Picture a teenage Anna Wintour: She's as pin-thin, picture-pretty, clothes-crazed and Antarctic-icy as she's reputed to be now, in her mid-50s, as the queen of Vouge magazine and dominatrix of the fashion world. Then, as now, she has few friends. She's bonded with only one girl, Vivienne Lasky, another half-American whose father is also a prominent journalist.
Then, as now, Ms. Wintour can't help but show her critical, caustic, diabolic nature. She would generously buy presents for Ms. Lasky, but the clothes she gave her best friend were always a size too small, driving home her carping that Ms. Lasky was not as svelte as she.
Stories like that -- and many are meaner -- fill the pages of Jerry Oppenheimer's Front Row: Anna Wintour: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor in Chief. They show Ms. Wintour as rude, imperious, extravagant, manipulative, aloof, cutting, ambitious. Little wonder that Ms. Wintour didn't cooperate with Mr. Oppenheimer, who once worked as a reporter for the National Enquirer and the Washington Star and has written catty biographies of Martha Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and others.
The enterprising Mr. Oppenheimer, however, seems to have had little trouble persuading Ms. Wintour's colleagues and acquaintances to talk to him. The result is a fast-paced biological romp, starting with Ms. Wintour's early years in a dysfunctional family that allowed her to live independently in her own London flat at the age of 15 (during the Swinging '60s, no less). How badly Ms. Wintour treated her assistants is known to everyone who bought the best-selling novel The Devil Wears Prada (2003) -- now we learn how "Nuclear Wintour," as the British press tagged her, treats everyone else.
One Oppenheimer theme -- that Ms. Wintour, who gets fashionistas from Fifth Avenue to Fresno to follow her style cues, doesn't like women -- is amply demonstrated. She ignores most of them. Sometimes Ms. Wintour sidled up to a simpatico woman at work, but the friendship rarely lasted. Many, like Vivienne Lasky, were simply discarded: First Ms. Wintour was a no-show at her pal's engagement party, and then, a few months later, Ms. Wintour invited Ms. Lasky to stop by her office to catch up -- and was nowhere to be found at the appointed hour. But at least she left a gift.
Ms. Wintour is depicted as the ultimate man's woman, a clever, complimentary flirt -- a tease, even. She was a high-school dropout with no plans whatsoever until her cold and distant father, the powerful editor of London's Evening Standard, got her into a training program at Harrods. She soon quit, but from then on, Ms. Wintour used him and the men she dated to open doors for her and to be her advocate.
She's passed through the arms of many men, according to Mr. Oppenheimer -- usually father figures or roguish types, but also fashion photographers who could help her out. She's also passed through the doors of many publications, among them Harper's and Queen, Harper's Bazaar, Savvy and Viva. Whether she was fired or quit, Ms. Wintour almost always stirred up anger and hatred among those she left behind.
Ever conscious of her image, she constantly reinvents herself -- forgetting or leaving out inconvenient and unpleasant details, people and whole periods. On her upward trek, she always played hardball: telling underlings to ignore the behests of her superiors, taking charge of things beyond her purview, attending meetings to which she wasn't invited. She also displayed that distinctly male management characteristic, and I'm-right-they're-wrong confidence so key to exuding power. No matter who's at fault, Ms. Wintour maintains a strong, fearless face in public -- though she often goes home to cry for sympathy and advice from whoever happens to be her then-partner.
Ms. Wintour started her real march to the top when she wangled a job as fashion editor at New York magazine. There, after rejecting the desk she was given and bringing in a more stylish one, Ms. Wintour turned in attention-getting layouts; she charmed and manipulated Ed Kosner, the editor, and soon was in charge of design and food coverage, too. But Mr. Kosner wasn't the endgame; Alexander Liberman, who as editorial director of Conde Nast held the keys to her ultimate goal, the editorship of Vogue, was.
Mr. Liberman did notice her byline and summoned her to Conde Nast. Soon, she was creative director of Vogue and starting to make life pure hell for the magazine's editor, Grace Mirabella. It was October 1983. Less than two years later, Mr. Liberman had to dispatch Ms. Wintour to head up British Vogue to stop the fighting. No matter: S.I. Newhouse Jr., Conde Nast's chairman, was enamoured by both her charms and her skills. Even though she bullied the staff of British Vogue and then made hash of House and Garden (which under her became HG), Ms. Wintour reached her ultimate goal -- dethroning Ms. Mirabella -- in alte June 1988. Famously, Ms. Mirabella learned the news from her husband, who had heard it on TV.
Aside from Ms. Wintour's story, Ms. Oppenheimer uses Front Row to ladle out dish -- just as he did in Just Desserts, his 1997 biography of Martha Stewart.
What he serves up is pretty juicy, and also unsavory. He has Ms. Wintour falling head-over-heels for Bob Marley, disappearing for a week with him and coming back looking exhausted. He also has her throwing her weight around with the likes of CIndy Crawford, whose cover picture she spiked; Oprah Winfrey, who had to lose weight before going on Vogue's cover; and Hillary Clinton, whom she gussied up during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nasty feuds with Ms. Mirabella, Tina Brown, Linda Wells (the editor of Allure) and others are all reported here as well.
Front Row is an enteraining chronicle of Ms. Wintour's life, but it's also a very flawed book. Mr. Oppenheimer depends too heavily on a few sources, Vivienne Lasky among them; the many disillusioned friends and acquaintances are tellong only one side of the story. At times, the book simply goes where the interviews went -- the author lets his material dictate the storyline, making too much of some things (Ms. Lasky's tales) and not enough of others (her relationship with current beau, John Shelby Bryan). There are also distracting digressions, such as details about the post-Wintour adventures of one ex-boyfriend, writer Jon Bradshaw, or about Ms. Wintour's unfashionable mother.
There's a less gossipy way to read this book, of course: Think of it as a study in power. Ms. Wintour deployed many tactics for getting what she wanted, as Mr. Oppeneheimer shows us. She was always on the offensive and never missed an opportunity to flaunt her authority. She dressed the part and pretended she was in control, even when she wasn't. She charmed powerful men, played to their sense of importance, but apparently never asked permission (though she did inform them of her deeds with an "I know you will agree with this"). She was single-mindedly focused on her goals, decisive and to the point, even when it hurt (which was often).
Revelatory? Hardly. Many a management guru preaches similar tactics.
But there is one tidbit worth pondering: Today's most influential women's-magazine editor, says Mr. Oppenheimer, can't write. Never has. Never had to.