The Michael Gross Interview

What was my favorite pop-culture moment of the 00's? If you know me this shouldn't be hard to figure out.

Today I chat with the author of a very interesting book called Rogues' Gallery, which highlights the relationship between the directors and curators who amassed the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection and its patrons. However, this expose on the trading of money and prestige earned him a few non-friends in the book's wake, so the treatment of the book is its own story, some would say. Gross is no stranger to juicy topics involving the rich and fabulous: he is also the author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building and Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. A Contributing Editor of Travel & Leisure, Gross has also worked as a columnist for The New York Times, GQ, Tatler, Town & Country, and The Daily News; and a Contributing Editor of New York .

Rogues' Gallery opens and closes talking about how the Met didn't want you to write the book. Have you heard from anyone inside about their opinions about the book, now that it's out?
Oh yes. I certainly heard from Annette de la Renta, or rather her lawyer at a big scary firm. They apparently thought they could squish the book like a bug, but were quickly reminded what country we live in. And both the museum and its new director commented, too. The museum called the book "insensitive and misleading." And Thomas Campbell called it "a sardonic mixture of gossip and sloppily recounted fact that takes cheap pot shots at the Museum's dearest and closest supporters." I promptly said that if the truth hurt anyone's feelings, I was sorry, but it was their own damned fault for not talking to me--after all, it's a taxpayer supported institution, filled with art the public owns, occupying a building and land owned by the people of New York--but they seem to not think that matters! And both a reporter and I asked that any allegations of factual inaccuracies be detailed, but the museum has yet to respond. Silence speaks volumes sometimes. However, any number of curators and benefactors have told me (albeit sotto voce) that the book got that rather remarkable reaction because, in fact, it was quite on target, and that they'd learned a great deal from it. But my favorite reaction was from a clerk in the Met's bookstore, who responded to a request for a copy with, "Oh, we don't stock that book!"

Do you plan on including any new material with the paperback version?
Yes. I'm actually starting to write today, as soon as I finish answering your questions! I'm very sad to begin it on the day after Tom Hoving died, but somehow, it seems to me that his death really does signal the end of an era, so in a way, it's sadly appropriate. I think that with him gone, the museum may rediscover what he contributed to it (after years of treating him like a pariah) and again embrace the many great things he brought to it.

Has the Met kept its distance or are they now selling the book at the shops inside the museum?
Already answered! But anyone visiting the museum and feeling a sudden urge to buy a copy can go right around the corner to Crawford-Doyle Booksellers on Madison Avenue, where it's been a bestseller since it was published. And Kindle users can even download it while standing in front of their favorite artwork! But maybe I shouldn't say that! Museum employees have been told not to bring the book into the building. I hope they don't find a way to block the Kindle signals!

What got you interested in writing about New York's wealthy/social scene?

Seeing them at work and play in their natural habitat when I worked for several local community newspapers, beginning in the 1980s. As "society" reasserted itself after the long hippie-hiatus of the 1970s, it appeared to be a (forgive me for this) "rich" field for reporting. Lots of people did that, but most of them longed to be part of the social scene, dreaming that their luncheon invitations would somehow transform them from ink-stained wretches into impoverished but welcome nobility. The role of lapdog didn't suit me, so instead of waiting patiently for treats (i.e approved scoops), I learned how to sniff them out on my own.

Do you feel like an insider or an outsider when you chronicle the rich and fabulous?

As the great editor Clay Felker once said to a staff meeting at one of those community newspapers, "All you need to do is remember that you are in that world but you are not of it."

