The contemporary biography is less and less a place where lives are chronicled and more a place to air gossip and settle scores, from the quick-and-low-down lurid tell-all (think Amber Frey) to the mean-spirited political saga (Dick Morris’s Because He Could). The happy ringing of cash registers at megastores is often accompanied by the distant echo of long knives on the whetstone.
Now Anna Wintour—already hauled up for such treatment in the roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada—again conjures vengeful spirits between covers, in Jerry Oppenheimer’s new bio of the legendary Vogue editor, Front Row.
Don’t get me wrong: Front Row is a fun book—one to keep media-savvy New Yorkers guessing at the identity of unnamed sources (unhappy editors and fired—or not hired—editorial assistants at Savvy, New York Magazine, House & Garden, Vogue). But this chronicle of how Wintour, the single-minded diva, schemed and screamed her way to the top of the fashion-magazine world is also a cautionary study of the limits of biography-as-comeuppance, where the trampled-upon vent freely, and the author’s disapproval frequently shows. To Oppenheimer’s credit, the book charts a series of seismic shifts that Wintour—for good and ill—helped navigate: the shift from written to visual culture; the triumph of style over content; the transfer of power from the mature to the young. But Oppenheimer lacks a keen eye for Wintour’s visual acumen and trend-savviness: He simply reduces her to a chinchilla-clad Cruella de Vil.
There’s a richer book hiding inside Front Row. Wintour’s need to please her cold, imperious father, Charles Wintour, longtime editor of London’s Evening Standard, deepens the story, but makes one long for cultural allusions weightier than Sex and the City.
Oppenheimer might have used one throwaway detail as a key to unlock Wintour’s soul: her youthful love of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca. With whom did the budding girl identify: the cold, remote Maxim de Winter, with a name so like her own? The girl-narrator who marries well but is out of her league? Or Rebecca herself—the great beauty without a heart? Oppenheimer won’t, or more likely can’t, tell—and this is the final shortcoming of today’s tell-all genre: For all its confessional heat, it tells us far too little.