The person Simon is singing about in this song remains a mystery, as she has never made it clear who she wrote it about; rumors include Warren Beatty, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, and Mick Jagger, all of whom she had affairs with. Simon has been elusive and changed her story a bit when asked the inevitable question about the song (strange considering the album title). In 1974, she told Modern Hi-Fi and Music: "That song is about a lot of people. I mean I can think of a lot of people. The actual examples that I've used in the song are from my imagination, but the stimulus is directly from a couple of different sources. It's not just about one particular person."
The media and the general public seemed to want this to be about a specific person, however, and Simon was happy to indulge. In a 2008 interview to promote her album This Kind of Love, she said: "When I had the line 'You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you,' that was definitely about one person. The rest of the descriptions basically came from my relationship with that person."
When it came time to promote her memoir Boys in the Trees in 2015, Simon divulged that the second verse ("You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive...") is about Warren Beatty, and said that the other verses are about two different men, whom she wouldn't name. As for Beatty's reaction, Simon said, "Warren thinks the whole thing is about him."
Richard Perry, who produced the album, has his own ideas about the song's subject matter. He said in the book The Record Producers: "It's about a compilation of men that Carly had known, but primarily Warren Beatty."
Simon started recording this with Harry Nilsson singing backup, but Mick Jagger ended up singing on it instead (listen for him on the "don't you" parts), although he was not credited on the album.
When asked how she was able to get him, Simon said: "I guess it was kind of chance in a way. I was in London, it was 1972 and he happened to call at the studio while I was doing the background vocals with Harry Nilsson. Mick said 'Hey, what cha doin'?' and I said 'We're doing some backup vocals on a song of mine... why don't you come down and sing with us?' So Mick and Harry and I stood around the mic singing 'You're So Vain' and Harry was such a gentleman - he knew the chemistry was between me and Mick; in terms of the singing, so he sort of bowed out saying, 'The two of you have a real blend - you should do it yourselves.'"
In a 2000 interview with Charlie Rose, Simon explained the origin of this song: "There was originally a song that had the melody of what is now 'You're So Vain,' called 'Bless You Ben.' It went 'Bless you Ben, you came in, where nobody else left off, there I was, by myself, hiding up in my loft.' It never went anywhere, I could never fall in love with it. And then I was at a party and somebody walked in and my friend said to me 'Doesn't he look like he's just walked on to a yacht?' So, I thought to myself - hmmm, let me write that in my notebook. And then one day, when I was playing 'Bless You Ben' on the piano, I substituted 'You walked into the party, like you were walking onto a yacht' and the exchange was equal. And it felt natural and it felt good and then I could get into that man, I knew who I was talking about."
Simon came up with the "Clouds in my coffee" line on a cross-country flight. She explained the meaning of the phrase, saying: "Clouds In My Coffee are the confusing aspects of life and love. That which you can't see through, and yet seems alluring... until. Like a mirage that turns into a dry patch. Perhaps there is something in the bottom of the coffee cup that you could read if you could (like tea leaves or coffee grinds)."
The phrase came courtesy of her friend and musical collaborator Billy Mernit, who was sitting next to Simon on the flight. Carly had the window seat, and Mernit noticed the clouds from the window reflecting in her coffee. He said, "look at the clouds in your coffee," and mentioned that it looked like a shot from the 1967 French movie 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, directed by Jean-Luc Godard. In the film, there's a poignant shot of cream swirling in a cup of coffee. According to Mernit, he and Simon both wrote the line down in their journals, and a few weeks later, Carly called him and asked if she could use it in a song.
Glenn A. Walsh, who was Astronomical Observatory Coordinator and a Planetarium Lecturer for Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium, told us:
There actually is another part of the "You're So Vain" mystery that few people are aware of. Most people think that most lyrics are simply creative. However, one lyric in this song is very curious:
"Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun."
When I first heard this lyric in June of 1972, I immediately knew what it meant. I am sure that nearly ANY scientist who heard this lyric in 1972 knew exactly what it referred to!
In fact, one day in mid-June of 1972, a colleague and I were in the radio station when the record was played. When that particular lyric was heard, he turned to me and said, "that would be nice." I knew he meant that it would be nice to fly to Nova Scotia and see the eclipse the next month.
There was a total eclipse of the Sun on July 10, 1972 and Nova Scotia would be one of the best places to observe this particular eclipse (see an image of the eclipse
Even though Carly Simon wrote the lyric in past-tense, she was really writing about an actual event in the not-too-distant future!
This brings-up several questions:
- Did she write the lyric in past-tense because she did not think the record would be released until after the eclipse? Or she did not think it would become popular until after the eclipse?
- Did this guy tell her about the upcoming eclipse and his plans to see it? Or did she know about the eclipse herself or did some other friend tell her about it as she was writing the lyrics - and she knew this guy would possibly fly to Nova Scotia to see the eclipse?
- Did this guy actually fly to Nova Scotia to see the eclipse? Or, did the release of this record actually make him decide NOT to fly to Nova Scotia to see the eclipse (AND, was this Carly Simon's purpose in writing the lyric)?
The mystery continues with these questions!
