The woman behind this commercial behemoth, editor in chief Anna Wintour, 55, a petite woman with a short bob and a penchant for Chanel suits and oversized sunglasses, first entered popular imagination a few years ago when a former assistant’s novel, The Devil Wears Prada, painted Wintour as a vain and controlling woman who took pleasure in assigning impossible tasks to her cowering staffers (at one point, the fictionalized editor telephones from Paris to demand her assistant in New York track down a certain Parisian cab driver). Sometime after Devil hovered on The New York Times bestseller list for five months, Jerry Oppenheimer, author of unauthorized accounts of the lives of Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters, and the Clinton marriage, hit the dirt road, knowing there’s a market for revealing powerful people as horrible neighbors.

Oppenheimer’s Front Row, the first biography of Wintour, draws on interviews with erstwhile friends and embittered former employees, but received no help from its subject and minimal input from her current confidants. To Oppenheimer’s dismay, he has dug up little juicy gossip. And though he seems indifferent to the particulars of both the industry and the execution of fashion (he once depicts a teenage Wintour as wearing a “kicky, sexy outfit”–details, please), his book resembles a slideshow taken at a Paris runway show: Readers are treated to an alluring spectacle, but the parade feels strangely devoid of emotion or consequence, without a critical eye to explain what’s noteworthy in the collection. Oppenheimer has dumped the contents of his camera bag into our laps with little attempt to make sense of the images captured on his film. Yet it’s worth scrutinizing his negatives for clues as to how the editor of the nation’s most profitable women’s magazine has managed for 17 years to stay on top of what women want, even as women have continually redefined the nexuses between gender and work, between beauty and age.

To say that Vogue has long espoused a consistent point of view isn’t to say that it hasn’t evolved because, of course, what it means to be a satisfied woman has changed. In 1962, when ladies routinely derived their standing from the men in their lives, legendary socialite and editor Diana Vreeland took over a somewhat conventional fashion magazine and transformed Vogue into an eclectic Camelot-meets-Chelsea fusion of aristocratic refinement and bohemian wanderlust, a paean to wealth, irresponsibility, and elegance. Vreeland, who famously declared “the bikini is the most important invention since the atom bomb,” brought models out of the studio, at the time a radical move, and staged photo shoots in exotic locations and fanciful domestic interiors, stoking the globe-trotting fantasies of the emerging jet set. She posed statuesque beauties with remote, otherworldly expressions lounging among the stones of ruined Colombian temples, as though the models themselves were divine beings. Vreeland, herself the wife of a rich and notably well-connected banker, later became Jackie Kennedy’s fashion guru. At Vogue, she created a magazine for women in conspicuous possession of both luxury and leisure time–in essence for the wives of the most established men in the world.

Meantime, the teenaged Anna Wintour, daughter of a prominent British newspaper editor and an American heiress, had just dropped out of her fancy finishing school and was discovering the swinging ’60s in London, living life as the Paris Hilton of her time–young, wealthy, self-possessed, pampered, achingly beautiful, precocious in attracting attention, and a magnet for interesting men (aristocrats, aspiring writers, underground newspaper editors). After some cursory details about her childhood (her well-heeled parents were introduced by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), Oppenheimer’s story gains traction as Wintour carouses at clubs frequented by the Beatles and the Stones, consumed with the era’s flamboyant mix of optimism, rebellion, and rock & roll. She got her signature bob haircut at age 15, decided that it complemented her delicate features, and has varied it little over four decades.

She worked as a boutique shopgirl at Biba, a store Oppenheimer describes as “a glittering star in London’s sixties fashion firmament,” and then on the lowest rung of a British ladies’ magazine. In 1975, Wintour, a yet more adventurous 25-year-old, hit the Big Apple in the midst of New York’s decadent decade and the feminist revolution. After a brief run as a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Wintour became the one-woman fashion department at Viva, the now defunct sister magazine to Penthouse run by Bob Guccione’s longtime girlfriend Kathy Keeton. There Wintour spent extravagantly, drawing on her inheritance as well as Viva‘s monthly stipend, to lure prodigious photographers such as Helmut Newton, and to stage shoots in the Caribbean and Japan. After Guccione pulled the plug in 1980, Wintour became a freelance fashion editor for Savvy, a new magazine aimed at the emerging breed of long-horizoned executive women: aspiring Reagan-era strivers with MBAs marching into uncharted territory in finance, government, and business.

