that evening from him via Facebook. “Hey, read your Graydon piece,” he began, as if he wasn’t ending a couple of decades of silence. “Everything I am about to say is off the record and not for publication.”
I won’t publish the words that followed — not that they were so terrible. It was clear his memories of our time working together were fresh, as were his grievances with Graydon. He reminded me of his concern about that Bryan Burrough assignment, which until then I had not even remembered. He spoke of certain powerful industry people who he believed had tried to undermine me. He remembered feeling that Graydon was turning against him, against me, against some other writers who George edited as well.
Then he recalled the time years ago when he bought my new baby a dress in Paris. I remember that dress — totally impractical for a newborn with about 20 tiny buttons but beautiful and, as always, generous. That was a pleasant memory but there was — again, still — an intensity in George’s messages that was concerning. And why, I wondered, was this all “off the record” when George had been gone from the magazine for so many years and even Graydon wasn’t there anymore? Was he still so terrified?
“How nice to hear from you!” I responded. I acknowledged that things had gotten worse for me at the magazine after he had left. I addressed some of his other points; I thanked him for the baby dress and told him that baby is now 21. Then there was a pause from him until about 3:45 a.m. The last message read: “I hope your daughter has a wonderful life.”
I worried about the sound of that but I told myself I was being dramatic. For all I knew, George was well. Now we know that George took his own life a little more than a week after sending those messages. I have learned that he continued to suffer from mental illness and addiction and that there had been an episode in March when it seemed clear to one friend that “some awful Rubicon had been crossed.” George had made his decision to leave this world.
I’m not under any illusion that he could have been saved; his loving friends tried. But I feel sure that the talk stirred by the controversy over Graydon’s alleged handling of the Epstein story couldn't have helped matters. The tone of his messages to me confirms that, as does an account in The Daily Beast of a dinner party just hours before his suicide. One of the hosts, Laura Popper, recalled that George — seeming to have a psychotic break — launched into “an alarmingly intense paranoid rant that touched on his years at Vanity Fair, his perceived enemies there, and how certain people were trying to control his mind.”
When I wrote about my experiences at Vanity Fair, I never imagined my article might become part of such a grim picture. I suspect my reminisces provided some fodder for his well-stocked demons, but I also think it gave him an opportunity to reach out to me — not only to relive some bad times but also to remind me about that baby dress, to remind me that we had a relationship that mattered, to say — as I think he did in that last message — good-bye.
Searching around on the internet following the terrible news, I found myself mentioned in an essay that George had written about himself for the publication of Bettyville, as one of the “amazing reporters” with whom he had worked. The connection was always there; it was never forgotten. And if I was ever amazing, it was in part because of George and his belief in me. For that I want to thank him, now and forever.