Very American, I thought, and not for the last time. Colleagues say she never uses 50 words if one will do. A few well-chosen words about her would be crisp - "she is crisper than crisp" says a friend - and elegant. Another would be thin, as in thinner than thin.
One of the main reasons Anna Wintour had come to London was for a lunch though, in the end, it was unclear if she actually ate anything at all. The rumour that swirled through the Women in Journalism gathering at the Groucho Club was that the guest of honour had, in fact, managed a few new potatoes and a number of green beans. "I have seen the untouched chicken breast," reported one commissioning editor. "Yes, but what position was the cutlery in?" asked another. Sadly, the plate and the cutlery had been whisked away at much the same time as Anna.
That was at 2.15. No one knew where she was going but everyone was pleased she had come. Over dessert the consensus was that she was much nicer than anticipated but with a nickname like Nuclear Wintour expectations were not exactly high. Her icy reputation was born a decade ago when editing British Vogue and she clearly finds it baffling. She regrets she was not more open then and perhaps that is why she kept this transatlantic luncheon speaking date despite the fact her original main engagement had been rescheduled. "I seem to have an image here that I can't lose. They've never found nicknames like that for me in the States," she said. "But my dad, who I think is the sweetest man in the world, was always called Chilly Charlie! Maybe it is in the genes."
Her father is a former editor of the Evening Standard and the family is full of academic achievements - at Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Anna decided to go to work instead and, at the age of 20, found herself in the fashion department of Harpers & Queen. "I can remember the editor saying to me that Anna was not a writer but that she had something else, she had the eye, and that one day she would be employing all of us," says Vicki Woods, a writer.
She still has the eye (and Woods now is working for her) and it is impossible to exaggerate how important it can be for a designer to catch it. American Vogue is icon and industry rolled into one: some months it is as thick as a telephone directory. Anna Wintour knows each page. "I'm horribly hands-on, I'm afraid. I like to read every caption. I like to know what's going on. I find that people work better if you are talking to them all the time. I think people thrive on attention."
Her Chanel sunglasses lie next to her on the couch. They are black and huge and she clearly wants to put them on though in the end she just clutches them. "I really started wearing them at the shows because I simply could not see well enough with the lights in my face. So it just became a habit which probably means something very dramatic, like that I'm hiding from the world behind them or something. But I'm just used to it."
They are as much a part of her as her Chanel suits, her short skirts, her spikey shoes, her elegant thinness. She is 47 and has had the same perfect bob haircut since her 20s. She says she loves fashion because it is ever-changing but she herself seems to have stayed more or less the same. Her looks, her habits, her time-keeping are absolute. "She always left parties early. I've seen her leave her own party at 11pm," says a friend.
Despite all evidence to the contrary Anna Wintour obviously believes that she is a fairly normal person. She is married to the chief of child psychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian and takes her two children Charlie, 11, and Bee, nine, to school every day - "it's great because they have to talk to me, they are trapped in the car" . She tries to be home to have supper with them at 6pm. She fusses that young girls these days wear their skirts too short. "My God when I see the girls in my daughter's school. I want to tell them to lengthen their skirts. They are up to here," she says, gesturing at a tiny hipbone. "I'm sure mine was never that short. And the shoes!" I glance at her Manolo Blahnik slingbacks. "These are low compared to what I see them in."
She is not being disingenuous here - every mother has such areas of selective blindness - though she is cannot be a normal person in other ways. For instance, in her spare time she raises mega amounts for Aids and breast cancer research. Last year she was co-chair (with her friend the Princess of Wales) of one benefit alone which raised $1.4m (nearly pounds 1m). Does she ever wonder if it is all real? "I know it is real - the magazine comes out every month and if it didn't then I would be in trouble." But it is an unreal world - how can anyone be down to earth when people like Donna Karan give you a rose garden as a present? "It wasn't Donna," she says crisply, "and it was a very small rose garden."
She credits her success to "very good luck" and refuses to countenance any other explanation. This is how she sees it: "You go to work in the morning. You do your job. You try and put out the best magazine that you can, have some fun doing it and then you go home and see your family. People talk about the glamour and the excitement but when you are in it, it doesn't seem particularly glamorous. I don't do it for that. I do it because it's a real thrill putting together the magazine every month. When a fantastic shoot comes in, it's exciting. Walking from my office down to the art room, I always get a buzz."
Her accent occasionally becomes more American and her dual citizenship (her mother's side) shows in other ways too. She votes in the States and her habits and drive are quintessential New York, though she misses English eccentricities and humour. "I am in a weird position. I obviously didn't feel American when I went there but I certainly don't feel English any more coming back here. But New York is such a melting pot that after a while you don't feel like an outsider."
It is baffling to imagine the Queen of Fashion could feel an outsider and yet that is something she probably does know about. Another word used about Anna Wintour is "loyal" and she expects the same in return. Her tip for success is to "be focused and be true to yourself" . "You can't worry about what another magazine might be doing. The minute you try to ape someone else, I think you lose. You have to be true to what you are. Really, don't look to the left or the right."
This seemed a good time to mention the f word - fur. Last winter she decided to let her readers in on a secret or two: "This is the moment for me to confess that, yes, I wear fur. I also eat juicy steaks." I absolutely do not believe the bit about the steaks but it is the fur comment that incited the the activists. She does not regret a word of it, however, even after a lunch at the Four Seasons last December was interrupted when "Raccoon Girl" threw a frozen one on her plate.
Anna reacted as a Vogue editor should: she is said to have draped a serviette over the dead animal and called for coffee. Come to think of it, she probably wasn't hungry anyway.Reuse content