In her early jobs, Wintour found herself passing through worlds in which the other staffers shared a common impulse or worldview while she observed from the margins and made few friends, neither a waiting-to-be-married debutante at Harper’s Bazaar, a sexual liberationist at Viva, or a staunch feminist at Savvy. Her natural inclination, it seems, was to stand back and watch, not to participate. She did not invest herself in the success or failure of any ideological current, a detachment that arguably has served her well as an interpreter of aspirations, the fundamental task of a lifestyle magazine editor.

When she arrived at New York magazine in 1981, Wintour brought her own desk, which Oppenheimer describes as a “contemporary Formica-topped affair on two metal sawhorses as legs…along with a high-tech chrome-framed chair with a seat and back made of bungee cords,” in effect embracing the fact of not blending into the newsroom as a deliberate professional stance. Put in charge of the fashion pages (and soon the home dcor section), Wintour proved astute at spotting trends and assembling superb casts of clothing, models, and photographers. Yet Oppenheimer emphasizes that even “after almost a dozen years in the business, Anna still wasn’t considered a writer,” and quotes one associate editor assigned to write copy for Wintour’s spreads: “She would sit down and try to tell me what point she was trying to make, or what was important about the clothes… [on one occasion] all she could say was, ‘But they’re so witty. Can’t you see that, they’re witty hats.’” This is surely interesting, though not, as Oppenheimer would have it, a repudiation of the talent ascribed to her. Wintour’s skill has always been that of an entrepreneur and choreographer, valued for her eye and her intuition, not her words; as she discovered, it’s quite possible to hire other people to write the copy.

In 1984, Wintour married David Shaffer, a South African psychiatrist who specialized in troubled teens. Less than two years later, she returned to London (while Shaffer stayed in New York) to become editor in chief of British Vogue. She announced to London’s Daily Telegraph: “I want Vogue to be pacy, sharp, and sexy, I’m not interested in the super-rich or infinitely leisured. I want our readers to be energetic, executive women, with money of their own and a wide range of interests”–if not an entirely original sentiment, certainly an adept fusion of the outlooks of places she had hitherto been. She told the Evening Standard, the paper her father had once edited, “there is a new kind of woman out there. She’s interested in business and money. She doesn’t have time to shop anymore. She wants to know what and why and where and how.”

In 1985, a French import, Elle, hit U.S. newsstands and quickly attracted a circulation approaching American Vogue‘s million readers, stirring fear in the heart of Cond Nast mogul Si Newhouse, who saw that that his prize publication would have to redefine its niche to retain readers and advertisers. In 1988, Wintour was appointed editor in chief of Vogue. At the time, a gossipy piece by New York society columnist Liz Smith implied that Wintour’s promotion owed to an intimacy with Newhouse that was more than a meeting of minds. Up to this point, Wintour had been labeled many things–a loner, a bully, a snob, a control freak (she once assigned a junior staffer to go through trash bags of film looking for one shot a photographer had refused to give her)–and she let most of these insults slide away with icy indifference. But Smith’s article prompted a rare public frenzy, with Wintour calling a meeting of her new (and already intimidated) staff to vent. As a former coworker explained, “She was outraged–outraged–at the Liz Smith item and was not going to let it go by unanswered. She was very upset that people thought this was still a world in which women couldn’t get ahead without sleeping with the boss.”

The biggest disappointment of Front Row is that it hardly seems interested in exploring what Wintour did after arriving at Vogue. On the personal front, Oppenheimer informs us that she avoids long editorial meetings, intimidates everyone but the gay staffers, and requires independent-minded photographers to courier Polaroids of scene set-ups for her approval before commencing a shoot. Taking a cue from Devil, Oppenheimer depicts Wintour as controlling, someone who doesn’t mind making people uncomfortable. But how did this woman who relishes power–exercising it in ways both profound and perverse–redefine the myth her magazine gave American women?

Wintour took the helm at Vogue in 1988, a year before Vreeland died. But her predecessor’s vision of the Vogue woman, a lady of immense wit and leisure tossing off blithe quotes (“Work? What an interesting idea”; “Never worry about the facts, just project an image to the public”) had already lost relevance. Vreeland’s immediate successor, Grace Mirabella, continued a similar tradition (if less eccentric, still not quite modern), only to be replaced when she ignored Newhouse’s entreaties to adapt. Wintour took over Vogue at a moment when the first generation of American women with MBAs and more disposable income were hitting middle age and learning how to enjoy their success.

