It took just 10 minutes from the moment this scribe stepped through the front door of best-selling biographer Jerry Oppenheimer's New Milford home for the author to learn the location of my current residence, how much I paid for it and where I had lived before.
Jerry Oppenheimer is good. I mean, the guy is really good. I never thought I was particularly chatty about personal matters, at least not with someone I've just met.
But Mr. Oppenheimer is like a big, friendly dose of truth serum. And with his adorable dogs, Trixie and Cuco, flanking me-well, I didn't have a chance.
"We'll get to the reason you came in just a moment," Mr. Oppenheimer promised.
But first, before we got down to the business of discussing his most recent unauthorized biography "Front Row: Anna Wintour: the Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor in Chief," Mr. Oppenheimer wanted to know a little about the demographics of my neighborhood. There's nothing too noteworthy there. But he was genuinely curious.
One might think that the man who probes into the lives of the rich and famous would be bored by mundane affairs, but it's apparent that Mr. Oppenheimer's success lies in the fact he is genuinely interested in what people of all sorts are up to.
His friendly, "Come on now, you can tell me" style has obviously served this former investigative journalist very well. "Front Row," released last month, is Mr. Oppenheimer's seventh book. His other work explores the icons Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ethel Kennedy, Jerry Seinfeld and Rock Hudson.
Anna Wintour, the famous fashion diva who is trademarked by those sunglasses that she wears day and night, and who has been editor in chief of Vogue since 1988, became Mr. Oppenheimer's latest study because, he explained, "I felt that she was very worthy of a full-blown, objective biography."
"Prior to 1988, no one knew Anna," he said, noting that she came on the media radar after she wrested control of the helm at Vogue-and became the target of animal rights groups for eating meat, and for wearing fur and promoting it in the pages of her magazine.
As Mr. Oppenheimer writes in his book, "Despite headline-making protests by animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the fur industry had come to worship Anna. The Fur Information Council of America, the fur trade group, observed, 'Anna has had a huge impact on the amount of fur being used in fashion. The point about Anna is she influences the influencers.'"
In fact, as a testament to her powerful sway on consumers and others, PETA has spent considerable resources specifically targeting Anna Wintour (check out the Web sites www.furisdead.com and www.voguesucks.com).
Not only is she editor in chief of Vogue, the fashion bible, but Anna Wintour has become the world's fashion arbiter, reigning over an industry worth more than $100 billion in the U.S. alone.
Add everything up, and, in Jerry Oppenheimer's eyes, it all made Anna Wintour a prime candidate for his famous investigative probing. After all, as he pointed out, "She decides if your skirt is going to be above the knee or below the knee … ."
Mr. Oppenheimer insists that he went into the project having no idea of the information that would be uncovered. One of the things that surprised the author about Ms. Wintour, he said, is that "she's so needy with men," noting that men have helped her climb (or claw) her way to the top.
"Tough and bitchy" is how Mr. Oppenheimer described Ms. Wintour during last week's meeting in his living room. And he cited one example-which he wrote about in the book-of how Anna, while at the Paris collections with her boss, who was then the fashion editor of British Vogue, tried to sabotage an important assignment and caused such a disruption that Ms. Wintour's boss had to summon the big boss, from his vacation in Italy, to Paris so that he could arbitrate between the two women staffers.
"Anna made it so hellish … ," Mr. Oppenheimer said.
But when it comes to Ms. Wintour's relationships with men, it's a completely different story. Through his research, Mr. Oppenheimer uncovered an Anna Wintour who was Lolita-like when it came to interacting with men, a modus operandi she employed to her advantage as she fought her way to her personal summit of being named editor-in-chief of the American version of Vogue.
Other fascinating information the author dug up included Anna's incredible independence (she had her own apartment at 16), her psychic eye for fashion from a very young age, "and that she is … editor of the most illustrious fashion magazine, Vogue, without a high school degree."
In fact, as a teenager Anna walked away from school one day in London after being reprimanded by the headmistress for wearing too short of a skirt. In typical Anna fashion, the future Vogue editor said the hell with it, left school and never went back.
"What [also] shocked me," said Mr. Oppenheimer, was to learn that "she couldn't write. She couldn't communicate on paper the creative ideas she saw visually."
In order to present such interesting facts that offer a glimpse into the private side of a very public woman, Mr. Oppenheimer tracked down scores of people with whom he could talk, doing all he could to try to have them speak on the record.
