Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum

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Broadway Books, 2009 - Art - 545 pages

“Behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime.”
With these words as a starting point, Michael Gross, leading chronicler of the American rich, begins the first independent, unauthorized look at the saga of the nation’s greatest museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this endlessly entertaining follow-up to his bestselling social history740 Park, Gross pulls back the shades of secrecy that have long shrouded the upper class’s cultural and philanthropic ambitions and maneuvers. And he paints a revealing portrait of a previously hidden face of American wealth and power.

The Metropolitan, Gross writes, “is a huge alchemical experiment, turning the worst of man’s attributes—extravagance, lust, gluttony, acquisitiveness, envy, avarice, greed, egotism, and pride—into the very best, transmuting deadly sins into priceless treasure.” The book covers the entire 138-year history of the Met, focusing on the museum’s most colorful characters. Opening with the lame-duck director Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s longest-serving leader who finally stepped down in 2008,Rogues’ Gallerythen goes back to the very beginning, highlighting, among many others: the first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian-born epic phony, whose legacy is a trove of plundered ancient relics, some of which remain on display today; John Pierpont Morgan, the greatest capitalist and art collector of his day, who turned the museum from the plaything of a handful of rich amateurs into a professional operation dedicated, sort of, to the public good; John D. Rockefeller Jr., who never served the Met in any official capacity but who, during the Great Depression, proved the only man willing and rich enough to be its benefactor, which made him its behind-the-scenes puppeteer; the controversial Thomas Hoving, whose tenure as director during the sixties and seventies revolutionized museums around the world but left the Met in chaos; and Jane Engelhard and Annette de la Renta, a mother-daughter trustee tag team whose stories will astonish you (thinkCasablancarewritten by Edith Wharton).

With a supporting cast that includes artists, forgers, and looters, financial geniuses and scoundrels, museum officers (like its chairman Arthur Amory Houghton, head of Corning Glass, who once ripped apart a priceless and ancient Islamic book in order to sell it off piecemeal), trustees (like Jayne Wrightsman, the Hollywood party girl turned society grand dame), curators (like the aging Dietrich von Bothmer, a refugee from Nazi Germany with a Bronze Star for heroism whose greatest acquisitions turned out to be looted), and donors (like Irwin Untermyer, whose collecting obsession drove his wife and children to suicide), and with cameo appearances by everyone fromVogueeditors Anna Wintour and Diana Vreeland to Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten,Rogues’ Galleryis a rich, satisfying, alternately hilarious and horrifying look at America’s upper class, and what is perhaps its greatest creation.

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User Review  - delphica - LibraryThing

Oh, this was so limp. It's a look at the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a focus on some of the individuals who were key influences on the Museum and its collection at various points ... Read full review

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About the author (2009)

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Provocative cultural journalist and New York Times bestselling author Michael Gross is currently a contributing editor at Travel & Leisure. He has previously held positions at the New York Times, New York, Radar, George, and Esquire. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Interview, Details, Elle, Architectural Digest, American Photo,
Town & Country
, and Cosmopolitan, and he has also written for the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune. He has profiled subjects from John F. Kennedy Jr. to Greta Garbo, from Richard Gere to Ivana Trump, and he has written on subjects such as divorce, plastic surgery, Greenwich Village, and sex in the nineties. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (1995), which was published in eight countries; My Generation (2000), a biography of the Baby Boom generation; Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren (2003); and 740 Park (2005). He currently lives in New York City.

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