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Anna The Biography by Amy Odell Book

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Overview: This definitive biography of Anna Wintour follows the steep climb of an ambitious young woman who would - with singular and legendary focus - become one of the most powerful people in media.

As a child, Anna Wintour was a tomboy with no apparent interest in clothing but, seduced by the miniskirts and bob haircuts of swinging 1960s London, she grew into a fashion-obsessed teenager.

Her father, an influential newspaper editor, loomed large in her life, and once he decided she should become editor-in-chief of Vogue, she never looked back.

Impatient to start her career, she left high school and got a job at a trendy boutique in London - an experience that would be the first of many defeats.

Undeterred, she found work in the competitive world of magazines, eventually moving to New York.

Before long, Anna's journey to Vogue became a battle to ascend, no matter who or what stood in her way.

Once she was crowned editor in chief - in one of the stormiest transitions in fashion magazine history - she continued the fight to retain her enviable position, ultimately rising to dominate all of Condé Nast.

Based on extensive interviews with Anna Wintour's closest friends and collaborators, including some of the biggest names in fashion, journalist Amy Odell has crafted the most revealing portrait of Wintour ever published.

Weaving Anna's personal story into a larger narrative about the hierarchical dynamics of the fashion industry and the complex world of Condé Nast, Anna charts the relentless ambition of the woman who would become an icon.

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Anna The Biography by Amy Odell Book

Anna The Biography by Amy Odell Book Read Online Chapter One


Born Eleanor Baker to a wealthy Quaker family in 1917 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the future Nonie Wintour was a society girl. Her father, Ralph Baker, was a lawyer who left private practice to become a Harvard Law School professor. He specialized in trusts, and, before his death, established a substantial fund that would support his descendants, including his granddaughter Anna, over the course of many decades.

Nonie had enrolled at the University of Cambridge’s Newnham College for women after graduating from Radcliffe in 1938, and was introduced to her future husband, Charles Wintour, also at Cambridge, by their mutual friend Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The son of a major general, Charles was born in 1917 in Dorset in Southwest England. Petite and slim, Nonie styled her hair in short dark waves pinned back from her face. Charles wore glasses and a melancholic expression, and projected an air of professionalism.

Both shared an interest in journalism and writing. At Cambridge, Charles co-edited Granta, the prestigious undergraduate literary magazine. Nonie had spent the summer after college working as a reporter at the Daily Republican newspaper in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The necessary terseness of newspaper journalism might have encouraged her direct and spare use of language, which sometimes drove Charles crazy when they were dating, since he often couldn’t tell, particularly in their correspondence, what she was actually thinking.

After graduating with a first for academic achievement, the university’s highest possible honor, Charles headed to London to start working at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, while Nonie headed back across the ocean—their love was certain, their future anything but.

Among the most minor consequences of Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, was Charles being out of a job at J. Walter Thompson barely two months after he’d arrived. Like so many of his peers, Charles promptly enlisted. Before he knew what his assignment would be, he sent a letter to Nonie asking her to come to London and marry him as soon as possible. Weeks later he began officer cadet training, and shortly afterward received word that Nonie accepted and would come in February.

Nonie arrived on the same day the first enemy aircraft was shot down in the UK. Charles was so ecstatic to see her that he nearly fainted. While a bit less euphoric, Nonie was relieved that they still got along so well.

They married on February 13, 1940, at a church in Cambridge, and then celebrated with friends. As thrilled as they were to be together, the war was disheartening and neither of them knew where Charles would be sent now. Soon pregnant, Nonie stayed on a few months before returning to Boston.

Once alone, Charles slid into depression. Terrified of an invasion of Britain, he wondered if an affair might be the antidote. This was only half as shocking as it seemed. Charles felt that being with a woman was a “necessity” for him, and from their earliest weeks together, Nonie had realized that he wasn’t the faithful type. Feeling that a ground rule had been established and accepted, he assumed Nonie would agree that an extramarital relationship would benefit him. (Charles’s affairs would go on throughout their marriage, becoming painfully apparent to Anna as a teenager.) Nonie—then about six months pregnant—consented to the affair from Boston. Though he worried whether it actually bothered her, Charles started spending his evenings with a twenty-three-year-old divorcée whose new fiancé was conveniently in Rhodesia.