Those people in Rogues' Gallery who wanted to prevent you writing about them: what exactly were they worried about? The average person (or even the higher-than-average) person has never even heard of Annette de la Renta, let alone get breathless over who she's sleeping with or how she's spending her cashola.
Honestly, I have not a clue. The museum's chief flak told me they didn't want me "poking and prodding into the deepest recesses of their philanthropic and private lives," so maybe that was it. But to me the more interesting question is what exactly I revealed that was so awful that the Met's footsoldiers felt they had to go all medieval over it, running around town with lances and torches, huffing and puffing and threatening people in an attempt to burn my book. Letters were written, phone calls were made, and not just by Mrs. de la Renta's rented assho--sorry, lawyers--but also by other trustees and friends of trustees, and I can only assume, the museum's publicity department, which has historically been challenged when dealing with independent inquiry--which is one of my favorite if minor narrative threads in the book. Most of what I "discovered" was already known by their little group--all I did was democratize the information. And I even left out a few of their bigger secrets that just seemed pointless and hurtful to repeat, even though they would have fallen well within the realm of fair reporting on public figures. My guess is that it's one of the previously untold scoops that did make it into the book (scoops that have been generally ignored by journalists and critics I'd have thought would have jumped on them) that actually raised the hackles of the city's cultural mafia. Was it the fact that Lazard Freres was secretly seized by the government for trading with the enemy during World War II? Was it the disappearance of the records explaining why the future Mrs. de la Renta and her mother were detained at immigration as "aliens" for "special inquiry" when they arrived in America just after Pearl Harbor? Was it the story of how the museum's 100-year-long feud with the New York Times ended after it co-opted the paper's chairman Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger by making him the museum chairman, too? I could go on, but I suspect that you get the point.

What's the difference between socialites who want attention and those who don't?
I think the word socialite is the difference. If you want to have your photo on the party pages, to be dressed for free by designers and lionized by Vogue, or desperately desire to be on the board of an institution like the Met then you want to be a socialite. But if you want to be a credit to society, a true philanthropist, a good and admirable person for the ages instead of the moment, you might be well advised to disdain that model and follow the path of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was rarely photographed and then quite uncomfortably, typically refused credit for his gifts and benefactions, regularly turned down invitations to social events, and refused for years a proffered seat on the Met board, which most "socialites" would consider a platinum ring worth slitting their wrists for. It is also worth noting that Rockefeller, who is one of the heroes of Rogues' Gallery, is still remembered and widely admired today, while once-world famous "socialites" like the Bradley Martins have been pretty much forgotten.

Were you prepared for the cold shoulders that came with the publication of the book?

From the museum and its supporters, yes, of course, I expected it. I also expected that television "news" would ignore the book, since all it is interested in these days is pointless, counter-productive partisan bickering, fake memoirs, and tales of celebrity sexcapades and stints in rehab. But the echoing silence of the mainstream press, reporters and editors whom I considered colleagues or comrades-in-arms and whom I assumed and expected would understand and appreciate, if not agree with or admire, the work itself and the motivations behind it, came as a shock. And I'm not just talking about the sort of lapdogs mentioned above who prefer being served lunch to serving their readers or viewers. Far worse are those who claim to operate without fear or favor yet buckled under to pressure and threats from the museum and its friends. I don't want to single anyone out, even though I now know a lot about what happened and who did what, since the media business is in so much trouble that they are scared of their own shadows these days, but to put it as simply as I can, IMHO they disgraced themselves.

How did you avoid taking that treatment personally?

Sometimes you do. Then you get over it. Otherwise, you'd be paralyzed. Bottom line, unlike so many of the people I write about, I have to make a living in order to keep myself fed and housed--and that means doing your job and then moving on. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Who or what are some subjects that you wish someone would write an exposing book on (that you wouldn't necessarily do yourself?)
I'd love to read an unauthorized biography of Barbara Walters. I actually tried to pitch one once, and was effectively told, "What are you, crazy?" I can't wait for Kitty Kelley's book on Oprah. There are any number of insiders in various high-profile arts and industries whose honest tell-all memoirs I'd love to read, but they'd probably never write them, unfortunately, and in many cases would be well-advised not. I also think there's a great book yet to be written about the precipitous decline of newspapers and long form magazine journalism in America, and who and what forces are really behind it. While the web has certainly accelerated the process, I don't think it's the villain it's being made out to be. But I wouldn't touch that book with a ten-foot pole. I'm in enough trouble with the MSM already!

How do you choose your subjects?
The idea for each of my books has come to me differently. Before his death, I asked Richard Avedon if he thought a book on Vogue and Harpers' Bazaar was a good idea, and he suggested writing one on models, instead. I next wanted to write a biography of Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, but my publisher talked me into writing My Generation instead. I'm still not sure which idea was worse. Ralph Lauren asked me to write his biography, then balked at being candid, so I continued without him. Having then written a book on a faux American aristocrat, I wanted to write next about real ones and 740 Park was the result. I thought a natural follow-up to that would be a similar book investigating the philanthropic and cultural endeavors of American wealth--and that's Rogues' Gallery. I'm now working on another follow-up of sorts to 740 Park about high end real estate in Los Angeles. I joke that I thought it would be a good idea to get out of Dodge for a while, and the weather there is a lot better, but really, it's just as good a story as the ones I've told about New Yorkers, only far less-well-known. I think it will be a revelation to a lot of people, including a lot of Angelenos.