One of his most important sources was Anna Wintour's former best friend, Vivienne Lasky, who now resides in Rhode Island.
The interview process for a project like "Front Row" is, Mr. Oppenheimer said, "like therapy for many people." And once he found her, Ms. Lasky opened up like "a flood gate," which produced a stack of notes for the biographer that was "about four inches thick."
Anna, it seemed, was "catty and Machiavellian" with her best friend, Mr. Oppenheimer discovered. He explained that when the girls were growing up together in England, Anna would cook her plump friend's favorite foods and then sit back and watch as Vivienne ate them. Anna would also buy Vivienne gorgeous gifts of clothes-but always a size too small.
Another Anna incident involving Vivienne has a Litchfield County connection. It occurred when the girls were grown and Vivienne was married. Along with Anna and Anna's brother, Jim, Vivienne and her husband were invited to spend the weekend at the country home of Anna's aunt, Jean Read, who lived in Cornwall Bridge with her husband, Cliff, an executive of the American Cancer Society.
A passage in Mr. Oppenheimer's book details the scene: "Anna was thinner than I'd ever seen her, and she was all in black leather," says Lasky, who was dressed New England preppy-style and was taken aback by Anna's gaunt, avant-garde look and manner. "She'd been delivered in a limo and she behaved like a twelve-year-old. She didn't say hello to me. It was like I was invisible. She refused to come to lunch, refused to help out, and sat in a chair sulking. I heard Jean, who was furious, saying to her, 'You're so unbelievably rude. What's the matter with you?' She refused to interact with anyone…. At one point during the hellish weekend, Anna made a call to New York. A couple of hours later a limousine arrived with a mysterious-looking fellow dressed in leather. Anna and the man huddled for a time, and then he left. He was never properly introduced. It was all very awkward for everyone. (He was a French record producer by the name of Michel Esteban, with whom Anna was starting a relationship.)"
Another brother, Patrick Wintour, who is a journalist in London, helped Mr. Oppenheimer as much as he could. However, he eventually stopped correspondence. Even though he wasn't particularly close to his sister, he told Mr. Oppenheimer that he had to abide by her wishes-and she had asked him to stop assisting her unauthorized biographer.
Anna Wintour is not talking about the book. However, Mr. Oppenheimer said that, if he had to speculate, "I think that she is probably very disappointed that her life prior to Vogue is now in the public domain."
In spite of it all, "I did come away with a lot of respect" for Anna Wintour, said Mr. Oppenheimer, who noted that there are similarities among the rich and powerful, such as "drive and ambition."
Like one of his other biographical subjects, Martha Stewart ("Just Desserts: Martha Stewart: The Unauthorized Biography by Jerry Oppenheimer"), he said, "Anna's a real control freak."
However, Mr. Oppenheimer called Martha Stewart a "vicious person," something he said that Anna is not. "Anna has a British chill … she fought her way to the top. Her love is fashion … which influences so much in our world."
Mr. Oppenheimer noted that Anna Wintour has put young designers on the map. And he said that he also believes she is a good mother.
"One has to come away with respect," said Mr. Oppenheimer, who called the book, "almost a lesson on how to get to the top."
If the tables were turned on Mr. Oppenheimer, "In terms of anyone probing my secret life … they'd probably find that I'm really a compassionate, nice guy. I'm not out to demonize my subjects," he said.
As for the fashion industry's take on "Front Row," "People are scared," Mr. Oppenheimer told me. He has heard that while Anna's colleagues seem to like the book, no one is saying so publicly. He heard that an editor-in-chief of another Condé-Nast publication, the media giant that owns Vogue, quipped, "It's not the kind of book one carries through the halls [here]."
Probably not. But for those of us who are mere mortals, "Front Row: Anna Wintour: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor in Chief" is a wonderfully scandalous book that's difficult to put down.
Oh, and those sultry sunglasses of Anna's? They're legit-complete with prescription lenses. It seems that she is genetically predisposed to eye problems.
Jerry Oppenheimer is currently working on his next book, "The House of Hilton," which he described as "the multi-generational saga of the Hilton dynasty, from Conrad Hilton, founder of the hotel chain, to the 'It girl' of the new millennium, Paris Hilton, and it will cover decades and generations of that family." Crown Publishing, a division of Random House recently bought the book.
Melanie McMillan is Style Editor of The Litchfield County Times.