In late November, forty weeks and a day after his wedding, Charles received a cable from Schlesinger announcing the birth of his son Gerald, named for Charles’s father. Half a decade would pass before he would meet his son.

For Anna, one of the most difficult periods of her personal and professional life would involve living with a new baby on the other side of the ocean from her spouse. Her parents had to manage this very challenge in the middle of a war, with intense worry that Charles could be killed any day.

Just months after having Gerald, Nonie—after Charles fought with her father about it—sailed back to Europe to be with her husband, leaving their son in safety with her parents. Charles was aware that Nonie came against her will. He had pressured her to come, though she felt deep pain at leaving Gerald behind. Still, Charles was aware that no available course of action would leave either of them entirely happy, and that if they didn’t see one another until after the war, their youth would have fled them—that is, if he even lived through the war itself.

While initially homesick and angry, Nonie stayed with Charles for several years, choosing to be present in her marriage, even if that meant estrangement from her child. She moved through the UK following wherever Charles’s various posts took him as he ascended in the ranks, both of them grateful when he was assigned to office work after completing a course at the Staff College. She finally sailed home in the middle of 1944, now a stranger to their son. With his wife on the other side of the Atlantic, Charles began another affair. Nonie had left her baby for her husband for several years. Now Charles was willing to abandon his wife through infidelity. Though the circumstances of war were exceptional, Charles and Nonie seemed to share an ability to disregard others’ welfare when it might get in the way of their most immediate desires.

In the winter, he was stationed in the Trianon Palace Hotel at Versailles, resplendent with crystal chandeliers, black-and-white-tiled floors, and white columns. Sitting in a garret, Charles and his fellow junior officers discussed what they wanted to do after the war. Charles said he wanted to become a journalist. Arthur Granard, an aide to Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, responded, “If you ever want an introduction to Lord Beaverbrook, let me know.”

Lord Beaverbook was a wealthy Canadian who became a millionaire at twenty-seven by merging cement companies before moving to London to pursue business opportunities along with political and cultural influence. He advised Winston Churchill during the war and published a portfolio of newspapers (which just after World War II had the largest combined circulation of any publisher in the world), including the Daily Express and the Evening Standard. Having failed to become prime minister, Beaverbrook used his papers to promote his friends, attack his enemies, and push for an isolationist Britain.

Once the war ended, Charles wrote Granard to ask about meeting Beaverbrook. To his surprise, Granard followed through on his promise and made an introduction.

Beaverbrook was a known eccentric, but Charles found him disarmingly warm when they met at his apartment on London’s upscale Park Lane on Monday, October 1, 1945. He asked Charles to write an article on the differences between British and American work styles, and after filing the story, Charles received an offer to work as an assistant editorial writer at the Evening Standard on a trial basis for £14 a week, a job that would change his life.

With his career seemingly sorted, Charles now had to settle. He had one final night out as a bachelor with his lover, then found a place to rent for his family in London’s Hampstead neighborhood. He had no idea how short-lived his and Nonie’s happiness would be.

Gerald was five years old when Nonie brought him to London in early 1946. Almost immediately, Charles felt Gerald would benefit from living with him, after being brought up “in a predominately feminine environment.”

Nonie and Charles had their second son, James (known as Jimmie), in May of 1947, and two years later Nonie was pregnant again. On November 3, 1949, Nonie gave birth to her first daughter, the little girl she’d hoped for when Jimmie was born, named Anna. Aside from the baby’s bout of whooping cough the following spring, the Wintour children flourished.

That was until Tuesday, July 3, 1951, four months before Anna’s second birthday. Gerald put on his uniform and headed off to school. Now ten years old, he had been riding his bike for years. Tragically, a car hit Gerald while he was riding home that day, fracturing his skull. He was taken to New End Hospital in Hampstead, but could not be saved. At 6 p.m., twenty minutes after he arrived, Gerald Wintour was pronounced dead.

The story that would endure in British journalism circles was that this personal calamity spurred Charles’s professional ascent. He had been bored and itching to leave the paper for a magazine job. Still, when notified during a meeting with Beaverbrook that Gerald had been in the accident, rather than rush home, he is said to have gone back into the meeting and carried on with work, making no mention of his son. That dedication in the face of one of life’s worst tragedies left an indelible impression on his boss.

