Anna: The Biography by Amy Odell

There’s a line from Blondie’s 1999 hit “Maria”—“She’s like a millionaire / Walking on imported air”—which ran on repeat through my brain as I read Amy Odell’s Anna: The Biography. Imported air? The longtime Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast global editorial director and global chief content officer seems to exist in her own eco-system: the fame, the power, the clothes, the sunglasses, and most of all the reputation that stalks into the room before her. How did that come to be? Well, if you want answers, you won’t find them in this book.

Anna is one of the most well-known women in the world. She is deadly serious in her ambitions, and her creation of her own mythology is fascinating. She deserves a more acute analysis of her life. But perhaps she didn’t want it.

To what degree she collaborated in the writing of this book is unclear. It’s not sold as an authorized biography, but it is evident from the staggering 78 pages of footnotes that Anna allowed and encouraged several close to her to speak.

In a rare moment without the omnipresent sunglasses.

Her friend and garden designer Miranda Brooks is on hand to add a warmth and humanity to the portrait; ex-partner Shelby Bryan, who claims not to recall why they broke up, is quoted on nothing very interesting; colleague Hamish Bowles, whom she has just anointed editor in chief of The World of Interiors, adds his tuppence worth. Tom Ford is one of the only big beasts of fashion to contribute.

While we get some delightful glimpses into her home life, such as her dancing under the disco ball at her Mastic compound on Long Island, there is little examination of her professional skills, or of her weaknesses, from people operating at a similar level. Where were the voices of the photographers who helped her create Vogue? We could have at least heard from those who remained after several, such as Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, and the late Patrick Demarchelier, were unceremoniously turfed out of the Condé Nast world after unproved accusations of sexual impropriety.

She deserves a more acute analysis of her life. But perhaps she didn’t want it.

I would have loved to hear what the big-name designers—Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Donatella Versace—could add to this portrait. Or power-broker C.E.O.’s such as Bernard Arnault and François-Henri Pinault, who sit beside her in the front row. They may have figured that since she’s still the editor of Vogue, silence, in this instance, is the best policy. Or maybe they weren’t asked?

Why did Serena Williams want her advice on how to win at tennis? Why did Hugh Jackman drop by to ask her opinion on casting? Instead, much of the narrative is bulked out by ex-assistants and other former employees whose chief contribution much of the time is that they remember seeing her in tears.

How often she seems to be crying, which is surely strange in a woman who, if this earnestly researched book is to be believed, simply terrifies people. Heaven knows quite why.

Over the 25 years that I edited British Vogue, I found Anna to be intelligent, driven, passionate about her causes, and on many occasions very kind. When I resigned from my position, she sent me a nice message and a few months later another, very empathetic one when my successor was named, understanding that the Le roi est mort, vive le roi moment is always difficult.

Yes, she was brutal when she wanted something for her magazine that conflicted with what I wanted for mine. And she could be mind-numbingly curt veering into all-out rudeness. But I lived to tell the tale after she put the phone down in mid-conversation a couple of times. It wasn’t that bad.

Putting the pieces together at Vogue’s former office at 4 Times Square.

So how did this 70s London girl come to be a figure of such awe? Odell’s book faithfully charts the young Anna’s life, the well-off daughter of Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour and his American wife, Nonie. Anna’s interest in both journalism and politics came from her journalist father, and her less evident but still very present interest in social justice, from her mother.

The trademark fringe, dark glasses and minute attention to her appearance were there from her teens, as was a fascination with magazines and a refusal to think that courtesy much mattered. Even as a relative junior when looking at a young photographer’s portfolio, she wouldn’t bother to go through the usual niceties of finding something pleasant to say before rejecting the work.

I lived to tell the tale after she put the phone down in mid-conversation a couple of times.

Anna has always used silence as a well-honed weapon. An old friend tells me of going to the Tramp nightclub with her and her beau of the time, rakish journalist Jon Bradshaw. “Anna was going through one of her silent phases and just sat there,” the friend recalls. I asked why she held any appeal for this very attractive man if she didn’t contribute. “Oh, he was fascinated by her,” she said. “They all were.”

That fascination was shared by her early mentor at Condé Nast, deputy chairman Alexander Liberman; her longtime boss, chairman Si Newhouse; and, seemingly, given her new role overseeing all the global “brands,” her current boss, C.E.O. Roger Lynch. And that ability to keep her counsel has stood her in good stead in the game of snakes and ladders of corporate power.

Frequently we see her avoiding direct confrontation. When others were promoted above her, as in the brief reign of editorial director James Truman, did she throw her toys out of the pram? No. She threw them introductory parties filled with pretty girls and then waited, successfully, to see them out of the door.

Ultimately, Wintour remains something of an unknown quantity.

Her navigation of office politics is peerless, and her ability to triumph over failures, a masterclass. Her rebranding of House & Garden as HG and her launch of Vogue Living and Men’s Vogue were all failures. Wintour’s idea for Fashion’s Night Out, an enterprise which all the international Vogues were dragooned into joining, was intended to help boost retail but ended up with the shops (at least in London) begging us to halt the annual event, where they found themselves handing out free drinks to crowds of partygoers who had no intention of forking out for anything.

The current culture wars deem the privilege and, yes, mainly white culture that all Vogues have chronicled for decades as no longer appropriate. Who has the company chosen to spearhead this new age? Anna, the great survivor.

And she survives not because she is an excellent magazine editor, which she is, but because she understands power and what other powerful people want and need. How frustrating it is then not to get a greater understanding of how this enigmatic woman operates.

What drives her to play tennis at dawn, still travel around the world to watch endless fashion shows and attend tedious award ceremonies and dinners, and kowtow to the bold faced names of the age? How does she manage to step so nimbly away when things go wrong, as she did in 2012 when she threw her great friend the writer and former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck to the wolves and canceled her contract, after the complimentary profile Anna had commissioned on Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad was widely pilloried?

Does she have infallible self-belief? Or does she occasionally have a dark night of the soul like the rest of us? What is her opinion of … well, actually, anything? For that we will, unfortunately, have to wait for another book.

To hear Alexandra Shulman reveal more about her story, listen to her on AIR MAIL’ s Morning Meeting podcast

Alexandra Shulman, the longest-serving editor of British Vogue, is the author of the new memoir Clothes … and Other Things That Matter