THE former American ambassador to France, Mrs Pamela Harriman, was British born and celebrated for her soft, milky white shoulders.
She was no great beauty but collected men the way other women collect shoes. Her first husband was Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston, her second, the film director Leland Hayward and her third Averell Harriman, who – when he died in 1986 – left her $75 million (£46.6m) and an education in politics. How did she lure all those men? Well, Diana Vreeland once called her “the greatest nanny of all time”.
It was said of the “Empress of the Democratic Party”, as she became known, that if blindfolded in a crowded room, she would smell out the most powerful man. She wrote notes to governors, senators and congressmen on her distinctive green and white stationary, often with the words “keep up the good work and keep running those fine campaigns” and always included a cheque that seldom ran to less than five figures.
Her ultimate reward was to be appointed by Bill Clinton as America’s ambassador to France and residence at the Hotel de Pontalba, the vast estate in the heart of Paris. When she died in 1997, shortly after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage while swimming in the pool at the Ritz, her body was flown home to the US on the president’s Air Force One jet.
The differences between Pamela Harriman and Anna Wintour, who is also British born and now being tipped as the next American ambassador to either Britain or France, begins with their shoulders and moves down. Instead, of the soft, milky white shoulders of a seductress, Anna Wintour’s shoulders arms and biceps are hard, tough and sinewy, born of low body fat, a daily tennis game and years of muscling her way to the top.
Yet while Pamela gained entry to the world of politics on the arm of a man, Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue for the past 20 years, and which in September in the midst of an extended economic slump still managed to published one of its largest editions ever, has secured her influence by talent and toil.
She has become one of Barack Obama’s top fundraisers or “bundlers” as they are affectionately known on account of the “bundles” of cash they scoop up. In Wintour’s case, reports vary from $500,000 to $1m. Along with Sarah Jessica Parker, she co-hosted an event at the Sex and the City star’s brownstone in Greenwich Village, New York, with tickets starting at $40, 000. She also helped develop a line, “Runway to Win” with bags and scarves featuring Obama’s face and campaign logo, designed by Marc Jacobs and Diane Von Furstenberg, which helped raise $40m for the Democrats. A service such as this is expected to bring its own reward. For the Americans don’t believe in sending career diplomats to the plum jobs.
Their role is to hold the fort, literally, in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan or sweat it out in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, the really fun jobs go instead to big-ticket donors.
The current American ambassador to London is Louis Susman, a retired investment banker, nicknamed “the Hoover” for his remarkable ability to suck up cash, while his predecessor was a Californian car salesman. By comparison, Wintour is an experienced schmoozer, an internationally recognised figure who has remained at the top of her profession for 20 years and who frequently rubs shoulders with the political elite. So, why has the suggestion been mocked? Perhaps because she is a powerful woman with a frosty reputation. She may refuse to share lifts with staff and once said“mediocrity doesn’t so much bore me as anger me”, but if this came from the mouth of a male tycoon, he would be respected for his arrogance.
If she landed the job, the perks would include one of the finest addresses in London, Winfield House in Regent’s Park, but the downside would be foregoing her current salary of $2m a year, as well as a shopping allowance reported to be about $200,000.
The case for the defence: she knows how to wield power. She allegedly threatened not to cover designers who appeared in cameo roles in The Devil Wears Prada, the film adaption of a roman-a-clef novel written by her former assistant. She can speak truth to power: she allegedly told Oprah Winfrey she had to lose 20lbs if she wanted to be a Vogue cover girl. She knows how to make a statement. Grace Coddington, the creative director at Vogue said: “Just her office is intimidating. You have to walk about a mile into her office before you get to her desk. I’m sure it’s intentional.”
She also excels at time-management. She rises at 6am, enjoys an early game of tennis before having her hair and make-up done and is deposited at the office by her chauffeur-driven Mercedes S-Class at 8am. She can easily slice through three parties in a single night by never spending more than 20 minutes at each and is tucked up in bed by 10:15pm.
She is clearly demanding and a perfectionist, characteristics that in a man would be admired. As she herself said: “If one sometimes comes across as cold or brusque, it’s simply because I’m striving for the best.” She also said of her loyal staff: “If I’m such a bitch, they must really be gluttons for punishment as they’re still here.”
Certainly, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to America, doesn’t consider her nomination to be worth so many arched eyebrows and cutting comments. “The truth is that there is no reason, in principle, why Anna Wintour should not be appointed US ambassador to the UK.
“To be a good US ambassador to London, you don’t need to be an expert on foreign policy – you have staff for that – but you need to get on top of the main issues of the day. Your role is to promote your nation’s interests. You need a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile and a cold eye.”
Wintour has all of these qualities, well, not quite. The warm smile might be stretching it. Personally, I regard as Chinese whispers the report from the fashion consultant Tim Gunn that he witnessed Wintour being carried down the stairs by her bodyguards rather than share a lift with other people at a New York fashion show. Or that an intern having witnessed her boss trip and fall flat in the middle of the office corridor was so frightened she stepped over her. But, clearly, she is not a touchy-feely person, after all she is known as Nuclear Wintour, but I have no doubt that she is exceptionally capable.
The case for the prosecution is that her political antenna attracts a lot of static. Last year, as the Arab Spring was starting she ran a glowing profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which was headlined “A Rose in the Desert”. The 5,000 word article was shorn of even the mildest criticism of the regime and appeared on newsstands just about the same time as Asma’s husband began butchering his own people.
However, even this can be turned to her advantage, as, after all it is quite an American trait to misread events. The CIA was famously oblivious to one million Russian soldiers lined up on the Afghanistan border and only twigged to the 1979 invasion when they marched across it on Christmas Eve.
It remains to be seen whether she gets the job or not, but for Anna Wintour “the future’s so bright, she’s gotta wear shades”.