Hoping to appease Betts, Condé Nast higher-ups offered her the editorship of Details, which she turned down. They also assured her that she would be next in line to edit Vogue, if she could just hang in there until Wintour stepped down.
"But it didn't look like Anna was going anywhere, says a friend of Betts. "Kate began to think she would have to wait ten years." As it turns out, she may have been right. "If Anna had retired mysteriously or disappeared, I don't know that we would have thought that Kate was ready yet to take on Vogue," says James Truman, Condé Nast's editorial director. "If the right magazine came up for her, she would have been one of the people considered for editor-in-chief, but the right magazine never came up."
Frustrated, Betts interviewed for several positions outside the company, including the top fashion editor's spot at The New York Times Magazine, a job she lost to longtime rival Amy Spindler. Last spring, when Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black approached her about taking the reins after Bazaar's beloved chief, Liz Tilberis, died of cancer, she didn't think twice. Eight months pregnant at the time, she crafted an elaborate dummy issue that "blew me away," says Black.
News of Betts's Hearst courtship soon reached Wintour. When she confronted her deputy about rumors of an imminent defection, sources say, Betts fervently denied them. But on June 24, a week after she left for a planned six-week maternity leave, Betts stepped off the Condé Nast elevator, wearing her usual black leggings and maternity shirt, and marched into Wintour's office. By the time she emerged, ten minutes later, the news had spread throughout the building. "Everyone was calling each other saying 'Kate's quitting,' " reports an assistant. "When she came out, people were hugging and congratulating her." In a last-ditch attempt to keep her, claim sources close to Betts, Condé Nast dangled one last prize before the young editor: editor-in-chief of the flagging Mademoiselle. Betts turned it down.
While Vogue's editors and writers cheered Betts's appointment, Wintour wasn't sharing in the general goodwill. Her departing words to Betts, says a Vogue source, were a terse "good luck." With all the turmoil in her life, the defection of her protégée was an awful blow. "It couldn't have happened at a worse time," says Isaac Mizrahi. "I think Anna's feelings were hurt."
Publicly, however, Wintour remains exceedingly gracious. "I always knew that Kate was going to be an editor-in-chief," she says, reclining in her low-back banquette at The Four Seasons. "I'm sorry she's not going to be an editor-in-chief at Condé Nast. I mean, I would have loved that. I think she's a very talented girl and very incredible at what she does and very hardworking. I'm very, very proud that Hearst was smart enough to give her that job." In Vogue's September editor's letter, Wintour gave her an affectionate send-off that even featured Betts's photograph.
Betts didn't return the favor. When the Times interviewed her shortly after she assumed the new post, she complained that her old boss had not sent her a baby gift, a quote that some fashion insiders saw as peevish and ungrateful. Chastised by Hearst higher-ups for her indiscretion, Betts apparently learned her lesson. She has since turned down all requests for interviews, and she rebuffed all invitations to be interviewed for this story. She did, however, issue a faxed statement: "I had eight incredible years with Anna at Vogue, and now I am thrilled to be starting my new job at Bazaar," she wrote. "I have just started here and look forward to talking more about the magazine when I have my first issue out on newsstands next year." "She's not a girl who is known for biting her tongue," explains one arch observer. "And I guess she was worried about biting it off."
Wintour's cool hauteur in the wake of Betts's departure is cited by fashion insiders as an example of her astute political skills. Born in London, she was the privileged offspring of a highly political family. Her celebrated father, Charles, editor of the London Evening Standard during its heyday in the sixties, frequently entertained journalists and politicians. Wintour's mother, Elinor, was the bright-eyed daughter of a Harvard professor, a "tireless American-style radical," says one lifelong Wintour friend, who found food and homes for indigents.
Wintour says her mother raised her to have a social conscience. From her father, "there was always this sense of deadlines," she says, "this excitement about the news. One holiday was ruined by Marilyn Monroe's death. My father had to rush us back from Venice." Wintour was close to her father, and was often wounded by press reports about his icy demeanor and steely temperament.
"His nickname was Chilly Charlie," she says, clearly cognizant of the irony. "And you know, as a kid growing up I never could understand why they kept writing this about this man who I thought was warm and wonderful. Certainly there were times when I could see him being angry or upset. But it just seemed to have nothing to do with the person he was."
As a girl, Wintour's own interests veered toward the softer side, such as going to the movies and fixing up her hair. Her brother Patrick, a political editor, and her sister, Nora, now a human-rights worker in Africa, often teased her for being superficial. (Another brother, Gerald, died at 14, killed in a biking accident.) "My sister would leave messages for me saying, 'Are you at the dry cleaners or the hairdressers?' " laughs Wintour.
A slightly pudgy teenager who hid behind a mop of unruly hair, Wintour became an avid runner (she later quit, her father once said, because she thought it would make her calves too big), and eventually a sought-after fashion plate on London's swinging night scene. Within two years, Wintour was dating theater producer Michael White, who backed the Rocky Horror Show and brought Yoko Ono to London, where she met John Lennon. "She knew so much about politics, theater, and dance," says White. "Delightful in a number of ways."
Wintour delighted her editors at Harper's & Queen, her first job, where she produced a much-talked-about photo spread that re-created Impressionist works by Manet and Renoir using models in fringe and go-go boots. In 1976, she moved to New York, where she started off at Harper's Bazaar and later jumped to Viva and then New York Magazine. Always flawlessly turned-out, she reinvented the role of fashion diva with a flair that hadn't been seen since Diana Vreeland's days. "Most fashion editors are notorious for looking like bag ladies," says then-New York writer Anthony Haden-Guest. "Anna kind of broke the mold."