FIRST STOP ON the tour was the Met’s bookstore, where a clerk lamented that there were no copies of Rogues’ Gallery available, and never would be. After Mr. Gross flashed his press card at admissions, I did the same and thought, no longer will I have to claim poverty (“Sorry, I can only afford $10 today”) and promise to become a member soon. (A week later, I received a membership from my mother as a birthday present.)
Next stop, underneath the Great Hall staircase where the original one is preserved. Next point of interest, the Hearst screen from San Simeon. Entering the American Wing, I noted the Tiffany stained glass thingy and Diana the Huntress in the middle of the courtyard. Unimpressed, Mr. Gross pointed to the name advertised high above the Louis Sullivan staircase from the Chicago Stock Exchange: Charles Engelhard, the mining magnate who inspired the Ian Fleming villain “Auric Goldfinger” and adopted the future Annette de la Renta.
Personally, I think she came off like an awe-inspiring badass in the book. All it took was learning that she used to tear around her parents’ mansion on horseback and was expelled from Foxcroft for calling the headmaster a “fucking bastard!”
Midway through lunch, a thick-necked man sat next to me and texted as Mr. Gross spewed controversy into my huge junky tape recorder. Private investigator? A “fixer” from Cravath?
So is the Met some kind of religious cult? I whispered.
“That’s a very good analogy!” Mr. Gross said loudly. “A religion that sits on land and in a building owned by the people of the City and State of New York. And all the objects of veneration for that cult are held in trust for the people of the world. Our land, our house, our stuff, our museum, and yet the people who run it have for 140 years considered it theirs, not ours.”
Any weird rituals in the cult?
“An entire calendar of rituals, at which one is expected to show up and ante up. There’s a series of dinners and previews during the year for trustees only, and rituals of ascendance. Part of the reason why so many of the current rich people don’t want to play the game is because it requires genuflecting to the rituals of the cult for 15 years before you get any power here. First, it’s give, get or get out, that’s ritual number one. Second, pay your dues. Serve. Start on a lesser committee, prove your value, show up, give money, buy things, notch up, play the game, buy a dinner at this table, notch up, keep your mouth shut, don’t talk to reporters. Is it Scientology? No. Is it a cult? Sure it is.”
But why do rich people care so much about getting their names on a wall?
“I would say ego and the quest for secular immortality is probably one of the leading reasons,” Mr. Gross said, before telling a story about A. Alfred Taubman, who was too demanding about how many times and how large his name had to appear on a wall. “It’s the Henry Kravis wing because Henry wasn’t as demanding.”
The security goon got up. Mr. Gross assured me that he was a tourist, having spotted his Met button, and the tour continued.
As we wandered from gallery to gallery, it was clear that Mr. Gross was more interested in the provenance than the art. He wanted to find out if the André Meyer gallery still exists. It took 20 minutes to find. The former head of Lazard Frères (a.k.a. the “Picasso of banking”), who died in 1979, was down to two rooms.
“His family wouldn’t give more money,” Mr. Gross explained. “Secular immortality now has a used-by date-rather, a pay-by date.”
We blew off the Picasso exhibit and studied names engraved on the grand staircase. Mr. Gross wondered where they’d go next and was excited to find empty plaques on the second floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another former Lazard chairman, Michel David-Weill, and his longtime squeeze, Margo Walker, who owns West Island, which inspired “West Egg” in The Great Gatsby.
Mr. David-Weill, a Met trustee, kept walking, but Ms. Walker stopped to chat. “Oh, I read it word for word, every page,” she said of Rogues’ Gallery. “They wouldn’t let you in and kept trying to throw you out!”
“Oh, but you have to read the new chapter,” its author said.