iOS app Android app More

Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: May 18, 2009 11:09 AM

Annette de la Renta v. Michael Gross: Can A Socialite Kill A Book?


"To humiliate a good writer," Norman Mailer said, "is to give him an ax."

Annette de la Renta has just sharpened the blade and offered the weapon to Michael Gross.

Or is she about to hand him his head?

Annette de la Renta is generally regarded as Brooke Astor's successor as the Social Empress of New York. She's Blue Blood and Old Money. Her husband is a fashion designer who specializes in First Ladies and Ladies Who Lunch. She serves on the most prestigious board of trustees in New York, that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, most recently, she's been in the press as the best friend of the late Brooke Astor -- and as one of the key prosecution witnesses in the trial of Astor's son.

Michael Gross is a professional shit-stirrer. For three decades, his articles and books have been vehicles for his portraits of the powerful and exalted on the Upper East Side of New York. But unlike those who write as if they're hoping to be asked back for lunch, Gross delights in exposing the gap -- often, a chasm -- between Image and Reality. The disdain of his subjects bothers him not at all. He likes a good fight. And he knows how to use a dust-up to get publicity and sell books.

Any smart public relations adviser knows how to deal with a Michael Gross -- ignore him. In an economy that has seen book sales crater, sit back and watch as he sells all the copies he can. If he makes the best-seller list, no matter; do you know how few copies it takes these days? Essentially, pretend you don't care, or, as Noel Coward would have said, "Rise above it" -- let him have all the publicity he can get on his own, but don't give him the ammunition he needs to get more.

And yet, three weeks before the publication of his unauthorized, deliberately provocative book about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael Gross and his publisher received one of those letters that you can tell is chilling merely by looking at the thickness of the stationery. The letterhead was equally weighty -- Cravath, Swaine & Moore, venerable, white-shoe, and voted the most prestigious firm in the United States by law firm partners in the 2008 Vault Guide to the Top 100 Law Firms.

And then, of course, there was the threat.

Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum, wrote Paul Saunders, a litigation partner at Cravath since 1977, contains "gratuitous and false character assassination," "absolute disregard for the truth" and "false statements." It is "clearly defamatory and injurious to the character and reputation of Mrs. de la Renta." Given the scope of the injury to his client, Saunders demanded the book be removed from circulation and corrected. If Random House failed to do so, Saunders wrote in a follow-up letter, "You will act at your peril."

Letters like this are a dime a dozen. If they rarely lead to litigation, it's because, although publishers may not edit manuscripts as rigorously as they used to, they still put non-fiction books through an intense legal review. For Michael Gross, that intensity is exponential -- in his most recent books, he's written about Ralph Lauren, who didn't welcome the attention, and 740 Park Avenue, where he couldn't get past the doormen.

Gross plays fair. He always requests the cooperation of his subjects -- he says he made six attempts to interview Mrs. de la Renta -- and then, unfazed by their refusal, goes on to unearth their social misdemeanors and felonies. Snark? To him, it's just journalism. If the subjects don't like it and critics raise their eyebrows, it's not because he's crossed a line but because a toothless media has forgotten that one of the highest forms of journalism is to point out the foibles and sins of important people while they're still on top.

Annette de la Renta, her husband and her mother (the late Jane Engelhard, noted for her art collection and her philanthropy) account for less than a hundred pages in "Rogues' Gallery". The passages that sent Mrs. de la Renta running to Cravath fill just four pages and are found near the end (pages 458-462) of the dense, 485-page text. Given the sweep of the book -- Gross begins his account in 1870 and takes several hundred pages to begin to deal with the museum as we've come to know it -- it's not clear to me that many buyers of "Rogues' Gallery" will get this far. And, although some of the revelations in these pages are stunning, more of them are about Oscar de la Renta than his wife.

So what untruths, you may wonder, did Michael Gross write and how did he defame Annette de la Renta?

1) Mrs. de la Renta barred some of her mother's friends from her funeral. Not so, Saunders says -- she simply didn't invite them, which was, he claims, how Jane Engelhard wanted it.

2) Mrs. de la Renta "tried to dictate" her mother's obituary. Untrue, says Saunders. And Gross is incorrect when he writes that four of Jane Engelhard's proudest accomplishments weren't mentioned in obituaries.

3) Brooke Astor's grandson sued to have his father removed as Astor's guardian.

4) Mrs. de la Renta manipulated both her dying mother and the Alzheimer's-afflicted Brooke Astor. No, says Saunders, Annette de la Renta's conduct as Brooke's guardian was "exemplary."

5) Mrs. de la Renta "demanded" jewelry from Brooke Astor.

Michael Gross contends that Saunders fails to make a case. He says Saunders splits a hair in the reporting of Jane Engelhard's funeral; for Gross, the issue is how some of her friends felt, which was, as he wrote, excluded. Saunders is only half-right, he says, about Englehard's achievements; obituaries mention two. As for Astor's guardianship, the error -- if it is an error -- can also be found, uncorrected, in stories in the New York Times, Post, Daily News and Associated Press. We can't know the truth about "manipulation" of two women who are dead; Gross says he was simply presenting both sides of a story usually reported as having only one. As for "demanding" jewelry, Gross says that this is "a fair and accurate reporting of claims being made in and around a courtroom dispute."

