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Rogues' Gallery

The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum

by Michael Gross (Broadway, 2008)

At the end of his occasionally lurid book about the people who have shaped the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael Gross clears his throat, stands up straight, and issues a string of pieties about the institution that he has spent nearly five hundred pages interrogating. Taken by themselves, the remarks are exemplary, and might even serve as good advice for the Museum's new Director, Thomas Campbell. Coming, however, after the string of bulkily tattled tales that winds up with what can only be called a character assassination of Annette de la Renta, they clang with hypocrisy. In this, finally, they are of a piece with the book as a whole.

I am not aware that the kind of scolding that Mr Gross's "secret history" boils down to has a name, but its typology is familiar. A group of men settle on the high-minded idea of establishing a worthy addition to the civic sphere — in this case, a public art gallery — but proceed to go about realizing their plan in ways that are not at all high-minded. Generation after generation of benefactors interfere with the Museum's operation, usually for the most short-sighted reasons. Museum directors and other staff members resort to self-abasement and devious trickery in order to secure the support of the wealthy. A poky building in Central Park is enlarged, whether with a plan (despotically) or without one (irresponsibly). Improvements to the plant are occasionally noted, only to be forgotten until they have become woefully inadequate. Nowhere is there a sense of the secure museum, in which masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts are protected from the elements, natural and otherwise, that prey upon such objects. A Greek vase interests Mr Gross not because it is beautiful, but because it has been stolen from a gravesite. It is unclear from Mr Gross's narrative why anybody would willingly visit the Museum, so the crowds of visitors (occasionally paying the price of admission) appear to be stupid and gullible for doing so. Because of the thick matting of compromised morality that is sure to underlie any large structure erected on Manhattan Island — which has never shed its piratical origins — the Museum is, by imputation, a swindle.

In Mr Gross's world, the great and good are either abusing their power or finding other ways in which to demonstrate their mortal frailty. Above all, they are trying to keep their misbehavior secret, and this is what gives Rogues' Gallery its meretricious air of accomplishing a public service. Having charged themselves themselves with the responsibility of culture to the masses, trustees and curators are to be held to a higher, arguably angelic standard; their foibles and failings, in any case, are fair game for public discussion. Meanwhile, the transcendent qualities of fine art are allowed to transcend the book itself; it is not in Mr Gross's brief to discuss, at any length, why art matters.

Consider his treatment of the de-accessioning fracas of the early Seventies. There was nothing new about trading away some paintings in order to acquire others, even though the ghosts of departed donors were sure to feel the insult. What was new was the extent of the de-accessioning, prompted (according to Rogues' Gallery) by the desire, shared by Thomas Hoving, Ted Rousseau, and Henry Geldzahler, to acquire an expensive painting by Francis Bacon — that, and the Museum's attempt to act discreetly. A museum's discretion's being a newspaperman's surreptitiousness, the press at Culture Gulch — the New York Times art critics — were roused to a frenzy. Already a lightning rod for his unorthodox approach to running the Museum, Hoving (subject of the book's longest chapter) seems to have inspired poisonous attacks by John Canaday and John Hess in the Times — which was published by Museum trustee "Punch" Sulzberger. Were Hoving and Rousseau, his chief curator, taking bribes? Was there an improper relationship between the Museum and the Marlborough Galleries, the large and shady outfit that would be in trouble with Mark Rothko's heirs? Rousseau's mistress was married to a Marlborough honcho. The sniffing got to be acrimonious.

What can't be conveyed without simply pasting swaths of Mr Gross's text onto the page is the narrative uncertainty that clouds his account of the scandal. I expect that this reflects not so much a failure of understanding on the author's part as a determination not to bore his readers. But in the absence of a meaningful legal framework, on the one hand — why did Canaday and Hess think that they had a case? — and of an appreciation of the art works that the Museum was selling, or of the ones that it was buying with the proceeds — the entire discussion is pointless, having as its only hard subject the arrogance of Thomas Hoving. All too often, Rogues' Gallery concerns nothing but an advanced sort of schoolyard scrapping.

I don't mean to complain too sharply. I knew going in that Rogues' Gallery would not be my sort of book at all. A whirl of society portraits from more than a century of New York history, loaded with money and plunder, it's of interest to me only because I spend a fair amount of time at the Museum, and am genuinely interested in its history. But history is exactly what eludes Mr Gross. What he gives us here is more of a frieze — one damned thing after another — in which a handful of very important persons commit variations on the same errors. The Museum appears to exist only in order to stroke massive egos, with wings named after this fellow, and that gentleman's private art collection maintained as he himself arranged it — promises that are eventually broken, at least until Robert Lehman gets his way, which, so far at least, still holds.

Mr Gross is also the most incontinent of historians. He simply cannot stick close to his topic when he scents a plump truffle, however remote. One tangent takes him so far from the Museum that it can be characterized as an unintentionally hilarious trivial pursuit. It is really a tangent from a tangent — the life history of Jayne Wrightsman (nιe Jane Larkin), wife and then influential widow of Charlie Wrightsman, the swaggering millionaire son of an Oklahoma oilman. It turns out that, after Ms Wrightsman's parents separated, Mr Larkin was "rarely spoken of again." You might think that that would be the end of Mr Larkin. But no.

In 1935, at fifty-three, he moved to Washington, DC, to work as an inspection engineer in the Public Buildings Branch of the Treasury Department. Two years later, he was named chief of the Foreign Service Buildings Office of the State Department, charged with building US embassies and consulates abroad. From his office, he built a real estate development empire fueled by unlimited government money and protected members of Congress. "If an ambassador wanted something, anything," one of his successors remembered, he had to get along with Larkin. Among his purchases [here we go!] were building sites in Accra, Ankara, Marseilles, and Tehran, a villa in Nice, a Rothschild family hτtel particulier in Paris, a manor house in Dublin, a palace in Prague, and two Roman palazzi, one built on land once owned by Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar! Provenance really doesn't get any better than that. I had a lot of fun, in the ensuing pages, substituting the noble Roman's name in inappropriate contexts.

DeWitt had no interest in the visual arts, but his wife owned a "first-class" Renoir, a "really good" Cιzanne, and a Monet, says their lawyer, Barnabas McHenry. Lila's first love, though, was Egypt, an interest she inherited from her father, who'd done relief work there after World War I. "She adored Egypt, and she adored Henry Fischer," says Caesar. Her first donations to the Metropolitan were to the Egyptian Art Department.

But for the most part, I found Rogue's Gallery to be a wearying read. For the last part, I found it distastefully outrageous. On the subject of Annette de la Renta, Mr Gross has clearly forgotten his subject in the interest of personal animus. If the lady is half as wicked as Mr Gross says she is (her prime crime seeming to be a longing to preen), Rogues' Gallery is not the place for tarring her. It is very amusing to read about the Costume Institute's Parties of the Year, and to glance over a roster of the social eminences in attendance. But society glitz is not what the Metropolitan Museum of Art is about. It is still very much about a lot of carefully curated exhibits, most of them small and quite out of the way. The Museum's accommodation of the occasional gala is hardly out of keeping with the goings-on witnessed over the millennia by the items in its collections. One of these days, we can hope, New York City will be as worldly as the museum at its heart — even if that wouldn't be good news for publishers of Mr Gross's book. (September 2009)

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