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Review: “Anna: The Biography”, by Amy Odell

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ANNA: The Biography, by Amy Odell


In the very first pages of “Anna,” a semi-authoritative biography of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the protagonist cries. It’s November 9, 2016, the day after his former friend Donald J. Trump was elected president, and Wintour is speaking at a hastily arranged all-staff meeting. In full invective against an article in Women’s Wear Daily which accused her of going too far in her support for Hillary Clinton, she cracks. That kind of peek into the soul that inhabits the iconic bucket hat and sunglasses is what the book promises. On the cover, Wintour smiles behind her armor, her arms folded defiantly, as if daring the reader to pierce the veil. The author, Amy Odell, tries valiantly.

The book is the product of over 250 interviews and extensive archival research: in the letters of Wintour’s father, Fleet Street publisher Charles Wintour; in just about every fashion item Anna has put together over her long career, including those in the obscure Viva, a Penthouse-owned women’s skin magazine that Wintour tried to clean up in the end. 70s. Odell even finds a double-page spread from a 1969 issue of a fashion magazine published by a young Richard Branson, in which Wintour, misidentified as “Anna Winter”, models the “Swinging London” styles of the time: a minidress, a trouser suit and a triangle top exposing the belly. There are about 80 pages of footnotes, bringing the biography to nearly 450 pages — long, in a sense, but also about half the size of Vogue’s biggest September issue.

Odell’s extensive reporting reveals a wealth of delightful details: the time Wintour scandalized her boss by featuring a $9,000 goatskin trunk in New York magazine, where she also became known for throwing her pennies in the garbage ; that Andy Warhol called her an “awful dresser”; that she often met people rounding the corners of Vogue’s offices because, “being a Brit, she used the other way”; that after having lunch with Bill Gates, she told a colleague “how attractive she found him”; that “she once asked her photo service to touch up the fat around a baby’s neck”.

“Anna” is a biography with naturally complete goals, so those details are scattered throughout a sprawling work that sometimes, well, stretches out. And because fashion prefers the bourgeois and Europeans, the names spring up like 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 feature prominently in “The Crying of Lot 49”.