Anna: The critical biography of Amy Odell – the coldest Wintour ever recorded | Biography books

For all those who have sometimes wondered what could possibly be hiding behind the eternal sunglasses of the famously frightening Anna Wintour, author of a new biography of the longtime editor-in-chief of American vogue has some momentous news: it seems there is, after all, “a person there” (as opposed, you understand, to a robot programmed by the ghost of Oscar de la Renta). But if the journalist Amy Odell has indeed found several witnesses ready to testify on the file of the existence of this corporeal being, she is, alas, unable to go much further; to explain what drives Wintour, not to mention reveal what keeps her up at night (assuming she can tell it’s night). His book may well be based on 250 sources and be accompanied by notes longer than the concordance with that of Thomas Malory The death of Arthur. Full disclosure, however, is not – unless, of course, the reader has thus far been unaware that “Wintour’s ability to empathize is up for debate.”

Debate ! The word would come with all the wit and understatement of vintage Maison Margiela if it were not used without irony. Then again, its author’s refusal to make fun of anything, no matter how ridiculous, is also the only reason I enjoyed his book. If the pages (and pages) she devotes to Wintour’s assistants – young women who must not want to be writers and whose job it is to make sure her whole latte and blueberry muffin (an item usually left unconsummated) await him big white desk every morning – are full to boredom, hard not to laugh at his utmost seriousness, even when it comes to crazy and laughable. After noting, for example, that after the September 11 attacks, Wintour immediately returned to work, she quickly adds that this was not unusual: after a facelift in 2000, she returned to the office – even more amazing! – with bruises still visible. Yes, vogues staff were uncomfortable having to do the same, but they were also, thank goodness, able to take “an extraordinary step towards self-care” by wearing flats rather than heels “in case they had to go down the stairs”.

Wintour said she relishes America’s classlessness, a statement that somewhat obscures the fact that she got her start through her father, Charles Wintour, a evening standard editor. Having left her private school in London in 1966 – university was not for her – it was dad who helped her find a job at Minstrels and queen, where she started, sunglasses and bucket hat already in place, as a fashion assistant at the age of 20 (the magazine’s editor-in-chief then knew her father). But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t savvy; ambition and a certain type of low-key stoicism are its main characteristics, according to Odell.

Furious to have been rejected from a promotion to Minstrelsfive years later, she traveled to New York with her then-boyfriend, where she eventually landed the role of fashion editor at a magazine owned by Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse. Long live was, she knew, a bit flashy, but her fashion pages, dominated by “Siberian peasant outfits,” were also ripe for transformation. Wintour preferred models posed in country settings – hay, tractors, thick sweaters – but she also liked the “edge”. A 1977 issue included an image in which a model in a doll dress and bonnet could be seen on her hands and knees being fed a bottle of milk by the man posing at the above her. Eat your heart, Gloria Steinem.

Wintour with the Queen at London Fashion Week February 2018
Wintour with the Queen during London Fashion Week, February 2018. Photograph: Yui Mok/AFP/Getty Images

On it climbed. Relays at Clever and with us vogue over time led her to return to London in triumph to edit British vogue. But that title then, as now, was small fry compared to its stablemate Condé Nast, and after a disastrous period of racing Home & Garden in New York, she finally stole American vogue under the nose of its beige-loving editor, Grace Mirabella, in 1988 – and it has remained there ever since, surviving all the rumors, all the publicity slowdowns, all the editorial calamities. In addition to its role in vogue, she is now chief content officer and artistic director of Condé Nast. The moment of greatest peril came, arguably, when her glorious kingdom’s lack of diversity found itself under attack by the social justice movement in 2020, but she simply apologized and continued on. Wouldn’t she rather, at age 72, spend time with her grandchildren or play tennis in her Long Island retreat? Or even – imagine it! – try another completely different job? Apparently not.

I love fashion, in the sense that I love clothes (I write this piece in a suit, gold Birkenstocks and vintage Norman Hartnell jewelry, if you don’t believe me); a long time ago, I myself was an associate editor of a glossy magazine. But my disappointment with those whose self-proclaimed job is to broadcast the activities of the industry and its stars grows steadily, and Odell is no exception. While his interviewees say all sorts of things about Wintour – the wonder of his taste; his brilliant sense of humor; the fact that her ex-husband, David Shaffer, was her “svengali” – she rarely supports their statements with evidence. As for Wintour’s villainous side, his propensity to ghost people, to freeze their insides with silence (everyone knows his fallout with André Leon Talley, once his beloved lieutenant), Odell has an alarming tendency to give sympathy to those who do not deserve it.

Wintour, far left, with her family at her home in St John's Wood, London, January 1964
Wintour, far left, with her family at her home in St John’s Wood, London, January 1964. Photography: Jane Bown/The Observer

In 2010, Wintour decided she wanted an interview with Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syria’s dictator president, whose look she apparently liked. The work was entrusted to Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French vogue and Wintour’s friend for five decades. All vogue interviews are basically foliated pieces, and this one, published just as the Arab Spring was beginning, was no exception; Buck wrote breathlessly that Assad had won his country’s election with “a startling 97% of the vote”. When it was published, a horrified backlash naturally followed, soon after Buck discovered that his friendship with Wintour and his writing contract had ended – a breakup which, according to Odell’s account, comes as a mere scapegoat when, in truth, you cannot put a paper between the repulsive indifference of one or the other woman. They are all inside, these people, tied in a silk knot that this book, like so many others before it, does not even try to untie.

Anna: the biography by Amy Odell is published by Allen & Unwin (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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