Jerry Oppenheimer is no hagiographer. His unauthorized portraits -- of such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters and Jerry Seinfeld -- don't exactly cast a flattering light. His biographies are filled with juicy, scandalous tidbits, the stuff of which gossip is made. It's no wonder that many of his sources are the anonymous and the disgruntled. If some of the revelations he uncovers seem a bit familiar, well, that doesn't make them any less titillating.
Schadenfreude enthusiasts will enjoy Oppenheimer's latest, "Front Row," which offers Anna Wintour in extreme close-up. (It isn't a pretty picture.) If you don't know that Wintour is the British editor of Vogue magazine, chances are you won't care about this book. If you do know who Wintour is, you might find her fascinating. After all, she is incredibly glamorous, influential and enigmatic, and a central figure in the fashion world.
You might even have read Lauren Weisberger's dishy roman a clef, "The Devil Wears Prada." The novel followed the travails of Andrea Sachs, an assistant to Miranda Priestly, the powerful, enigmatic, cruel British editor of a fashion magazine. Weisberger -- who once worked as Wintour's assistant at Vogue -- cleverly avoided a potential lawsuit by including a cameo character named Anna Wintour, which meant that Wintour couldn't possibly be the real-life inspiration for Miranda Priestly. (Wink, wink.)
In "Front Row," Oppenheimer recounts Wintour's public response to Weisberger's betrayal ("I am looking forward to reading the book") and her private fury ("She was spitting fire," an unnamed Vogue staffer is quoted as saying). Anyone overheard by Wintour mentioning Weisberger's name around the office was subject to a "career beheading," he writes.
So who is this woman -- hated and feared by some, admired by others, sometimes referred to as "Nuclear Wintour"? In "Front Row," she is fiercely competitive, aloof, exacting -- and, yes, sort of scary.
Yet Oppenheimer does not minimize Wintour's considerable achievements. Vogue is considered the bible of the $100-billion-plus fashion industry, and is by far more influential than any other fashion magazine. She can make or break fashion careers; in her 25 years at Vogue, she has done plenty of anointing and dethroning. Designers such as Marc Jacobs, Zac Posen and Vera Wang were Wintour discoveries, and they might be nowhere without her support.
Wintour's public face, such as it is -- blemishless, shielded by her signature bob, sunglasses and occasional fur -- has been widely documented. It is her early history that proves most compelling in "Front Row" and helps to explain how a privileged but dysfunctional childhood led her to cultivate the persona she inhabits today.
Rather than the chic, ultra-confident power player she appears to be, Oppenheimer portrays Wintour as painfully shy and insecure. He provides ample context for the often mean-spirited behavior she is said to have displayed in her professional and personal life. Thankfully, he mostly leaves the armchair psychology to the reader.
Born in 1949 and reared in London, Wintour's first 18 months seem to have been happy. Then her 10-year-old brother Gerald was struck and killed by a car, leaving "a permanent dark cloud over the Wintour family." Her parents' marriage became increasingly distant, filled with muted turmoil and resentment. This, Oppenheimer writes, irrevocably shaped her personality: "Anna turned inward, became even more shy and withdrawn, and had no known close friends." Her intense relationship with her demanding (and frequently absent) father would influence her turbulent romantic relationships, including a failed marriage to a much older man.
In the end, Wintour seems a sad -- though not quite sympathetic -- woman who, beneath a flawless, Cruella De Vil-like exterior, is rather lonely and desperate. Her early family life clearly damaged her, resulting in a fraught identity and poor emotional skills -- at least according to Oppenheimer. From all indications in the book, she still has no close friends and remains a puzzle even to those who have worked by her side for years.
"Front Row" can be read as a cautionary tale. Peruse the book's index (under "Wintour," see entries for "editor-from-hell reputation," "refuses to be fired," "rivalries and staff dismissals") to learn the price she has paid for ruthless, single-minded ambition. (One wonders how her career has affected her two children.) Still, her longevity at Vogue speaks for itself: Her role as preeminent style and fashion arbiter is incomparable. As Helmut Newton said in an interview shortly before his death, "No one can top her."
Carmela Ciuraru is a regular contributor to Book Review.