Review: ‘Anna: The Biography’ by Amy Odell

ANNA: The biography, by Amy Odell

On the very first pages of “Anna,” a semi-authorized biography of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the main character cries. It’s November 9, 2016, the morning after her former boyfriend Donald J. Trump was elected president, and Wintour is speaking at a hastily organized meeting of all employees. In the course of her protest against an article in Women’s Wear Daily accusing her of going too far in her support for Hillary Clinton, she bursts out. This kind of peek into the soul that inhabits the iconic bob and sunglasses is what the book promises. On the cover, Wintour grins from behind her armor, her arms folded defiantly, as if challenging the reader to break the veil. The author, Amy Odell, tries bravely.

The book is the product of more than 250 interviews and extensive archival research: into the letters of Wintour’s father, Fleet Street editor Charles Wintour; in just about every fashion spread Anna has curated over her long career, including that at the obscure Viva, a women’s Penthouse skin magazine that Wintour was trying to clear out in the late ’70s. Odell even turns up a spread from a 1969 issue of a fashion magazine edited by a young Richard Branson, in which Wintour, mistakenly identified as “Anna Winter”, models the styles of “Swinging London” of the era: a mini dress, a pantsuit and a triangular top that exposes the midriff. There are about 80 pages of footnotes, bringing the biography to nearly 450 pages—long in a way, but also about half the size of Vogue’s biggest September issue ever.

Odell’s extensive reporting reveals a wealth of tantalizing details: the time Wintour outraged her boss by putting a $9,000 goatskin briefcase in New York magazine, where she also became known for throwing her pennies into the trashcan; that Andy Warhol thought she was a “terrible dresser”; that she often bumped into people rounding corners at the Vogue offices because she “used the other lane as a Brit”; that after going on a lunch date with Bill Gates, she told a co-worker “how attractive she found him”; that “she once asked her photo department to touch up the fat around a baby’s neck.”

“Anna” is a biography with naturally completist goals, so these details are spread over a sprawling work that sometimes, well, expands. And because fashion favors high-bred and Europeans, names emerge like from a Pynchon novel: Francine du Plessix Gray, Lisa Love, Rochelle Udell, Min Hogg, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, Peggy Northrop, and Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, who is descended from people who are really prominent in “The Crying of Lot 49.”

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