Meeting the Met

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., the magazine Maclean’s and some newspapers in Canada liked it, too.

Meeting the Met