Nonetheless, Charles shared Nonie’s profound grief, in her case so great that her doctor prescribed her medication to help get her through the worst days early on. Both parents tormented themselves with blame; making it worse, eight days after the accident the man who’d been behind the wheel was charged not with manslaughter, but only dangerous driving. Though he faced a maximum jail sentence of two years, after ultimately being convicted, he was ordered to pay a fine of just £10.

Later that month, the Wintours packed up and sailed to America on the Queen Elizabeth to visit Nonie’s family. Charles, the sort who never took his full vacation time, departed the States early to return to work, and it would not be until the fall that the family was reunited. The trip, of course, couldn’t change their suffering.

Though Anna was twenty months old at the time of Gerald’s death—too young to remember the event or grasp the tragedy of the loss—her family was haunted by it for many years to come. No pictures of her brother were displayed in the house, and at one point, Nonie’s anxiety was such that she put bars on the windows, fearing that somehow one of her remaining children might fall out.

While his spirit may have been shattered, in the new year Charles got a promotion to political editor of the Evening Standard. A profile of Beaverbrook in Newsweek that mentioned Charles’s elevation called him “brilliant.” Though Nonie was proud of her husband’s success, she seemed to resent that it resulted from devotion to Beaverbrook, which appeared at times greater than Charles’s dedication to her and their children. She especially loathed Beaverbrook’s conservative politics.

Charles and Nonie went on to have two more children after Anna, Patrick and Nora. Bored at home raising her four kids, all under the age of ten, Nonie picked up freelance gigs reviewing television shows, reading scripts for Columbia Pictures, and finally writing as a film critic. When she was ready to work full-time again, “she decided that she wanted to work in social issues,” Anna later said, and began a whole new career as a social worker helping pregnant teens find adoptive parents for their children, dedicating herself to this effort as much as Charles did the newspaper. “That was very important work to her and I think very inspiring to all of us,” Anna said. Though she spoke often in interviews about her father as an inspiration, she almost never, over the course of her entire career, discussed her mother, despite how close they were. She rarely discussed her mother even privately with her friends. Yet her character strongly resembled Nonie’s. AnnaI may have been more extroverted than Nonie, but, like her mother, Anna was incredibly strong-willed and would adopt equally fierce political convictions.

Anna’s professional ambition and ruthlessness, on the other hand, seemed to stem specifically from her father, whose power within the Beaverbrook stable grew with every promotion—from political editor of the Evening Standard to assistant editor at the Sunday Express to deputy editor of the Evening Standard to managing editor at the Daily Express and then, in 1959, back, to his relief, to the more upmarket Evening Standard.

Being editor of the Evening Standard was more than prestigious—it seemed financially advantageous. The Wintours bought a large two-story house in the English countryside, and when she wasn’t riding horses or playing tennis, one of Anna’s favorite things to do there was curl up on the quintessentially English cabbage-rose chintz upholstery with a book (friends and colleagues later marveled at Anna’s voracious reading). The Wintours’ vacations, usually during the summer, were along the Mediterranean, likely in Spain or Italy.

Charles kept a strict professional schedule. He rose at 7 a.m. and got to his office at 8, where he was responsible for putting out at least five different editions of the paper each day. If news broke when he wasn’t at the office, he dropped what he was doing and dashed back to work, even if the family was out of the country on vacation. “The family all knew that he cared very deeply about us, but we also knew that he cared very deeply about the paper. There wasn’t any sense that he was an absent father—on the other side, he taught all of us what a work ethic is, and how important it is to love what you do in life,” Anna told a reporter. She witnessed his passion for his work firsthand when she visited his office: meeting writers and seeing the papers getting printed, the smell of fresh ink wafting off the presses.

“There was always this sense of deadlines,” Anna told another interviewer. “This excitement about the news.” Sunday lunches were often dominated by family conversations about what was in the papers. “The gospel in our house was the newspaper,” Anna recalled.

Though Nonie had grown up close to her parents and enjoyed being with them, Anna later said her dad “came from quite a Victorian upbringing. I’m not sure his mother ever spoke to him.” But Nonie and Charles wanted to raise their kids more in an American manner, which meant being involved in their lives. In British households of a professional class, the children often ate dinner separately from their parents. In the Wintour household, Anna and her siblings were included in their parents’ dinners and social gatherings, which gave her access to Charles’s world. This glamorous and intellectual milieu, the excess of those parties, was normalized for Anna from a young age. And when famous journalists weren’t dropping by for dinners, the family would engage in their own high-level conversation around the dining table.