Gross told me he plans to make just one change in subsequent editions of his book -- mention of the two achievements that were in Jane Englehard's obits. "I'm also adding a footnote saying Annette denies asking Brooke Astor for jewelry," he said. And then, because he couldn't resist: "I'm not, by the way, adding what's emerged in court -- that Annette was more than willing to take jewelry from Astor even after she thought Brooke was losing her mind."

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not about to play one on the Internet. But whoever is right here is secondary to a larger truth: Mrs. de la Renta's distress seems to be about very small issues of fact.

Hiring a Cravath partner and sending threatening letters on 60-pound bond -- why do that with such a weak case? I am not a conspiracy theorist, but the media coverage -- or lack thereof -- of this dustup and of "Rogues' Gallery" could certainly make me think of becoming one. The book was published the same week as the Met's annual Costume Institute party, a media event that is, for fashion, roughly equal to the Academy Awards. This would have been the logical time to review a book that skewers Society and the museum and is the center of a possible legal wrangle. But aside from a brief squib in the Daily News, no New York print publication has yet weighed in.

Online, the book isn't faring much better. On Wowowow.com, Liz Smith took Michael Gross out to the woodshed. After finding most of the book "fabulous, realistic, well-researched", she was horrified by the passages about the de la Rentas: "His devastating attack... really goes beyond the pale." And, weeks ago, Daphne Merkin interviewed Gross for a DailyBeast.com piece that he understood was to be published around the book's publication date. It has not appeared. As Merkin told me, "The transcript was supposed to be edited .... as rapidly as possible, and just 'hung fire', if I may borrow from one of Henry James' favorite expressions." So far, only Cityfile has dived in and shared Gross's reporting -- his reporting on Oscar de la Renta, that is.

Last week I attended a charity lunch honoring David Patrick Columbia, editor of New York Social Diary. In a question-and-answer session, he became only the second commentator to suggest that there was something lacking in recent accounts of Brooke Astor's final years. (You can see him explain his view on video here.) He said:

What bothers me about the Astor case isn't that it's really just a question of 'Was her signature forged?' but 'Aren't these [Brooke's son and his wife] the most horrible people?' This man -- and everybody knew this about him -- served his mother very very well. He was an only child. And she was not a particularly attentive mother. She sent him to boarding school at 8. Never saw him basically while she was married to Vincent Astor because Vincent didn't want him around. Never took his phone calls. Never told him why she didn't see him... Terrible people robbing a saintly character? That's a made-up idea. That's not fair.

Since that lunch, I've heard criticism of David Patrick Columbia that echoes the criticism of Michael Gross: He crossed a line, he went too far. That is, he dared to suggest that the reality of a noted New Yorker's life might be more complex than a PR handout.

What bothers me about this is that otherwise intelligent people are taking sides for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts. For those who care about such matters -- and in my neighborhood, you'd be surprised how many do -- there could be a vigorous debate about Brooke Astor as a saint, Annette de la Renta as a victim of defamation and whether Michael Gross does go too far. There isn't. The wagons have been circled. It's now the rich and strong vs. a mouthy upstart or two. It's "icons" and "legends" against the rest of us.

As I write, "Rogues' Gallery" hovers around #800 on the Amazon.com sales list. Without reviews -- or news of the author's trouble with Mrs. de la Renta -- it may not do better. And maybe it shouldn't. Maybe an historical portrait of an art museum just isn't that compelling, no matter how much dirt you dig up on its inner circle. But then again, maybe the fix is in.

George Orwell wrote something to the effect: When I see a policeman beating a worker, I don't have to wonder whose side I'm on. That's how I feel here. A rich woman has used a two-ton gorilla to threaten a writer, and, for whatever reason, silence has descended.

I have no brief for Michael Gross or his book. But I care a great deal about the powerful abusing their power. And that's what seems to be happening here.

DISCLOSURE: By midlife, a writer's Rolodex bulges with names on every side of every issue; if you don't have any conflicts of interest, you're not doing it right. Here are mine: Michael Gross and I have shared a masthead or two over the years, and I have written, since 2003, three pieces for the Bergdorf Goodman magazine, which he edits. Along with 718 others, he is my "friend" on Facebook. I have never met Annette de la Renta, but in the late 1980s, when I wrote the annual shows for the Council of Fashion Designers, I worked closely with Oscar de la Renta, who never proposed a solution that was less than brilliant. As a journalist, I have profiled the Met's recently retired director, Philippe de Montebello; Diana Vreeland, who was consultant to its Costume Institute, former Met lawyer Ashton Hawkins and museum benefactor Arthur Sackler. (Gross cites the last in his book.) As proprietor of HeadButler.com, I have proposed a business relationship with the Met's gift shop. My most enduring relationship with the museum is as a longtime member, a frequent visitor, and as the father of a child who is occasionally forced to take one of its excellent art classes.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com