Prada Suit ~ Book Review of ‘Front Row Anna Wintour’ by Jerry Oppenheimer

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on October 19, 2011 0 Comments

The actual title of the book is ‘Front Row Anna Wintour: What Lies Beneath The Chic Exterior of Vogue’s Editor in Chief’.  I admit I feel a bit dirty just writing this, but ‘Front Row’ is the third book I have read by Jerry Oppenheimer.  He wrote ‘Just Desserts’ about Martha Stewart, which I think was published before her stint in prison for insider trading.  I also read the book he wrote about Paris Hilton’s family tree because I was fascinated with her aunts due to their appearance on ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’.  Overall I think Oppenheimer writes about interesting pop culture relevant women, which seems to be his primary focus although he has written a few books about famous men (Jerry Seinfeld for example).  His books tend to read as gossipy tomes with information passed to him by people who knew the subjects in sixth grade who often are still holding grudges for some implied insult from back in the day.  In other words, if you read these books do so with a grain of salt.  With that said, I find his focus on Anna Wintour an interesting one since I don’t think she is necessarily a household name, especially at the time the book was published in 2005.  According to the Wikipedia entry, ‘Front Row’ was a bestseller when it was first released.


                        Anna Wintour has been the editor of ‘Vogue’ magazine since 1988.  Even though she seemed to have shot up in the fashion magazine ranks almost out of nowhere and her placement as editor meant the ousting of legendary Grace Mirabella (who later went on to form her own fashion magazine, ‘Mirabella’ which later folded/enfolded into ‘O’ magazine).  Along the way Wintour has made friends and foes of many within both the fashion and publishing industries.  I think Oppenheimer’s main problem in presenting this book was that unlike many of his other subjects, Wintour tends to be more of a private person who has no higher ambition than her current position.  It’s not so easy to paint her in one way or another even though Oppenheimer tries to describe her as friendless (in terms of female friends at least) then has to say she was invited to wherever by whomever – a friend who also happens to sport a uterus. 


                Another difference of this Oppenheimer offering was that the people he interviewed seemed to be a higher class (not socially necessarily, but smarter in general) than say the folks he found to spill the beans about Kathy Hilton (Paris’ mother) or Big Kathy (Paris’ grandmother).  Granted, many seemed to have some complaint about Wintour but these complaints never seemed perverse or overly petty – sometimes friends grow apart and sometimes people get hurt when competition is involved.  I dare say that the narrative set up of this book was such that at times I questioned if Oppenheimer wrote it because it felt semi-mature.    


                Anna Wintour got an unwanted boost into the forefront of popular culture after her one time assistant, Lauren Weisberger, wrote ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ which was later turned into a movie of the same name starring Anne Hathaway in the Weisberger role and Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly the character who was allegedly based on Wintour (Streep was nominated for an Academy Award).  Oppenheimer reported that Weisberger is now persona non grata in Wintour’s book which for anyone who has read the novel is understandable.  Speaking as someone who hated the novel ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ I thought the assistant came across as over the top whiny.  One of the recurring comments in the book is that people would have killed for her position but Andrea (one may assume Weisberger) the editor’s assistant, points out that nothing is worth being so ill-treated. 


                  Time to get this off my chest; one of my first jobs I worked under someone ten times worse than Priestly/Wintour…and I was doing social work.  She literally yelled at a coworker for taking the day off after chemo treatments because she didn’t thinking being weak and vomiting was a reason to not be at work.  I got no perks with this job except being exposed to head lice so when I read someone sniffling over a boss not thanking them for this or that but giving them expensive designer clothes that they could then turn into a tidy profit from selling on Ebay – suffice to say that my heart doesn’t bleed for them.  Overall, I’m sure Wintour is a bear to work with, but then again so are a million other folks doing things that are a lot less glamorous for people who are a lot less connected.  This doesn’t make ill treatment of anyone a good thing, but it does put into perspective that Wintour just may be a complicated person who doesn’t get along with everyone.  If she has such a problem with assistants then the movers and shakers of Conde Nast (the publishers of ‘Vogue’) need to have a few words with her.  Further if she is the inspiration for your novel than for the love of God, make her into a three dimensional character – you owe her, and dare I write the fashion industry, that much!         


                I think one of the more interesting aspects of Wintour is that she was able to become an editor for one of the world’s top fashion publications while being a high school dropout.  It was also telling that the thing that ended her academic career was when she was suspended again for transforming her school skirt into a mini skirt.  Now there was a girl coming of age in the 1960s who was dedicated to the latest fashion trends!  Lucky for Anna her father was an editor of the ‘Evening Standard’ so he was able to help her get work with such popular British magazines like ‘Harper’s and Queen’ as she flirted her way through life.  Her mother was an American heiress whose primary interest was social work.  Her parents’ marriage was deeply scarred after her older brother, the first born in the family, died tragically as a child while riding his bike.  However despite Anna’s rebelling against her education her passion for fashion was apparent and her parents gave her space in order to pursue her interests as well as various boyfriends who tended to be most much older than her spiffy self.


                The book follows Wintour’s career trajectory which wasn’t as straight forward as one would normally prescribe for a person now holding such an important and influential publishing job.  One thing that I found surprising was that she doesn’t write and has never written blurbs, let alone articles, about fashion trends.  Often it is said that she has a hard time communicating exactly what idea she is trying to push across which seems out of sorts for a woman who is an editor and daughter of an editor.


                My feeling after reading ‘Front Row’ is that it would be a good book club selection for a women’s group.  Even though the book itself isn’t multi-complex, the subject of Anna Wintour is.  For instance, is she mean spirited or simply misunderstood?  Is she bad for feminism (as I believe Oppenheimer suggests) or is her support of progressive politicians and institutions proof that on some level (a very slim one, which wears a size two dress) she is a feminist.  For all that matters, what does it take to be a feminist and can one do it while supporting the fur industry?  Do you see what I’m getting at?  There are several directions a discussion over Anna Wintour can lead.  For bonus fun, accompany your reading of this book with a viewing of ‘The September Issue’.


                I would recommend ‘Front Row’ for all of the reasons I stated above.  It isn’t a compelling read, but one that can produce some very interesting conversations. 


Westerfield © 2011

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