Under Charles, the Evening Standard’s influence proved that a tabloid could be both populist and sophisticated, and it became known as London’s best evening newspaper. (“On the front page you want the headless corpse found by the river,” he said, “but inside there must be at least one article that the Permanent Under-secretary at the Treasury cannot afford to miss.”) He hired foreign correspondents and ran liberal-leaning political coverage, while giving equal weight to arts and culture. His main goal was to attract a young readership to the paper, and when asked by a colleague about the secret of his success, he replied, “I just recruited young.” He valued his inexperienced staff’s input and was known to walk across the newsroom simply to ask a young writer which picture they preferred for the front page. It was no surprise that so many journalists wanted to work for him.

For a Fleet Street editor at the time, Charles was unusually good to female talent. “It was the beginning of second-wave feminism, so women’s rights were slightly fashionable but still really out there,” said Celia Brayfield, who finally got a writing job after applying about four times. Brayfield noticed when she started at the Evening Standard after working at the Daily Mail that she didn’t get wolf-whistled and catcalled when she was walking around the offices—a culture of restraint that could only have originated from on high. When she got pregnant as a freelancer, Charles insisted she take the same maternity leave as a staffer, even though she technically wasn’t entitled to the same benefits. That women were cheaper to hire was a given, but unlike many of his peers, Charles valued their talent.

Though Charles was supportive of and respected by his team, he was by no means easy to be around. His staff knew not to bother him before the first edition was set in the morning. In daily interactions, he was quiet, cold, and exacting. Charles had to make decisions constantly and therefore quickly. When he took members of his staff out to lunch once a year, he came with a notebook so he could consult a planned list of conversation topics. His speech, indicative of the British upper class, was clipped as if periods were inserted throughout his sentences: “Now let’s. Have. A discussion. About. That. Matter.” (The exception was his signature phrase, growled as one word, when someone made a mistake: “ForChrissakegetitrightnexttime!”) When a writer came into his huge office to show him a draft, he sat them at a distance from his desk, then put the article down, his forehead in his hand, and read the entire text without a word, making the person about as nervous and uncomfortable as possible. The middle-aged men on staff, who addressed Charles as “sir,” cowered in daily meetings where he ripped apart the previous day’s issues, demanding to know why one story ended abruptly and another was buried. When he walked by a workstation, Brayfield said, “He was so frightening that people would bend like a field of wheat under a wind as he went past. They would cringe over their typewriters, specifically from sheer authority.” Staff were thrilled when he offered a single word of praise—“excellent”—on the bottom of their copy.

Yet as terrifying as Charles was, he commanded respect, and they were eager to please him. “He was fascinating and we were all enthralled by him,” said Valerie Grove, who wrote for him. Despite how he came off to others, Anna saw her father as “warm and wonderful,” and didn’t understand why his work nickname was Chilly Charlie, defending him in a 1999 interview by saying, “It just seemed to have nothing to do with the person he was.” Many would later have the same sentiment about her.

Outside of work, he was less forbidding, especially at dinner parties. He loved gossip, and every so often a story about someone he knew would lead him to burst into a surprisingly loud and delightful laugh. Many nights, he and Nonie left their children with a nanny and went out to parties, plays, or the opera, believing appearances were an obligatory part of his job. A successful editor, he thought, must “accept more invitations than he wants and know more people than he likes.” Eventually Nonie’s attendance ebbed, and Charles went without her.

While Charles’s staff thought his success completely deserved, there remained an undercurrent that his rise was in part a reward for his stoicism, a level of militaristic discipline that his staff would recognize as uniquely Wintourian: to suppress a flood of tears, repress the shock, and continue with work as though every parent’s most unthinkable nightmare hadn’t just occurred. His staff would later notice this same bulletproof discipline in his eldest daughter.

Yet it would be a mistake to claim that Anna’s approach was entirely the product of her father. Arthur Schlesinger described Nonie as “bright, witty, and critical” with “a sharp eye for the weaknesses of others,” noting her cynical nature as a form of “self-protection, because I think she was extremely vulnerable.” Still, he added, “but she also was great fun to be with so long as one wasn’t the target.” Anna’s friends and colleagues would say the same thing about her.

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