Not good enough: “I didn’t think most of the substantial media in New York City would cut off their gonads and hand them to the museum in a jar.”
While the New York Times Book Review received it warmly (“a blockbuster exhibition of human achievements and flaws”), in a write-up that appeared nearly two months after the book came out, the reviewer lamented that Mr. Gross had skimped on the art.
“Total crock of shit,” he told me. “If I’d written about art, it would have sucked, because that’s not what I write about! Philippe de Montebello was absolutely right, that I’m not a museographer and not an art historian. I came to write this book about the ways, means, manners and mores of the American aristocracy-that’s what I write about!”
ON MAY 11 of this year, the updated paperback of Rogues’ Gallery came out. During a talk at the powerHouse Arena in Dumbo that evening, Mr. Gross discussed the campaign to discredit his book and the tendency of journalists to kowtow rather than speak truth to power. Also miked was Michael M. Thomas, the novelist (Love and Money), former Observer contributor and former Met curator, who said the worst thing that ever happened to journalism in New York was when Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger accepted the presidency of the Metropolitan Museum in 1980: “Because that meant that he would be soliciting money from people his newspaper might want to write about, and I used to say that the problem today is most journalists want to dine with people they ought to want to dine on.”
While both Michaels nibbled on Monsieur de Montebello by imitating his plummy accent, they begrudged him some respect for his 31 years as Met director. However, Mr. Thomas denounced other veteran staffers who didn’t show up at the recent memorial service for Thomas Hoving, who died last December. Also, he joked that he knew Annette de la Renta “when she was fat and he was thin.”
On the way out, I bought a copy and was instantly hooked. Every page contained at least one tasty tidbit. Who knew that John D. Rockfeller Jr. effectively ran the museum behind the scenes for 50 years? Or that the Met’s collection might not be so priceless after all: According to one ex-staffer, it’s in the $300 billion-to-$400 billion range. Or that John Fairchild wrote a roman à clef inspired by Carter and Amanda Burden called The Moonflower Couple, and it’s available on Amazon for $1.37? Or that Mrs. Astor once wore a precious Greek vase as a hat during a boozy board meeting? (Not sure I needed to know that she was tested for syphilis.)
Hearing I was high on his book, Mr. Gross agreed to take me on a tour of “his” Met. Wearing shades, a safari jacket, tight Levi’s and Prada loafers, he was outside there on a Tuesday afternoon. Although boyish and soft-spoken, he’s the last guy I’d want interrogating me. Journalism’s in his blood. His father, Milton Gross, was a nationally syndicated New York Post sports columnist for three decades and author of books about the 1947 Yankees, the boxer Floyd Patterson and (not) learning to play golf.
Growing up in Rockville Centre, Michael spent a lot of time at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Shea, the Garden. His mother, Estelle Gross, a registered nurse, had been a charter subscriber to New York magazine. Her son knew Mailer, Wolfe, Halberstam, Breslin and Talese cold. To please his father, he promised to become a lawyer, then reneged after coming across one of his dicta in a Kansas City Star obit: “When you run with the pack, you write like the pack. I run alone.” (His daughter, and Michael’s sister, Jane made the same decision to write, and recently took a buyout after 27 years at The Times; while covering the AIDS crisis in the early ’80s, she became one of the first reporters to get “anal sex” printed in the paper.)
At 19, Mr. Gross earned his first byline and $25 for a review of a Doors’ album in Crawdaddy. Right out of Vassar College, where he majored in intellectual history and fun, he wrote about rock ‘n’ roll for high-paying one-hand mags like Gallery, Chic, Club, Swank, Genesis and Penthouse. He had to send Xeroxes to his mother because there would be gaping vaginas on the reverse side of his stories.
In the summer of ’78, he edited The Fire Island News, partied too much and then dropped off the face of the earth, cut his hair, bought a suit and grew up. Next up, a copywriting job, a fiction class taught by Joyce Carol Oates, a serious novel, and three published mysteries with a female detective protagonist that sold 65,000, 35,000 and 9,000 copies, respectively.
In 1985, he landed a column in The Times, Fashion Notes, and went on to write for scores of publications, profiling such icons as John F. Kennedy Jr., Madonna, Richard Gere, Calvin Klein, Alec Baldwin and Greta Garbo, while churning out books (he’s 140 pages into his 10th, about Beverly Hills). He said there are two kinds of journalism: “Access, which is you get hired by [a glossy mag] because you have a Rolodex, they’re all your friends, you can say, ‘Now we’re going to put you in this person’s dress and we will not ask you about Scientology.’ And then there’s enterprise, which is, ‘I won’t talk to you, fuck you, go away!’ And the most fun of all is combining the two. I think that’s what I do.”
He’s not a hatchet man?
“I’ve been called that, and character assassin.”
For 24 years, Mr. Gross has been married to Barbara Hodes, who designs for her own fashion label, Bibelot. They travel overseas a lot and live in an enviable midtown apartment full of nice flea market furniture, New Journalism and history books, stacks of albums (Beatles, Stones, Lou Reed), autographed baseballs (Roger Maris) and fashion photography (Avedon).