- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005


By Jerry Oppenheimer

St. Martin’s, $24.95, 377 pages, illus.


Fashion insiders have long whispered about Vogue editor Anna Wintour. The extreme rudeness, the snobbiness and the raging temper tantrums constantly turn up in gossip columns. In 2003, Lauren Weisberger, a former assistant of Ms. Wintour’s, introduced her to a broader audience in “The Devil Wears Prada” — a thinly-veiled account of the author’s former job as her assistant. In the book, the narrator tells the story of what it’s like to work for Miranda Priestley, the fur-wearing, tennis-playing, tyrannical editor of the fictional Runway magazine, who is identical to Wintour in every way except that she always wears a white Hermes scarf rather than the signature black Ray Bans Wintour sports.

Now, in “Front Row,” investigative journalist Jerry Oppenheimer, who has written unauthorized biographies of Martha Stewart and Ethel Kennedy, gets the whole scoop on the woman the British press once dubbed “Nuclear Wintour.” It’s a dishy and meticulously researched volume replete with dozens of quotes and insights from Ms. Wintour’s former friends, enemies and colleagues. (Ms. Wintour herself refused to cooperate.)

Mr. Oppenheimer begins the story in 1960s London, when Ms. Wintour was a rebellious high schooler at tony North London Collegiate. Charles and Nonie Wintour, a newspaper editor and social worker, were extremely liberal parents, even by today’s standards, and so they allowed Anna to have her own flat (on their property) and to come and go as she pleased. As a result of her freedom and enormous allowance, young Anna became an exotic fixture on London’s Swinging Sixties party scene.

By that time the qualities that later helped her ascend to the top began trickling out: obsession with fashion and cool parties; traveling in hot social circles (the young Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis were part of her group at one point); and cozying up to powerful, older men. Her trademark nastiness had begun to emerge by then, too. Her best childhood friend Vivian Lasky, the daughter of another famous editor, describes how self obsessed, mean and critical of others, especially women, young Anna was.

Ms. Lasky recalls Anna generously buying her fashionable designer clothes, including a custom-made Regency ballgown. There was just one hitch — everything was always one size too small. Other times Anna would cook lambchops — Ms. Lasky’s favorite meal — then nibble on a Granny Smith apple and point out, as her friend ate, that Vivian was “pleasantly plump.” “While Anna was sleek and chic she was harshly critical and sarcastic and spiritedly made fun of those who weren’t,” Mr. Oppenheimer writes.

At age 16 she officially started in the fashion world, after she was kicked out of school for refusing to lower her hiked up skirt. (Micro minis happened to be in fashion at that time.) She used her father’s contacts to get a job at the trendy retail store Biba, and then as a low-paid fashion assistant at Harpers & Queen magazine. Since she came from family money she could afford to take such jobs and still drive a trendy car, wear the most current clothes and have plenty of cash left over.

After a few years she moved to New York, where her then boyfriend helped her get started at the Penthouse magazine-owned Viva — a job Anna is reportedly embarrassed about — before she moved to Harper’s Bazaar, New York, British Vogue, House and Garden, and eventually American Vogue. At every job she’d somehow manage to charm the men and put off all the women. Anna never found much use for women, preferring the company of roguish older men or gays.

As Mr. Oppenheimer explains, “The role she would play as the ultimate man’s woman paid off well and would continue to earn her big dividends.” One editor tells the author, “She looked frail, she looked fragile, and obviously that appeals to a lot of men. Anna would stand there with the fringe hanging over her eyes, looking very sort of helpless, a waif-like look, but far from being a waif, and the men would just line up.”

But to the women she was anything but innocent. One female coworker recalls asking Anna for fashion advice. After giving her a once over Anna replied, “You’d have to throw out everything you own.” Mean as Anna was, one only had to scratch her surface to detect a thick layer of insecurity. At one job Anna put her hair in a top knot on a hot summer day. When the whole staff imitated the hairstyle as a joke, Anna burst into tears and fled the office. “She had this insecurity this lack of self … every aspect of her life was programmed,” one of Anna’s former coworkers at New York said. “If she controlled everything she felt safe. The reason she never had any friends was because she decided that friends were not going to be the answer for her.”

“She took herself seriously in a very frivolous profession because her real project and commodity was herself,” another former coworker says. But it was Anna’s selfishness and ruthlessness that got her what she wanted. By the time she was in her mid-30s she had made a name for herself as a major talent in the fashion world. And she let it be known — even to Vogue’s editor at the time, Grace Mirabella — that she wanted the top job at Vogue.

Ms. Mirabella was furious, but Anna was crafty. She negotiated a close relationship with Conde Nast chairman Si Newhouse who, much to Ms. Mirabella’s consternation, created the plum position of Vogue’s creative director for her. Once she got there, Anna ignored Ms. Mirabella’s editorial instructions and terrorized the staff. When Mr. Newhouse moved her to British Vogue a short time later, Ms. Mirabella thought she was rid of Anna for good. But just a short time later Vogue’s editor found out from a gossip column that she was being given her walking papers and Anna would replace her.

Loathed though she is, no one Mr. Oppenheimer interviewed claims that Anna is anything but brilliant when it comes to fashion. She introduced a new, more glamorous look to her magazine, increased subscriptions and continues to bring in millions in ad revenue each year. She’s launched the careers of such fashion luminaries as Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Vera, and Tom Ford. The entire $100 billion fashion industry can rise or fall on her call.

So it’s interesting that one of the book’s recurring themes plays on the paradox of Anna’s talent as an editor and her lack of talent expressing herself with words. By all accounts she can’t write her way out of a paper bag. One editor recalls Anna describing anything she liked as “fabulous” and becoming frustrated when she couldn’t articulate a point. Magazines often accomodated her by hiring professional writers to pen short narratives or stories to go with her photo spreads.

It’s these kind of insider bits of information that make “Front Row” a juicy read. Also fun is the section on Anna’s feud with another top British editor, Tina Brown. According to Mr. Oppenheimer, Anna envies Ms. Brown, an Oxford-educated, talented writer. The two publicly feud like jealous sisters competing to be Mr. Newhouse’s favorite daughter.

The author’s own feelings on Ms. Wintour are plain — he finds her to be a ridiculous person. But he gets at least one small thing wrong when he refers to Plum Sykes, the author of last year’s novel “Bergdorf Blondes,” as “a former Vogue writer” since Ms. Sykes is still on the Vogue masthead. But these considerations shouldn’t deter potential readers. His book is well written and researched. Perhaps best of all, is that he’s never been sued for libel — so all the good bits are definitely not too good to be true.

Rachel DiCarlo is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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