Early Wintour

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

When we heard that Anna Wintour—a little known thirty-something fashion editor from London—was about to replace our beloved editor-in-chief Lou Gropp at House & Garden in the late summer of 1987, a weird kind of panic set in. We knew that our wardrobes were out of date and they suddenly mattered. Mini skirts were newly back in style, but in the easy-going culture established by our departing boss, whose values had to do with the quality of our magazine and not our personal outfits or hair styles, we were fashion laggards. Everyone agreed that we had to catch up fast, especially our hemlines.

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” said Henry David Thoreau. Yes indeed. But when I rushed into the city from the East End of Long Island on the morning of September 2nd wearing limp sportswear and scuffed white fisherman’s sandals, I was carrying hundreds of dollars worth of new stuff from the Southampton Saks Fifth Avenue: short skirt, business-style blouse, pumps with heels.

Anna has not started yet but she is there interviewing current staff in a borrowed managerial office. Lou’s secretary Louisa, a kapo type who is already a passionate Anna loyalist, says Anna wants to see me. I ask for ten minutes to organize my thoughts. Behind my locked door clothing flies around the room as I cut off hang tags, fling the country things into a file drawer, jump into my dress-for-success duds, and tease my saltwater-sticky hair into shape.

Anna in her Chanel suit and dark sunglasses is not hard to read: zero warmth. You can’t see her eyes but you can see whether she smiles. She does not. When my husband asked me what it was like, I said it was like meeting your brain surgeon. “What do you think of House & Garden,” she asks. I have been there for over 22 years but only say, “I am proud of the work we do although I sometimes find it a bit too reverential.” It doesn’t really matter what I say; it matters how frumpy she finds me at twenty years her senior in my pathetically new clothes. I later learn that she refers to people with this age handicap as “wrinklies”—typical annoying British slang like “preggers” for pregnant. Still I thought my job was secure because I was the senior writer and magazines always need writers.

A week later, Anna is installed in the corner office with its private bathroom. She is brought around to meet everyone. When she gets to my room she says she has already met me, sticks her hand out, does not smile, and comments before rushing away, “You have a window.” Uh-oh.

Now begins the week that feels like a month. Anna is in the art department reviewing the editors’ photo inventories, standing over the light tables in her dark glasses, saying “No” more than 90 percent of the time. Anna has changed the magazine name to HG. Nothing about it will be the same as the publication that under Lou Gropp—for the only time in its 85-year history—won two National Magazine Awards for excellence at the industry’s annual Oscar-type ceremony. Memos fly and meetings run throughout each day, but not for me. When one of the decorating editors asks me which meetings I have been invited to I have to answer “None.”

Mainly I am waiting now, while I try to think of ways to become visible again, pondering who can help me achieve this. I develop certain routines including a daily solitary lunch on the Grand Central Terminal balcony: chicken potpie and a scotch and soda. This is a menu I never chose before, but fatty food and alcohol are instinctively selected balms that work– a little. Nevertheless, I am beginning to have insomnia and brief private crying fits. I keep my office door closed most of the time with a radio playing and a “Knock and Enter” sign taped outside. I hear people rushing by, flurries when meetings begin and end. I am finishing stories already in the works for weeks, writing proposals to change Anna’s mind should I ever get her ear. One sweet girl stops by every day to say hello, but most of my colleagues don’t want Anna to see them with me and steer clear. Sauve qui peut.

The other wrinklie, Danielle, a beautifully educated woman who has been there a decade longer than I, is also cut out of meetings and left off the roster for the constant memos. Danielle soon decides she might as well be seen with me and suggests lunch at the Harvard Club. I have my now-usual scotch and soda but with the club’s famous rarebit. We agree that it looks bad.

I solicit the help of my litigator son. Phoning him at home in the evening I say “I may need a lawyer soon.” He says “If that’s what you think, you need one now. You don’t wait till the shit hits the fan.” He will find me one. He calls me with a firm name the next day at work, asking me first whether my phone is secure. No one ever asked me that before. When I call the firm, the operator asks whether it is about a case. No one ever asked me that before either. I quickly answer yes although I just want advice. I meet the labor lawyer and he tells me to make notes but only in private (“Don’t appear to be spoiling for a law suit”). Listen for “fresh,” “young.” Voice your suspicions that age seems to be involved and note the answers. Anna has killed one of my steady features–Mark Hampton on Decorating–which would later become a best-selling anthology, and she has assigned my shopping column to a colleague. The new lawyer says that in employment law this is called “evicting” me from my job. It’s actionable.

On September 17th Anna finally invites me into her office for a talk. I arrive with my list of hot ideas for her hot magazine but she doesn’t give me a chance to read then. She says she is sorry she has made me wait but she has finally looked my work over in past issues. She sees that I am from the previous regime and “would not fit in” (pronounced “fit tin”) with the new one. Talking fast and breathing as though in a tap-dancing climax, I say I wrote the way I did because the magazine was about splendor and authenticity. I can do what she wants too. I tell her I wrote about cockroach control for Woman’s Day and satin bed sheets for Cosmopolitan. No dice. I say “You made up your mind the minute you saw me. You don’t know that age is inside the head, not outside on the skin.” Anna says she is sorry I am taking it like this. I say “How the hell would you take it, a careerist like you?” Both of us are standing and shouting by now. She is rushing to the door to open it and get rid of me. I say, “I hope you fall on your face.” And exit. Louisa the kapo has heard the loud parts and looks at me angrily.

I have never seen Anna in person again but was glad to note, when she appeared on the Letterman show a year or so ago, that when you look at her profile with those side curtains of hair, all you can see is her nose. Which is getting bigger.

For more than three decades Elaine Greene Weisburg was an editor-writer at House & Garden and House Beautiful. Although also a memoirist, she only dared to try poetry in an IRP class.