An Open Letter to Leonard Lauder

To: Leonard Lauder, Chairman, Whitney Museum of American Art

From: Ron Rosenbaum

Re: How an apology to the city for the Books & Company fiasco might redeem your image and rescue your museum

Dear Mr. Lauder,

Hey big guy, real profile in courage there with the Karen Finley cancellation! I have no strong feelings about Ms. Finley’s work (I’ve never been to one of her performances), but it sure looked pathetically craven for the Whitney to cancel her upcoming “life-art” installation just a week after the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of her National Endowment for the Arts grant cutoff.

Typical of the Whitney to make the cowardly announcement on the eve of the July 4 holiday weekend, obviously hoping to avoid calling attention to its cravenness. Talk about piling on, talk about watching which way the wind blows. It kind of confirms, doesn’t it, that the Whitney is all about fashion rather than esthetic conviction. When Ms. Finley seemed hot and cutting-edge, the Whitney rushed to sign her up, but it didn’t have the courage of its convictions–let’s face it, it has neither courage nor convictions–so it cut and ran when the Supremes showed disapproval. As Thomas Healy, Ms. Finley’s gallery representative told The New York Times , the timing of the cancellation was “a little too bizarre to be a coincidence.” It was not only bizarre, it was cruel and deceitful.

So once again under your tenure the Whitney has sunk to a new low in respect, which no amount of pandering to kitsch taste with an Andrew Wyeth exhibit can possibly rescue. No, it may be that things have gotten beyond rescue. Unless … unless you listen to me, Mr. Lauder. I have a plan. One that might, just might , succeed in restoring both you and the Whitney to some semblance of the respect you’ve squandered and lost in the eyes of literate New Yorkers.

It has to do with Books & Company. Remember Books & Company? I know you’re a busy man with an extremely large cosmetics family fortune to spend, so it may have slipped your mind. It’s been more than a year now, 15 months to be precise, since you and your hirelings–the now-departed (for San Francisco) director David Ross and his deputy, acting director Willard Holmes–forced the untimely killing of one of New York City’s most vital and beautiful cultural institutions, a bookstore that was more than a bookstore, but a kind of work of art in itself. A place that radiated intellectual integrity, a source of inspiration for readers, writers and thinkers, a place where some of the foremost writers of the world met their readers, where new writers found an audience, where a browser could find his or her life changed by an encounter with a book he might never have found elsewhere had it not been for the thoughtful, imaginative and discerning selection of Books & Company owner and founder Jeannette Watson and her able and erudite book buyer Steven Varni.

It’s been more than a year, Mr. Lauder, since you effectively told the thousands of New Yorkers who protested your insensitive and disingenuous efforts to evict the store from Whitney-owned property–who saw through the phony economic rationales I exposed in my columns on the subject–that you just didn’t care . You weren’t going to listen to their pleas because you had more important priorities: the super-important grand master plan for developing and capitalizing on the Whitney’s real estate assets.

Big plans were in the making! Expansion and progress must be served! Location, location, location! That’s essentially what we heard from you and your spokesmen who seemed to have far more interest in becoming go-go real estate hustlers than serious curators of a museum that had turned itself into a veritable laughingstock and had one universally respected asset left: the custodianship of Books & Company. Not that you had anything to do with its quality, but you were its landlord. Little more was asked of you than to not force this one undisputed jewel, this one genuine enduring cultural asset of the Whitney, into the street.

But you couldn’t handle that responsibility, you and your minions were too greedy, too eager to play mini-Trumps with the property it was on. Unfortunately, we already know your idea of a “classy operation”; we have the instructive example of the Whitney’s wholly owned “Store Next Door.” The contrast between that disgracefully schlocky, embarrassing merchandiser of Mickey Mouse lamps and other cheesy tchotchkes and the physical beauty and intellectual excitement of the Books & Company premises in full flower, tells us all we need to know about your idea of tasteful real estate development.

But you insisted Books & Company had to go, had to make way for your Super-Important Master Plan (let’s call it SIMP for short). Had to make way fast, public be damned. Get them out, put them on the street, gut the premises, you demanded, despite a rising tide of protests from some of the most distinguished literary and artistic luminaries in the city.

And you got your way, they’re out, it’s gone. But where’s the replacement? Where are the fruits of SIMP? Remember how your people said it was intolerable for the Whitney not to realize maximum profitability on the Books & Company space, remember the many zigs and zags of your public and private statements on the issue? How initially the Whitney had boasted it was only asking a 2 percent rent rise to extend the store’s lease, and how, after the store came back and said they’d accept the 2 percent offer, the Whitney declared that it was “no longer on the table”? It was–your own original offer–suddenly economically unacceptable. At the Whitney all eyes were glazed with greed over the real estate speculation profits SIMP would bring, and all ears were deaf to the protests and pleas of those who wanted to save the store. And it could have been saved.

