Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, from her 1972 breakthrough album No Secrets has been the subject of much debate for decades. Many of her ex-boyfriends have wondered whether they were the inspiration behind the singer’s cutting description and Simon has relished in it, throwing curveballs and adding to the mystery at every opportunity. Other than You’re So Vain being a wonderful pop song with one of the most classic choruses in music history, together with an array of brilliant and sometimes witty lines, this mystery is the key to the song’s longevity. So, let’s line up the vain suspects.
Prior to You’re So Vain becoming a hit, Simon told interviewers that the song was about “men” in general and not a specific “man”. However, this didn’t stop potential subjects wondering whether the song was about them and Simon’s audience trying to unravel the clues in the lyrics.
Mick Jagger wondered whether the song was about him. Jagger provided backing vocals for You’re So Vain and in Angie Bowie’s 1993 book Backstage Passes, she claimed that Jagger had been “obsessed” with Simon.
Additionally, Angie Bowie claimed to be the “wife of a close friend” mentioned in the final verse of the song.
When You’re So Vain was sampled for Janet Jackson’s 2001 single, Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song is About You), from the album All for You, Simon stated that “The apricot scarf was worn by Nick [Delblanco]. Nothing in the words referred to Mick”. Simon started dating Delblanco in the early 1960s whilst he was studying at Harvard University and was being hotly tipped as the next big thing in literature. She and Delblanco travelled to France together where Simon acted as her boyfriend’s helpmeet. The couple broke up in 1964.
Could the song be about Kris Kristofferson, with whom Simon had a summer-long love affair with in 1971? During their romance, Simon wrote the song Three Days, from the album Anticipation (1971), about Kristofferson.
In return, Kristofferson wrote I’ve Got to Have You, from the album Breakaway with Rita Coolidge (1974), about Simon.
As quoted in Sheila Weller’s 2008 book, Girls Like Us, Kristofferson said of the Simon: “Looking back on the romance, I was pretty self-absorbed in those days. Carly was funny and really smart – she had more brains than I did. I have a hard time now believing she tolerated my company”.
In a 1989 interview, Simon said that the song is a little about Warren Beatty, whom she dated in the early 1970s, but is actually a composite of three men from her days in Los Angeles. In a 1983 interview with The Washington Post, Simon said: “It certainly sounds like it was about Warren Beatty. He certainly thought it was about him – he called me and said thanks for the song. At the time I met him, he was still relatively undiscovered as a Don Juan. I felt I was one among thousands at that point – it hadn’t reached, you know, the populations of small countries”.
To keep her audience on their toes, Simon has divulged letter clues as to the mystery man over the years. During an interview with CNN in 2004, she said, “Well, I guess for those who are interested in clues – the name of the person it was about had an ‘E’ in it … Maybe I could disclose another letter. Ok, it also has an ‘A’ … Well listen, two vowels ain’t bad!” Additionally, in an interview with Regis and Kelly in 2004, when asked by Regis Philbin who the mystery man was, Simon dropped another letter clue, this time saying, “If I tell it, it’s going to come out in dribs and drabs. And I’ve given out two letters already, an ‘A’ and an ‘E’. But I’m going to add one to it. I’m going to add an ‘R’, in honour of you”.
Between 1972 and 1983, Simon was married to singer / songwriter James Taylor, who is often cited as a potential source of inspiration for the song. However, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, she said, “No, it’s definitely not about James, although James suspected it might be about him because he’s very vain. No, he isn’t, but he had the unfortunate experience of taking a jet up to Nova Scotia after I’d written the song. He was saved by the fact it wasn’t a Lear”.
Cat Stevens has also been cited as a speculative candidate. Simon opened for Stevens at The Troubadour for three nights in April 1971. Following the sell out shows, Simon travelled back to New York with Stevens, where he asked her out and the pair became romantically involved. Simon wrote her single 1971 Anticipation, from her second album, also called Anticipation, whilst waiting for Stevens to pick her up for a date. She also dedicated the aforementioned album to him, using his real name, Steve (Steven Demitri Georgiou).
