From the New York Times bestselling author of Just Desserts: Martha Stewart: The Unauthorized Biography comes a scrupulously researched investigative biography that tells the inside story of Anna Wintour's incredible rise to power
From her exclusive perch front row center, glamorous Vogue magazine editor in chief Anna Wintour is the most powerful and influential style-maker in the world. Behind her trademark sunglasses and under the fringe of her Louise Brooks bob she determines whether miniskirts are in or out, whether or not it's politically correct to wear fur. She influences designers, wholesalers, and retailers globally from Seventh Avenue to the elegant fashionista enclaves of L'Avenue Montaigne and Via della Spiga. In the U.S. alone a more than $200 billion fashion industry can rise or fall on Anna Wintour's call. And every month millions of women-and men-read Vogue, and are influenced by the pages of the chic and trendy style wish-book that she has controlled with an iron hand in a not-always-so-velvet glove since fighting her way to the most prestigious job in fashion journalism.
Anna Wintour's fashion influence extends to celebrities and politicians: because of it, Hillary Clinton underwent a drastic makeover and became the first First Lady to strike a pose on the cover of Vogue in the midst of Monicagate; Oprah Winfrey was forced to go on a strict diet before Wintour would put her on Vogue's cover. And beauties like Rene Zellweger and Nicole Kidman follow Anna Wintour's fashionista rules to the letter.
Now in her mid-fifties, as she nears her remarkable second decade at the helm of Vogue, comes this revealing biography that will shock and surprise both Anna's fans and detractors alike. Based on scores of interviews, Front Row unveils the Anna Wintour even those closest to her don't know. Oppenheimer chronicles this insecure and creative powerhouse's climb to the top of the bitchy, competitive fashion magazine world, showing up close, as never before exposed, how she artfully crafted and reinvented herself along the way.
She's been called many things-"Nuclear Wintour," by the British press, "cold suspicious and autocratic, a vision in skinniness," by Grace Mirabella, the editor she dethroned at Vogue, and the "Devil" by those who believe she's the inspiration for a recent bestselling novel written by a former assistant.
Included among the startling revelations in Front Row are:
* Anna's "silver spoon" childhood spent craving time with her father.
* Anna's rebellious teen years in London, obsessed with fashion, night-clubbing and dating roguish men.
* Anna's many tempestuous romances.
* Anna's curious marriage to a brilliant child psychiatrist, her role as a mother, and the shocking scandal that led to divorce when she had an affair with a married man.
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Jerry Oppenheimer is an investigative reporter and TV news and documentary producer. He has been writing definitive, bestselling biographies of American icons since the mid-80s, including Rock Hudson, Barbara Walters, Ethel Kennedy, Martha Stewart, the Clintons and Jerry Seinfeld.
The editor in chief of a pop-culture magazine where I used to work would sternly forbid the staff to use the word "icon," unless they were referring to ancient Russian religious art. And I applauded him! The English language is eroding fast, and we need to throw up all possible embankments.
Yet when one reads Jerry Oppenheimer's gleefully ballyhooed biography of another editor in chief -- or "editrix," a sexist term Anna Wintour helped inspire -- icon is exactly the word that comes to mind. Not in the sense of "legend" or "very big celebrity," as it is breathlessly applied to people like Madonna (though in the fashion industry at least, Wintour has certainly achieved such stature), but "icon" meaning image, portrait, cartoon. Many ex-friends, lovers and business associates sallied forth to speak about Wintour -- now 55, a woman in her prime like Miss Jean Brodie, presiding over the crème de la crème or rather the skim milk of skim milk of the Condé Nast finishing school. (Disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Allure, a Condé Nast publication.) But most of her current intimates refused to speak for the record, and in the absence of such testimony, the author often is forced to construct his aloof, elusive subject as a collection of visual symbols. Wintour is her miniskirt; her bobbed hair (it gets a five-page disquisition); her bloody-rare hamburger; her ubiquitous sunglasses -- which, we learn in one of the book's few sympathetic moments, are not a style affectation, but a cover up; the poor thing is apparently "blind as a bat." Could it be that Vogue's top vixen has some personality traits in common with another "icon" of this season, the half-deaf aviator-mogul Howard Hughes, immortalized in the Oscar-nominated movie "The Aviator"?
As in Hughes's case, it's hard to feel much sympathy for Wintour, who was born into privilege and has refused to relinquish it for a nanosecond. (When her East Village sublet was overrun by cockroaches in 1978, Oppenheimer reports, she fled in a taxi, never to return.) Her mother was a bespectacled Bostonian social worker who never got over the accidental death of her eldest son, and whose rural American relatives are treated like hired help by adult Anna (or so they complain); her father was the renowned London newspaper editor Charles "Chilly Charlie" Wintour, a bit of a Black Jack Bouvier type who later remarried one Audrey Slaughter. (One of the many pleasures of the Wintours' tale is how densely populated it is with outlandishly named, British bodice-ripper-sounding characters: Drusillas and Isabellas and Georginas. Nearly everybody is quoted in swooping italics, which enhances the effect.)
After his daughter scorned traditional schooling -- the mean teachers weren't thrilled about that penchant for miniskirts -- Daddy Wintour helped her get a couple of career breaks, beginning with a stint as a shopgirl at Biba, the boutique of London's swinging '60s. You might need to be a serious media or fashion wonk to appreciate Oppenheimer's meticulous tracing of the single-minded career arc that followed, the most titillating revelation of which might be that Wintour put in time at a now defunct sister magazine to Penthouse -- a fact she later deftly excised from her résumé. Amid the hirings and firings and photo shoots, we find a newsflash: The Vogue editor can be demanding in the workplace! To achieve her current perch, it appears, she harnessed "unvarnished ambition" -- still, incredibly, a slur when applied to women. The overall impression is almost as cartoonish as that sketched in The Devil Wears Prada, a roman à clef by Wintour's former assistant Lauren Weisberger.
If only for its verisimilitude, Front Row is an infinitely more satisfying Wintour treatise than that limply plotted bestseller; if Weisberger's heroine had taken a week off to groove at a Bob Marley concert, no one would've believed it. But the text could have used a little judicious airbrushing. Oppenheimer is fond of slipping jarringly into hipster colloquialisms like "way cool" and "freaking" -- more suitable to a contributor to Vogue's extremely successful teen spinoff edition than to a veteran biographer. He fails to acknowledge that even if you hate what Vogue represents, in its current incarnation it's a very, very good magazine; delicious in its unapologetic elitism and strong if fantastical point of view, a pleasure to page through every month. And he attributes the phrase "give them what they never knew they needed" to Wintour's predecessor, Grace Mirabella, without crediting the inspiration of Mirabella's predecessor, the flamingly iconic Diana Vreeland.
Reviewed by Alexandra Jacobs
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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