Until recently, I was a ding-dong when it came to the Met’s institutional history (opened in the 1870s, big King Tut exhibit a century later, that’s it) and knew more about my own: Smoked my first cig around back in seventh grade; drank Michelobs on the steps in eighth; and used to skateboard by the fountain into which Stuey Staniford tossed my blue blazer.
At a 1996 cocktail party inside the museum, I told Art Garfunkel how beautiful his song “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her” was.
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.)
At the Costume Institute Ball I attended (the cocktails portion), in 2007, I shook hands with Cate Blanchett, introduced myself to Rupert and Wendi Murdoch, enjoyed a quick chat with Juliette Lewis and was too shy to buttonhole Lindsay Lohan. But I was ignorant about all the founders and benefactors immortalized on the grand staircase walls.
Then I read Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals that Made The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which author Michael Gross spent three years researching without any official help from the Met. From the beginning, the powers-that-be forbade any staffers from talking to him.
“The only kind of books we find even vaguely palatable are those we control,” Harold Holzer from “external affairs” told Mr. Gross. “You are laboring under a misimpression,” the director at the time, Philippe de Montebello, intoned, with his vaguely comical mid-Atlantic accent. “The museum has no secrets.”
“They screamed and cursed and hung up on me and circled the wagons,” Mr. Gross said recently. “It was a demoralizing experience, bloody painful and soul-destroying. I drove myself and others around me crazy.”
The day Rogues’ Gallery was published, in May 2009, Mr. Gross was in good spirits, in spite of an ongoing effort to kill his book. Three weeks earlier, Robert Silvers-the English-accented gent from Rockville Centre who’s been editor of The New York Review of Books since like 1863-asked Random House for five galley copies, supposedly for reviewing purposes. Mr. Silvers also wished to secure at least one for the Met’s vice chairman, Annette de la Renta, so she could read the 110-page chapter (“Arrivistes”) about her and her mother, Jane Engelhard, whom Mr. Gross considers one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century and great American characters of all time.
Ms. de la Renta was less enthused. Soon, a 17-page letter from her lawyer at Cravath, Swaine & Moore arrived at Random House. Citing “gratuitous and false character assassination” and “absolute disregard for the truth,” among other charges, the lawyer warned that if the book wasn’t removed from circulation and corrected, “[y]ou will act at your peril.”
There was a party for Rogues’ Gallery at Georgette Mosbacher’s duplex overlooking the Met. In his little speech, Mr. Gross (whose healthy ego makes him seem less petite) made a crack about how museum cameras were surely looking into the living room, its spies taking down names.
“So you’re all on the list now!” he said to a media and society clusterfuck that included Jay McInerney and Anne Hearst, Jonathan and Somers Farkas, Lisa and Julian Niccolini, Lloyd Grove and Laurie Dhue, Hunt Slonem and Ghislaine Maxwell, Peggy Siegal and Sam Peabody, Gay Talese, Bettina Zilkha and me.
Later that night, I lost my warmly inscribed autographed copy of Rogues’ Gallery at Dublin House or the Patriot. Sadly, others in the media would treat it with similar careless disregard. “There are word-of-mouth books that emerge out of Kansas and book clubs, but a book like this, about a great big cultural institution in New York, either gets off to a fast start or dies in the crib,” Mr. Gross told me recently over lunch at the Met. “What they”-the Met-”were trying to do was suffocate the book in its crib.”
At first, Mr. Gross was of two minds.
“A devil is on one of my shoulders saying there might be an organized campaign against this book, because I’m learning that there is one,” he recalled thinking. “And then on the other shoulder, there’s the angel going, ‘No, you’re a raving fucking paranoid, Michael. Your book isn’t getting covered and it’s driving you crazy.’”
By mid-May, he was utterly baffled. Where were the notices, the attention, the applause? “It was waking up every morning feeling like you died,” he said.
Things picked up by June. The L.A. Times ran a slam piece on Rogues’ Gallery that The Chicago Tribune reprinted. Vanity Fair called it “explosive” in the books column.
Then Mr. Gross scored some speaking engagements, did two radio interviews. The New York Post‘s gossip column came through with items.
The Daily Beast cited it in a “best summer read” roundup. Cityfile.com, the magazine Maclean’s and some newspapers in Canada liked it, too.
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).
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.