For keen students of New York’s media-industrial complex, a dramatic power play is unfolding right before our eyes. Kate Betts, the 35-year-old fashionista who resigned from Vogue last month to take the helm of Harpers Bazaar, has declared war on Anna Wintour. So far she’s managed to persuade fashion writer Kristina Zimbalist and production director Dawn Roode to defect to the enemy camp. Will the younger woman succeed in supplanting her former mentor? It’s a contemporary version of All About Eve.
This is a particularly appropriate analogy because Anna Wintour’s aura is rather like that of a movie star from Hollywood’s golden era. Si Newhouse is fond of comparing Condé Nast to an old-fashioned movie studio and, now that Tina Brown has defected to Miramax, Anna Wintour is probably his greatest star. It’s tempting to say she plays Gloria Swanson to Si’s Erich von Stroheim—you can imagine him as her butler—but she’s actually much more like Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich was the only woman allowed to attend the annual ball for male transvestites in pre-Hitler Berlin—a courtesy one can easily imagine being extended to Anna if she was around back then. Indeed, it’s conceivable that she’s a brilliant female impersonator who’s never been found out. “She has sex,” Kenneth Tynan wrote of Dietrich, “but no particular gender.”
Like Dietrich, Anna Wintour’s authority rests on her aloofness, her disengagement from ordinary human affairs. She presides over the fashion business with the imperial hauteur of a Prussian General—no democratically-elected leader she. It was her droight de seigneur which impressed Si Newhouse in 1987 when he made her the editor-in-chief of House & Garden. In Carol Felsenthal’s biography of Si, Citizen Newhouse, she describes the scene when he walked into a House & Garden awards lunch with Anna. Si, according to one person present, “seemed dazzled by this Brit of high accent and high style.”
It’s a common misconception in the fashion world that Anna Wintour is some kind of British aristocrat. In fact, she comes from that class in Britain that John Maynard Keynes dubbed the educated bourgeoisie, the class from which liberal politicians, senior civil servants and Oxford dons are drawn. One of the hallmarks of the educated bourgeoisie is what’s known as “the mask,” an expression of grave authority, a face which never betrays any emotion. “The mask” has played a key role in enabling the educated bourgeoisie to seize and retain power in Britain since the war and Anna Wintour, who’s father was the editor of The Evening Standard, has successfully imported this device to New York. In her case, of course, it takes the form of a pair of large, black sunglasses.
The sunglasses have become Anna Wintour’s trademark, a symbol of her enduring style in the face of the vicissitudes of fashion. Like Dietrich, by cultivating her personal syle she has turned herself into an icon and it’s her iconic presence, her cool celebrity charisma, which accounts more than anything else for her towering authority in the fashion world.
She should have known better than to take them off.
Since last February, when the first blind item appeared in Page Six about her affair with a 53-year-old Texan millionaire, Anna’s mask has been slipping. It was a shibboleth of the old Hollywood studio system that a star’s glamour depended on keeping a certain distance from the fans; that as soon as you let the public get too close, close enough to peep behind the curtain and glimpse the wizard at work, the game was up. It was for this reason that the studios did their utmost to keep gossip about their stars’ love lives out of the papers. The same surely applies to the Marlene Dietrich of the fashion world.
Anna almost certainly knows this. Like Tina Brown, she has a publicist’s grasp of the supreme importance of image. Yet she’s conducted her affair with Shelby Bryan more or less out in the open, allowing it to become public knowledge. Why? To my mind, there can only be one explanation. For once, she has no agenda; it’s not a premeditated move. The diva has stepped out of her power zone. Anna Wintour, the 49-year-old Tsarina of Seventh Avenue, has fallen head-over-heels in love.
This would account for her momentary loss of control at Vogue. In addition to the defection of her second-in-command and two lieutenants to Harpers Bazaar, she recently lost Paul Cavaco, another key player at Vogue, to Allure. Friends of mine who’ve worked at the fashion Bible have always described it as a vipers’ nest, a writhing snake pit of hatred and fear, and it looks like the cobras waited for a moment of weakness to strike. Anna has always cultivated a reputation for cold-bloodedness, a steely commander unaffected by sentiment or emotion—hence her nickname “Nuclear Wintour.” Now that the sunglasses have slipped, revealing a vulnerable, middle-aged woman in the throes of a desperate love affair, her mystique has vanished. Her heart isn’t made of stone; she’s human, after all.
A better analogy might be with Scarface, Brian De Palma’s blood-splattered 1983 epic about the drug wars in Miami. As with Tony Montana, the vicious Cuban gangster played by Al Pacino, it’s her one act of humanity that may prove to be her undoing.
Or, then again, it might not. My sources tell me that Shelby Bryan has proposed to Anna and she will shortly divorce her husband and marry him. He’s currently based in Washington—he’s a democratic fund-raiser in addition to being a telecommunications executive—and she may up sticks and relocate to the capital, giving up Vogue and reinventing herself as a grand political hostess. The delicious irony of all this is that Kate Betts may have mistimed her move. As Anna’s heir apparent, if she’d hung on another year she might have inherited the grand prize. But she didn’t have the patience and the games have begun. Personally, I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.