Sunday, May 24, 2009
Michael Gross and the furious Social Empress of New York
Is it the case that the uncrowned "Social Empress of New York" has waved her sceptre and decreed that a book she finds either embarrassing or inaccurate or both should be ignored by Anyone Who Cares What She Thinks? That it should in effect be allowed to die by ordained silence? Who knows?
The Empress in question is Annette de la Renta, the book, Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, and its author the legendary, the inescapable, Michael Gross. His oeuvre includes non-fiction bestsellers Model and 740 Park.
Mrs de la Renta is the wife of the - omg!, gimme the grandest-sounding adjectival phrase, please - multiversal fashion designer Oscar. They are among the society Caesars and Cleos of America (NY in particular) - with the tragic ends missing, respectively. Apparently. They're so huuuuuge that even American Vogue editor Anna Wintour over-arches her back into an ageing stoop as she scrapes about in their presence. Not even the newly refurbished Hubble telescope can fully capture their social enormity. There isn't a lens big enough!
So, when this goddam writer Gross produced his sensational NY museum history book, which does not portray Annette (the sometime guardian of the late Social Empress of New York Brooke Astor's estate, and a trustees board member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) in an entirely approved light, all hell broke loose. Museum types raged for and against Gross' book: indisputably, Gross had hit a raw nerve about a national institution. And Annette threatened legal action - she could sue yet in the US or turn libel tourist.
Suddenly, promised book reviews did not run, scheduled interviews did not appear. All this in the Land of the Free. No writ has been served as I write.
Was she offended by the stories about her and her late, wealthy philanthropist mother Jane Engelhard or was she aggrieved by Gross' impertinence in delving into Oscar's well-known sexual past? Or all of the above?
Annette de la Renta is rich enough and powerful enough to hire the best lawyers to speak on her behalf. I spoke with Michael Gross about the affair. (If you want more background, read Jesse Kornbluth's excellent report, click here)
Michael, my dear. You're imagining that sections of the US media have banned coverage of your book, aren't you? You've got sensitive?
"No. I did a fascinating interview with Daphne Merkin, a celebrated writer, for a publication-day story on The Daily Beast, Tina Brown's web site, that has still never appeared. I also know of at least one reporter who has received a warning letter from Mrs de la Renta's lawyers saying the book is 'full of misinformation' and another, at another newspaper, whose story on the book was killed by an editor who said that they would cause the book to be withdrawn and/or corrected and the newspaper would be left 'holding the bag.' I also know of several reviews that were scheduled and then mysteriously postponed. I hesitate to be more specific since I fear that the reporters and editors who have filled me and my publisher in on what's been happening (or more precisely, not happening) might themselves be at risk of retaliation."
You're saying the New York elite have closed ranks against you in defence of their Empress?
"I know that the New York elite - call them the 4,000 - love to know and discuss things no one else (ie, the public, the great unwashed, the NOCD types) knows. Much of what is in my book is no surprise to them. Many of them were my sources.
"That said, I suspect that the core issue here is not this or that nugget of revealing information but rather something larger and perhaps more threatening, my exposure of two things: the way things really work behind-the-scenes in a great American cultural institution - which no one involved wants revealed - and the picaresque saga of Jane Engelhard, whose riveting life story still has holes in it, despite my attempts to fill them, but which is nonetheless told in full for the first time in Rogues' Gallery. Both she and her daughter have battled every attempt to shed light on this saga - battles referred to in the book."
Is this just about the de la Rentas - or have you also upset the cultural snobs by telling the unauthorised and all-too-human story behind a national treasure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
"The sad fact is that the sort of people who create and sustain historical repositories like the Metropolitan do not want their own histories, or those of the institutions, revealed. Otherwise, why would they repeatedly obstruct researchers and make a mere book like mine into an object lesson, a warning to any who might think of following a similar path of crumbs?"
I understand the de la Rentas' friend Anna Wintour made her feelings known ....
"I ran into Anna Wintour at Graydon Carter's Monkey Bar shortly before the book came out. We have 'crossed swords' before, beginning when she was the editor of British Vogue and began an interview by instructing me in no uncertain terms that I was not to refer to her as Nuclear Wintour, so I was not surprised when she gave me a look I can only describe (by paraphrasing a designer) as 'standing in a strapless dress next to an open icebox.'"
As Kornbluth writes of the matter: "A rich woman has used a two-ton gorilla to threaten a writer, and, for whatever reason, silence has descended." If Annette de la Renta's legal threats are intended to chill interest in Gross' book, then they may well have succeeded for now.
But would it not make more sense, and be more in keeping with the freedom-loving spirit of the US, if she published a statement of rebuttal for all to see? What is unacceptable is the suspected exercise of informal social power to, in effect, banish a book to obscurity, and with the acquiescence of a generally gutless American media. Tina Brown - when will you become the mouse that roared?
For a great read, order a copy here.
Michael Gross website