At Vogue, Wintour made a cult of top photographers like Helmut Newton and Annie Leibowitz, mixed jeans and couture, introduced an annual “power issue,” favored celebrities on the cover, and declared the end of the era of the supermodel. In the September 2004 issue, at 832 pages the heftiest monthly magazine ever (a sign of formidable advertising support), her editor’s letter pronounced: “Celebrated artists these days (actresses, usually) have a greater and more immediate appeal than models. The interesting question is, why so? It was not long ago, during the supermodel era, that Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington spoke to the public…” Though beauty standards are no less strict than they used to be–and it remains a handicap to be ugly in public arenas like politics or movies–women are no longer known simply for being beautiful. This isn’t the world of Vreeland’s Vogue. When Wintour featured Hillary Clinton on the cover in 1998, the first time a first-lady had ever appeared there, she explained to The New York Times: “[Hillary] is a woman of stature, and an icon to American women.”

Wintour’s magazine may actually have played a role in the decline of the supermodel mystique. She shifted Vogue‘s focus from the cult of beauty to the cult of the creation of beauty. Vreeland had declared “elegance is innate,” depicted models as divinities against Saharan skylines, kept the hair rollers out of sight, and asked readers to believe that a model’s platinum curls had sprung fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Wintour disassembled the myth of effortless beauty, invited a slightly less-kept look into her pages, made it a point to credit the oft-overlooked artists essential to staging a cover shoot (photographers, make-up, accessories, hair stylists, and page editors), and commissioned profiles of commanding women in varied fields, from Hillary Clinton to Vera Wang to Katie Couric, which chronicle the development of their fashion sensibility as a craft. Beyond whisking models off their pedestals, the concept that grace is a construction, and not merely a gift, allows that it can be enjoyed longer, well past the age of 40 or 50–a crucial point because in Wintour’s world, most women won’t reach the pinnacle of a career until later in life. The old idea that life beyond 30 must be a rearguard struggle for women riding on their looks simply isn’t compatible.

One wonders how Wintour views fellow editorial legend Tina Brown, not just in gossipy terms (Oppenheimer tells us that while Brown was the editor of Vanity Fair, the two Brits competed for Newhouse’s favor within Cond Nast), but in a more considered cultural context. Though only five years younger, Brown is in effect of a different generation. Wintour came of age during the youthquake and defiantly quit school; Brown reached adolescence during the feminist explosion, when more women expected to earn degrees and have careers, and graduated from Oxford. Wintour was among the last of an era in which ambitious women started as secretaries and wrestled their way up.

Vogue‘s prominent opening feature, following the editors’ letters, is the “Nostalgia” column, a mediation on the intersection of social history and style icons. It often crystallizes the attitude Wintour has set for the magazine. In the March 2005 issue, the writer Mary Gordon, who evolved into a feminist at Barnard in the 1960s, recounts her experience as a preteen in the late 1950s, raised in a family that viewed fashion as frivolity, yet fascinated by the world of her babysitter’s daughter, a woman aspiring to the universe of leisure and allure once evoked by Vreeland’s Vogue:

“The baby-sitter’s daughter believed in fashion. She was glamorous. She would have been nineteen that year, newly engaged. Every movement she made was slow and provisional; she was languid by nature, and her two plainer sisters served her. She lay on her bed and smoked cigarettes and slowly turned the pages of magazines…. On the top of her dresser, always in disarray, was a collection of items that puzzled and fascinated me: tweezers, tubes, pencils, eyelash curlers…. Although I was supposed to be watching cartoons, I was drawn to her room…for hints in the creation of my future womanly self.

“But one day I learned that the baby-sitter’s daughter was of no use to me either. I read a letter she had written to her fianc. It began ‘Dear Darling.’ I knew that was a mistake, and from then on, her way of being female seemed to me slothful and error-ridden. When I called the fianc to mind, I saw him as he really was: a small, balding, sweating man, said to be ‘on his way up in the bank,’ always seeming to be waiting for suggestions or orders.”

Wintour didn’t pen those words, but they surely echo the tone she set and now resolutely polices at Vogue. The column, like the magazine, does not repudiate glamour itself, but an older style of glamour, one in which for women social status and real power remained distinct virtues, and feminine beauty served only the former. Wintour’s Vogue allows women to imagine a world, increasingly an attainable one, in which the pursuit of beauty reinforces rather than overshadows female authority.

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