In return, Stevens wrote the song Sweet Scarlet, from his 1972 album Catch Bull at Four, about Simon.
For his 2006 book, Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?, Gavin Edwards interviewed Simon’s ex-husband James Hart, whom she was married to between 1987 and 2007, who said, “I’m sure that the song wasn’t about anybody famous”. Hart was the subject of another of Simon’s songs, Coming Around Again, from the album Coming Around Again (1987).
On the 19th June 2008, disc jockey Howard Stern claimed on his show on Sirius Satellite Radio that Simon had privately revealed to him whom the song was written about following an interview. Stern said of the revelation that, “There is an odd aspect to it … he’s not that vain”. On the 17th March 2009, again on his radio show, Stern claimed that it was a “composite of three people”. Most recently, Stern said on air on the 5th May 2014, “She takes me aside, pulls me close, whispers in my ear three names. She goes, it wasn’t one person, it was three people”. Stern also said that he thought one of the names could have been Warren Beatty and another might be American business magnate and Geffen Records boss, David Geffen, but said he “forgot”.
Another possible candidate may be musician Dan Armstrong, whom Simon had first known whilst performing in nightclubs in the mid 1960s. Armstrong owned Armstrong’s Guitar Repair Shop and in 1968, the two met officially and started a relationship when Simon took her guitar to be fixed. Their relationship lasted for two years. In Sheila Weller’s 2008 book Girls Like Us, she states that “Although Simon described him as an arrogant, opinionated Neanderthal, she found him to be overwhelmingly handsome and very gifted musically”. In his 2012 biography of Simon, More Room in a Broken Heart, Stephen Davis claims that Simon described herself as “naive” at the time. Could Armstrong be at least the inspiration behind the lines “Oh, you had me several years ago, When I was still naive”? After Simon broke her relationship with Armstrong off, he moved to Los Angeles to set up a new business. Simon regretted her actions and tried to make it up to Armstrong but tono avail. Her heartbreak over the end of the relationship inspired the song Dan, My Fling from her 1971 debut album, Carly Simon. Armstrong’s full name of Daniel Kent Armstrong feature all three letters of Simon’s clue.
During an interview with WNYC’s Soundcheck on the 4th November 2009, Simon stated that she had hidden the identity of the vain man, whispered backwards, in a certain version of the song. The next day, the show revealed that the name was “David”. Simon, however, denied that the name was David, saying that she spoke “Ovid” both forwards and backwards and that it sounded like “David”. In the February 2010 issue of Uncut magazine, Simon once again stated that the subject of the song was whispered backwards in a re-recording of You’re So Vain.
At this time, a representative for Simon confirmed that the name was indeed “David”. Following this, various publications quickly reported that David Geffen was the subject of the song and that the song had been inspired by Simon’s jealousy over the attention that Geffen had paid to label-mate Joni Mitchell.
However, Simon’s publicist stated that the song was not about Geffen but there was indeed “a David who is connected to the song in some way, shape, or form”. In an Email to Showbiz 411, quoted in the March 2010 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Simon said “What a riot! Nothing to do with David Geffen! What a funny mistake! Someone got a clue mistaken for another mistake”. Simon went on to say that she didn’t know Geffen when she wrote the song in 1971. This would be true as the song was written prior to Simon’s label Elektra Records being merged with Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1972, when Geffen assuming control of the combined companies. If the David in question is not David Geffen, then could it be David Bowie? Taking Simon’s ‘A’, ‘E’ and ‘R’ clues and using Bowie’s real name, David Robert Jones, then perhaps. Additionally, and to add further confusion, the February 2010 issue of Vanity Fair noted that the names “David”, “Warren” and another unintelligible name are whispered during the recording.
That’s cleared that one up then.