Who are some of your favorite (for lack of a better word) muckrakers?
Gawd, there are so many. But I don't think of them as raking muck, so much as turning over stones and lovingly chronicling what they find: (in alphabetical order, and to name but a few) Cleveland Amory, Stephen Birmingham, John Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Truman Capote, William Cohan, Nik Cohn, Charlotte Curtis, Dominick Dunne, Joe Esterhazs, Anthony Haden-Guest, Michael Herr, Daniel Okrent, Gerald Posner, James Stewart, Taki, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe. And in terms of people writing right now, I think Steve Fishman of New York magazine is terrific. I like non-fiction with muscle that's beholden to no one. Bloodless prose doesn't do it for me.

How has the business of modeling changed in the 15 years since you wrote Model?
It's not as interesting! I was very lucky. Model came along at the very tip of the bell curve, when the pioneers were still alive and kicking, magazines still had some life in them, and fashion was on the upswing. Ever since, it's all been corporatized, down-sized, and anonymized. Models are outshadowed by Hollywood sock puppets. And it's a shame. Thank God Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Karen Mulder are still around to give Page Six and People something fun to write about!

What did Calvin Klein not want revealed in the article you wrote on him?
I don't know what he didn't want revealed, but he sure did fight back, pulling millions of dollars of advertising out of New York magazine on the day I started reporting without his permission--and keeping it out for years. At that point, I didn't yet have my (now well-deserved) rep for insufficient reverence of the rich and famous. I was wet behind the ears, just escaped from the New York Times, where they wouldn't let you nibble anyone, let alone nip them! I guess the simple fact that I was willing to undertake a write-around, in other words, an article written around a subject who'd first agreed to cooperate, then reneged, scared him. Even though I pulled a lot of punches, I'm still proud of that story. Nowadays, magazines only do that sort of story about someone who's dead, dying, in decline or on their way to prison!

Have you listened to Bob Dylan's Christmas album yet? What's that all about?

El Zimmo can do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned. I even laugh along with Self Portrait. But no, I haven't heard it. I'm waiting for his version of "Dreidel Dreidel."

You've done interviews with famous subjects: what were some of your most awkward or unpleasant experiences?
The time I interviewed Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys in the hallway outside a Saturday Night Live taping, as he extolled the virtues of LSD at top volume while the crowd listened. The time Richard Pryor was so uncooperative and just plain mean, I shut off my recorder and walked out. The time I waited for hours for Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones to come out of Electric Lady studio--only to have a tired and emotional Mick Jagger arrive (a bodyguard supporting each arm) at 2 AM and insist on over-dubbing some vocals with Woody--thereby killing my assignment. The time I interviewed Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes and realized too late that I'd hit play instead of record. And of course, having the Metropolitan Museum's chief lawyer arrive and end my interview with the Greek and Roman curator Dietrich von Bothmer by standing in the doorway, arms crossed, smiling, but clearly not happy to find me there. She won that battle, but I think I won the war.

What's been the most titillating (and well-written/accurate) piece you've read lately that you didn't write?
Actually, it's a novel, Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, a sort of mystery novel of manners about a man remembering and revisiting a late 1960s debutante season in the current day. It's so well observed, so laugh out loud funny, I wish I'd written it. As far as magazines go, it's been so long since I read anything I can say that about, I'm coming up dry. Usually, these days, magazine stories just annoy me. They're either sterling examples of why writers should avoid the first person, sloppy blow jobs of over-exposed celebrities, or as mentioned above, eviscerations of the dead and dying. I'm a firm believer in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted by making it clear that their betters aren't, necessarily. But come to think of it, Michael Hirschhorn's cover story on the last decade in this week's New York magazine is one of those rare pieces that captures lightning on the page. He's as good a thinker as he is a writer. 'schorn rocks.

How does it feel to be the 247th person interviewed for

It feels like a cup of hot cider and a cherry wood fire on a day when it's 7 degrees outside. In fact, it is 7 degrees outside today. So thanks for keeping me in!