Anna – The Biography by Amy Odell

This is a book for people fascinated with the business of fashion – the relationships, politics, characters, and icons. Author Amy Odell fills it (as Anna’s life) with familiar names of designers, editors, photographers, celebrities.

Much like a salmon swimming upstream, Anna was sure of her route and goal – determined, focused, instinctual. It didn’t hurt that her father’s powerful position on a major London newspaper opened doors or that she was stylish, attractive, charming and had extra funds available as she climbed the ladder.

The Wintours were surrounded by cultural elites. From her serially unfaithful father, Anna likely inherited ambition and ruthlessness, the capacity to command respect even when cold and exacting; from her mother, a quick sense of people’s characters. Fashion seems to have been her own proclivity. Stuck in private school uniforms, the girl went a bit clothes-wild on her own time. A schoolmate recalls that even then “she didn’t want to be part of a group that existed. She wanted her own rarified air.”

With no interest in academics, Anna left before completing her senior year. She worked as a salesgirl at the famous Biba store, fashion central for swinging London, then moved on to Harrods. Odell reports no complaining while stacking boxes or maneuvering clothes racks. When Harpers and Queen magazines merged, her father got her an interview, resulting in a first publishing job at the age of 20. Insisting she was sensitive to light, the ubiquitous sunglasses made their appearance. The young woman had preternatural confidence. Deputy fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily was her next position. Even then she had a gimlet eye on Vogue.

At 25, Anna relocated to New York as junior sittings editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She then moved successively onto Viva, Savvy (for Executive Women), and New York Magazine, now as fashion editor, at the time, not a prestigious position. Stories about her behavior helming New York Magazine’s “Best Bets” column find her disdainfully tossing merchandise into garbage cans from which employees would forage.

With an inheritance from her grandfather, she lived and dressed better than her peers. Only high heels were deemed appropriate. “It’s not that far from the front door to the limo,” she said. Every step of the way, Anna had wealthy boyfriends and influential mentors. She could talk anyone into anything, but also worked very hard proving herself more capable than assumed. Self-imposed discipline and long hours were also required of staff. Precedents were set.

The subject met child psychiatrist David Shaffer when he was married and while she was cohabiting with another man. Their attraction sounds a bit Arthur Miller/Marilyn Monroe-ish. Shaffer was an intellect. Anna had street smarts. He divorced, they married (at a surprisingly low key event) and had two children. Fortunately, her husband had an interest in fashion. They bought a townhouse. He guided her career.

Now with a burgeoning reputation, Anna looked again to Vogue, but how was she to get rid of successful editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella? At 33 she met the magazine’s artistic director Alexander Lieberman who became an advocate, then Condé Nast’s Si Newhouse. Both men were captivated, starting quite a bit of gossip. They couldn’t ask Grace to leave, so Newhouse created a new job, that of creative director.

At this point editor-in-chief of British Vogue opened up. To Anna, the offer was irresistible. Living away from her husband and the hub of New York fashion was not sustainable. Her ticket back to the states was editorship of Conde Nast’s House & Garden. After making a success of that, she was moved into Vogue as editor-in-chief. Grace found out she’d been replaced by reading Liz Smith’s column.

Amy Odell (Photo Credit: Arthur Elgort)

Anna found and hired Andre Leon Talley, put Madonna and Hillary Clinton on covers, and took us out of the era of super models. She developed/supported her own “Vogue brands,” advising designers not only on fashion, but on their businesses as well as ruining some artist’s careers with personal disfavor. She was instrumental in the growth of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and took over the Metropolitan Museum Gala raising considerable funds. Scope of influence widened to charity, politics, and entertainment. “When Anna walked the halls of Condé Nast, terrified staff press themselves against the wall to stay out of her way,” one employee observed, yet Odell says they’re also devoted to her. She evolved from kissing celebrities to inventing them.

Anna broke up with Shaffer and found her current beau, Shelby Bryan, who’s described as having good looks and political connections, but also as being crass. Wincing examples are given. (A Democratic fundraiser, she’s increasingly drawn to politics and rumored to want an ambassadorship.)

The subject has, for some time, seemed to know everything going on behind the scenes at every magazine in the empire before anyone else. Perks grew over the years. She has a chauffeured car, professional make-up every day, and an enormous travel, food, and clothing allowance. There were, however, mistakes. Anna’s been racially and culturally insensitive, her staff is predominantly white and must be attractive. In 2020, Anna Wintour was named Chief Content Officer of Condé Nast International.

These are the bare bones of a volume filled with details, though little character illumination. We’re told the subject actually does relax away from the office. Otherwise, she’s just as you thought she might be.

Amy Odell didn’t interview Anna for the book, but reportedly conducted many intensive reviews with those who know or work with her. History is detailed.

Anna – The Biography
Amy Odell

Top photo: Shutterstock

About Alix Cohen (1311 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.