“It was an exercise in sucking up hostility, being called names, being hung up on,” author Michael Gross said of Rogues’ Gallery, his unauthorized and rather provocative history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I had never encountered hostility on that level—hostility so organized. It was daunting, it put a dent in me,” the 56-year-old writer told the Daily Transom during an interview at his apartment overlooking Seventh Avenue near Central Park.
Lawyers for socialite and philanthropist Annette de la Renta, a museum board member, threatened to take legal action against Mr. Gross last month over how she is portrayed in the book.
Ms. de la Renta, like almost everyone at the Met, had refused interview requests for the book. (A representative for Ms. de la Renta also declined comment for this article.)
Mr. Gross described his reporting as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” even after two decades of writing about the sordid lives of New York’s high society.
“I’ve gotten homicidal looks from [honorary Met trustee] Anna Wintour, from socialites who are friends of Annette de la Renta’s,” he said.
Mr. Gross understands the dirty looks, but not the curious lack of coverage surrounding his supposed blockbuster.
Gossip columnist Liz Smith, who described his portrayal of Ms. de la Renta as “beyond the pale,” had predicted the book would create “a firestorm of controversy.”
Not so much.
“I thought this book was pretty good,” Mr. Gross told the Daily Transom. “My publisher reacted to it as if it were pretty good. The pre-publication reviews all said it was great. And then, all of a sudden, it was as if it fell off a cliff.”
The quiet could be from any number of factors, but Mr. Gross suspected a particular set of galleys that may have escaped the publisher’s embargo and wound up in the hands of the Met’s powerful trustees. “I know that people like that throw their weight around,” he said. “The silence began right around when that set of galleys jumped the fence. We know Mrs. de la Renta got galleys and not a finished book because the page numbers in the letter [from her attorneys] were in reference to the page numbers in the galleys, not the finished book.”
Mr. Gross said he had heard at least one story of a “supposedly fearless editor” scared off by the threat of a lawsuit. “Once I realized what was going on, I was, as the Brits say, gobsmacked,” he said. “It was like someone just punched me in the face, and I was like, ‘Whoa! That’s what’s happening! Someone just punched me in the face!’ And it actually, curiously, made me feel a lot better. The idea that there was someone out there who wanted to squish my book like a bug—or some group of someones out there who want to squish this book like a bug—curiously made me feel better because now I knew what I was up against.”
For its part, the Met seems to be relishing the relative calm. “You’re the first person to have cared enough to ask for it,” volunteered museum spokesman Harold Holzer, when the Daily Transom called for a statement. The 140-year-old institution formally responded, “A so-called ‘history’ of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that ignores its mission, and blurs the distinction between gossip and fact, is not only insensitive but highly misleading.” (The Met declined to comment on Mr. Gross’s specific allegations.)
Mr. Gross said he is prepared to vigorously defend his book, and his style. “It sometimes shocks me that people don’t understand just how much effect highly visible and powerful people have on the culture in general,” he said, “and that’s why I write the kinds of books I write.”