Remember how, at the last minute when there was still a chance to save the store, when Books & Company supporters came up with a new offer that would have virtually doubled the rent they were paying, you rejected that too, revealing a monumental insensitivity to the Whitney’s single most precious asset–and to the people who loved it.

You just couldn’t wait to get them out. Make way for SIMP! When Jeannette Watson asked if she could stay open just 12 weeks beyond the October 1997 expiration of her lease so she could stay in business through the holiday book-buying season when most independent book stores make enough to balance their books for the year, the Whitney, with Scrooge-like callousness, said No, no way, no extension, forcing her for economic reasons to shut down in May, before the money-losing summer season. After 20 years of bringing distinction to the museum, she couldn’t get 12 more weeks from you. Make way for progress. Make way for SIMP!

So where is it, what happened to SIMP, the super-important master plan? After 15 months of your wheeling and dealing, where’s the progress, where are the results of the plan you snuffed Books & Company for? Just the other day, I passed the locked-up storefront and peered sadly into the gutted interior of the store. Nothing happening. Nothing happening next door at the evacuated premises of the terrific little mom-and-pop stationery store forced out for SIMP. You’ve turned a whole block of prime Madison Avenue frontage into a virtual ghost town, an eyesore, all for SIMP.

I decided to put in a call to a Whitney spokesman to see what was up with SIMP. Surely, you must be on the verge of a major, major breakthrough by now, devoting all your brainpower and dynamic real estate speculating talent to a mighty coup.

But to my surprise and astonishment, your spokesman at the museum told me the same thing you’ve been telling people for 15 months now: “We are negotiating with several parties about the space.”

In fact, since you knew you were evicting Books & Company at the end of 1996, you must have been negotiating for nearly two years now with no results. Gee, I wonder why there are no takers? Could it be the bad odor the Whitney’s treatment of Books & Company left behind? Could it be that SIMP was overambitious and too grandiose for even such real estate geniuses as you and your crack team of property hustlers?

Meanwhile, the Books & Company space, which you insisted had to bring in market-level cash flow, is bringing in exactly zero. Nothing! Is there a breach of fiduciary responsibility on the Whitney management’s part here, kicking out the bookstore, a paying tenant, and not having any plan in place to provide a substitute income stream from the premises? You could have kept the bookstore on for another year on a month-to-month basis while you were putting SIMP in place, but it turns out you didn’t have your ducks in a row, did you? You didn’t have any ducks at all. Shouldn’t the Whitney’s somnolent board launch an investigation of this mismanaged fiasco at this point? Shouldn’t someone be held accountable for the failure of SIMP and the ill will the eviction of Books & Company has incurred at the already shaky museum?

The kicker, though, the too beautiful bitter pathetic irony of it is how your spokesman tried to spin the glaring failure to produce any results. It’s a prime example of just how “fungible” the truth is in the Whitney’s dealings in the Books & Company matter. When I asked the spokesman what explanation she had for the 15 months’ failure to fill the Books & Company space, she tried to pin the blame on the poor dead corpse of the bookstore: She said, “We’ve always known this would take time, that’s why we asked the bookstore to stay on to the end of its lease [in October 1997] rather than close [in May].”

This blame-the-victim remark could be the ultimate insult to the intelligence of New Yorkers, not to mention to the truth. The bookstore wanted to stay open the full extent of its lease, it wanted to stay open 12 weeks longer to be precise, through the holiday season. But you and your cruel Scrooges said No. After 20 years of bringing distinction to your institution, 12 weeks was too much. Make way for SIMP! And now the Whitney has the nerve to try to argue the store should have stayed on to subsidize SIMP.

I checked my memory of the Scrooge-like Christmas season turn-down with Steven Varni and Jeannette Watson, who were negotiating with your hirelings on these questions, and they both confirmed it. But my conversation with Jeannette Watson gave me the germ of an idea, a plan that might, just might, give you a chance to redeem yourself.

Ms. Watson is doing well for herself now, although she went through a difficult mourning period following the loss of the store (as all book lovers in New York did). She’s now working a couple days a week at the Lenox Hill Bookstore while cooperating with the writer Lynne Tillman on a kind of oral history of Books & Company for Harcourt Brace & Company. Understandably, she has no desire to have any further contact with you after the cruel way you and your minions jerked her around during the sham negotiations over the store’s future.

Still, I have the feeling that if you were to be a man, and make an abject apology to her and to the citizens of New York City on behalf of the Whitney, if you were to (metaphorically at least) crawl on your knees to her, offer to junk the odious SIMP , offer to reopen the store at your expense, guarantee that she would have total control but not be required to put in the killing hours she used to, offer to hire back her book selection genius Steven Varni and let them run the place, she might, just might entertain the idea. No guarantees, I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t trust you even if you begged. Still, if you’re lucky, it might be a way for the Whitney to regain the respect it’s lost. Maybe it’s too much to hope that Books & Company could rise from the ashes. But you could at least start with the abject apology. You owe us all that.