Michael Gross, a journalist and best-selling author, organizes “Rogues’ Gallery,” his tirelessly detailed and gossipy history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not around its more than two million artworks — many gouged from tombs, many magnanimously donated; many venerated by humanity, many coveted by jealous curators — but around the handful of men (and rare women) who have run what may be America’s pre-eminent cultural institution. The Met’s gatekeepers are the “rogues” of the book’s title.
The museum’s directors (there have been nine since its inception), its curators and board members, and the moneybags who have donated important collections together form a blockbuster exhibition of human achievements and flaws. Gross maintains that the place has bred in its stewards “arrogance, hauteur, hubris, vanity and even madness.”
The urban planner Robert Moses — “a 20th-century czar of the city,” as Gross puts it — was aware of the problem. In the late 1930s, he pushed the elitist museum to be more democratic, entertaining and responsive to the community. But proximity to treasure, the author suggests, is a potent narcotic, and the Met has always attracted — and magnified — big egos (many having lived within a few blocks of one another on the Upper East Side).
Luigi Palma di Cesnola became the Met’s first director in 1879. This former soldier of fortune had a provenance as dubious as some of the collections he presided over. In 1865,trading on a wispy connection to the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he managed to be named United States consul to Cyprus, and there, smelling opportunity, started digging up tombs. Within a few years he had 12,000 objects, many of which he later installed at the Met.
Cesnola revealed his contempt for the public during a debate about opening the young museum on Sundays to accommodate the city’s working folk. Calling them “loafers” and “scum,” he declared the idea unthinkable, envisioning visitors who would “peel bananas, eat lunches, even spit” in the museum.
Gross, whose previous books include “Model” and “740 Park,” has a quiverful of damning items about his subjects. The Met president J. P. Morgan became paranoid and delusional toward the end of his life; William Ivins, acting director of the museum in 1938, had an “absolutely ungovernable” temper, according to his assistant, and was nicknamed Ivins the Terrible; Arthur Houghton, the president from 1964 to 1969, was “a serial marrier whose new wife was always younger than his last.”
In a typical revelation, Thomas Hoving, the museum’s charismatic director from 1967 to 1977, recalls a conversation he had with Robert Lehman, who would become the Met’s first chairman. Hoving says that when he suggested a Jewish financier for the board, Lehman, who was himself Jewish, objected to the nominee and went on to explain to Hoving the difference between “the Episcopalian Jews” and what he coarsely deemed the less desirable sort. (The author reports that Lehman’s son questions Hoving’s reliability on this matter.)
Hoving — who, unlike those who have recently run the museum, cooperated with Gross — is central to many of the book’s most pungent passages. In one, he calls Nelson Rockefeller “a cheap grifter.” In another, he recounts his delicate dealings with what was known as Culture Gulch, the culture desk of The New York Times. (Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of The New York Times Company, served as chairman of the museum from 1987 to 1998.)
The philanthropists and former Met trustees Charlie and Jayne Wrightsman make for a rich source of material, including pages of Vanity Fair-worthy name-dropping and social climbing. In a passage that may be as snobbish as the museum is reputed to be, Gross says that Charlie Wrightsman hired tutors to teach his wife not only table manners and French but also “proper English.”
Certainly, the Met has been used to launder reputations and fortunes, and in turn has used its supporters. But in this telling, sadly, its magnificent art is buried in lurid details.