Graydon Carter was on his way back from honeymoon last Tuesday when his magazine revealed the identity of the most famous anonymous source in the world. The way the Vanity Fair editor tells it, the fact that he was sitting on the media scoop of the century, the identity of Deep Throat, had temporarily slipped his mind.
"I completely forgot about it," he says. "I was in a small airport in the Caribbean and I called the office to check in." His colleagues told him that the story had broken and the media was world buzzing with intrigue. The Washington Post's Watergate duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, had refused to confirm or deny that the former FBI number two, Mark Felt, was Deep Throat. For the time being, Vanity Fair was on its own. The story was out - but Carter was still not completely confident it was right.
"We fact-checked this thing through alternate and overlapping sources. The chief fact checker had been through it dozens and dozens of times to fill in the gaps. But the ultimate confirmation could come from only two sources." But calling Woodward, or Bernstein, who is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, was out of the question.
"We skipped the last two phone calls," explains Carter. "If Bob knew what we were going to do he could have got it up on the web within two hours, but we wouldn't be able to get it on the newsstands for at least two weeks." One of his colleagues warned him he would need "brass balls" to see it through.
Brass-balled is not the obvious description for Carter, who has just married Anna Scott, a Brit 18 years his junior, whose father is an equerry to the Queen. He is a dandy of the old school. When he comes to London he stays at the Dorchester; he gets his stationery made in Paris at Benetton; he is out of the office every day by 5.30pm and out of most cocktail parties within five minutes. "You go in, you go right to the guest of honour, and you go right to the host," he once explained. "You never take off your coat, you never pick up a glass, and you never say goodbye. Sometimes I do four or five of those in one night." But when it came to this story, the brass balls were firmly in place.
Staff in Vanity Fair's Times Square office told him the Washington Post planned to make a statement in the next seven minutes. "I was terrified they were going to say it was someone else," he says. "I thought if they say it's some other guy this is going to be a long trip back to the US. I was 95% sure and I thought that was about as sure as I'm going to be. Sometimes you've got to close your eyes, pull the trigger and hope for the best."
Only when Woodward finally released himself from his pledge never to reveal Deep Throat's identity while he was still alive did Carter know that he had hit the bullseye. He arrived back in New York from his honeymoon to a hero's welcome. "The identity of Deep Throat isn't the most earth-shattering story in the world," he says. "But among journalistic secrets this is the Holy Grail."
It was the culmination of two years of intermittent discussions with Felt's representatives that started with a phone call out of the blue in March 2003. "Graydon, you've got someone on the phone who wants to talk to you about Deep Throat," his assistant said.
"It was funny because my assistant had no idea who Deep Throat was," says Carter. "I think people under 30 still think you're talking about the porn film."
Carter took the call himself. On the other end of the phone was John D O'Connor, the lawyer friend of the Felt family who was representing them and who finally wrote the piece for Vanity Fair. "He sounded reasonably credible," says Carter. "But you get a lot of calls like this. I told him I'd get someone to get back to him right away."
He asked David Friend, a senior editor on the magazine, to "see how serious this is". Not long afterwards O'Connor flew out to New York. Carter paints a picture of naifs on a mission to make money. The Felt family had a secret that they knew was valuable. But they knew neither how valuable it was nor how to realise that value.
"The family were all new to this part of the American circus," says Carter. "They were talking about book deals and film rights. I told them that we wouldn't be able to pay them anything apart from the writer. But I also told them that if you do it in Vanity Fair you will have a great launching pad to explore the next level. This will bring it worldwide attention."
Vanity Fair, a glossy general-interest monthly, certainly has an international reach. Its combination of soft-pat celebrity interviews, stunning photographs, an eclectic stable of accomplished writers and the occasional political feature has a British readership that stretches from Guardian regulars to Daily Mail buyers.
The family considered their options. "It went cold for six months," says Carter. "Then it would come up every two months and then go on the back burner. They were making up their mind."
They took it to HarperCollins, where Judith Regan, publisher of the Regan Books imprint, said the possibility of a deal collapsed because of serious concerns about 91-year-old Felt's state of mind. Carter did not regard this as a serious concern. The Time stable also passed on the story. For a while it seemed as though the Holy Grail was up for the highest bidder and everyone was passing on it.
O'Connor came back to Vanity Fair, where he was finally paid $10,000 (£5,500). "The money is not that much," says Carter. But if getting the story was tricky, keeping it would be even more so. "We just thought, how the hell do we keep this a secret for two years?" he says. "It is a very transparent organisation. There are no closed doors here. But there was about this. I was worried that people would feel they'd been kept in the dark but when they did find out they understood absolutely."
Carter started with an inner circle of two - him and Friend - and then expanded the circle on a need to know basis from the art director and fact checker to an eventual group of just 15. The story had a codename - WIG - and on the dummy copies as it moved towards publication it also had a dummy cover line - "The Car Door Slams". The photographer was not even allowed to tell his wife where he was going. A particularly odd state of affairs because his wife is the photo-director of Vanity Fair.
Given the current journalistic climate in the US - two reporters face prison time for refusing to reveal an anonymous source and the relationship between the press and the Bush administration remains at best tense - Carter believes the timing of the story couldn't be better. "All administrations are out to intimidate journalists," he says. "But none has had such a particularly antagonistic view of the press since Nixon."
His magazine has done its part but he thinks Deep Throat will continue to be a story. "It will go on for a little while," he says. "Particularly if Woodward gets together with Carl. That would be great marketing," says the editor with one eye on celebrity and the other on politics. "That would be like the Beatles."