As the mystique surrounding this song grew, Simon became more evasive about its subject, but in the '70s and '80s she was relatively straightforward when asked about it. Here's what she told Bob Shannon and John Javna for their Behind The Hits book, published in 1986: "There isn't as direct an answer as you would like, or as my public would like to hear. I mean, I can't answer and say it is about Warren Beatty, who a lot of people think it is about. Yes, it is about Warren Beatty. But it's not only about Warren Beatty."
In 2003, Simon held an auction for a charity on Martha's Vineyard where she offered to tell the high bidder who this song is about. The winning bidder was Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, who paid $50,000. Ebersol had to sign a confidentiality agreement, but was allowed to give one hint - the man's name contains the letter "E." Over the next few years, Simon further revealed that there is also an "A" and an "R" in the name.
Simon married James Taylor a month before this was released. She has said that it is definitely not about him.
This song could be about one of Simon's ex-boyfriends who was not famous, which would explain the clues that eliminate most of the popular candidates. In December 2005, the gossip section of the Lower Manhattan newspaper Downtown Express reported a conversation with Simon's husband Jim Hart, an insurance executive in the Financial District who married Simon in 1987 (they divorced in 2007), where Hart said that the song is about an old boyfriend who was not a celebrity. This makes sense considering that a non-celebrity suitor would make a less titillating tale, and that none of the famous names floated have been confirmed.
The original title of this song, typed on the acetate demo, was "Ballad of a Vain Man."
When Simon originally penned the song it was more of a folky ballad, but her producer Richard Perry gave it more of a rock edge. She recalled to Uncut magazine April 2010: "I played it in a much slower tempo, which he raised. I didn't take the song as seriously as all that. It wasn't vengeance - it wasn't Anna Karenina. It was, 'From this point of view, you don't necessarily look as good as you think you look.' There's not an iota of hate in it. There may be much more of an iota of feeling hurt or rejected. I was brought up by a mother who was adamant that you didn't even kiss a man unless you were in love with him. So I was in love with a lot of men! I was definitely a romantic and my hopes were dashed. That led to the song. But I admired all those candidates, for their great artistic sensibility. I was besotted by the lads! Of course, I've never established whether I was attracted to that person. I don't think I would be now."
Howard Stern claims that Simon told him who this song is about... but he forgot. As Stern tells it, Simon appeared on his show with Ben Taylor, who is Simon's son with her ex-husband James Taylor. Carly and Ben had an agreement not to talk about James Taylor, which was clearly a source of tension. Howard was able to open a dialogue about the subject, and Simon was so grateful that she whispered the name of the mystery man into Howard's ear, making Howard and Dick Ebersol the only people she has told. According to Howard, he has since forgotten, but he knows it's not David Geffen.
In 1976, Simon performed this on Saturday Night Live, but taped her performance about an hour before the show because she got really bad stage fright. Chevy Chase played the cowbell and sang in the background.
In February 2010, Simon gave a clue regarding to whom this song is directed, when she told Uncut
magazine: "You know what, I'm just going to tell you this. The answer is on the new version of 'You're So Vain,' on my new record Never been Gone
. There's a little whisper and it's the answer to the puzzle."
A representative for Simon confirmed that the name whispered during the song is "David." Multiple media outlets quickly reported that the subject was David Geffen, who ran Simon's Elektra record label at the time of the song's release. They surmised that the song had been inspired by her resentment of the attention Geffen had put into promoting her label-mate Joni Mitchell: In 1973 Mitchell penned "Free Man in Paris
" about Geffen.
However, in an email to Showbiz 411
Simon said that Geffen is not the "David" in question. She wrote: "What a riot! Nothing to do with David Geffen! What a funny mistake! Someone got a clue mistaken for another mistake," adding that she never even knew Geffen in 1971 when the song was written, "How can this guessing game stop without a lie?" she said.
The chorus of this song ("You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you; don't you?") is included in the Nine Inch Nails song "Starf---ers, Inc" on The Fragile
In 2001, Simon sang on Janet Jackson's "Son Of A Gun," which was an updated version of this song.
One of the more unusual covers of this song is Marilyn Manson's 2012 version, which features the actor Johnny Depp on drums and lead guitar. According to Manson, Depp called him and asked if he would like to record a song. They jammed at Depp's studio and came up with the idea to cover this song, as they both thought it would be ironic.
In 2015, Taylor Swift listed this as the #1 "Song That Made Me," explaining that its coy look at a famous ex-lover was an inspiration for many of her songs. Swift brought Simon on stage to sing the song with her at a concert at Gillette Stadium on July 27, 2013. She says that after the show, Simon told her who the song was written about.
Warren Beatty was uncharacteristically loquacious while promoting his 2016 movie Rules Don't Apply, and in an interview with The Toronto Sun, he talked a bit about Simon and what she said about him in her book. "I think Carly Simon is a very intelligent woman, who was extremely helpful when I was deeply involved in the McGovern campaign, and she was terribly helpful with raising money through the entertainment industry, which we did at that time in an unprecedented way," he said. "I would say there is invention there that is simply not true, but that's fine. And there's some small amount of truth there. Not a lot, but that's just one example of what has happened with me for a number of books."