"If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?"
That's never been said to me, but I've read it more than once in the faces of the rich-and-famous types who populate my journalistic "beat." What follows often proves a different dictum, expressed through a variant of the question first stated (as far as I know) by the Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson: "If you're so rich, how come you're so dumb?" That question comes to mind when those same people start fussin' and threatenin', trying to make me go away. And as often as not, I've found they do that when they feel they have something to hide.
A few days ago, Jesse Kornbluth wrote here about the infancy of Rogues' Gallery, a book I published two weeks ago, the epic story of the people who created, sustained and now run the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kornbluth's post focused on a pair of threatening letters sent to my publisher by the fearsome law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, promising dire consequences if it released the book. He speculated that the people behind those threats have also managed to "chill" media coverage of it, illustrated by an example he discovered, the apparent disappearance of an interview about the book that Tina Brown's Daily Beast had planned for the day it was published. I don't know why the Beast seems to have eaten the interview. What I do know is that on page 68 of the most recent annual report of the New York Public Library, there is a telling photograph. In the center is Annette de la Renta, the museum vice chairman (she is also a trustee of the library) on whose behalf that legal threat was sent. Standing beside her, her hand clasped tenderly around his neck, is Barry Diller, who owns the Daily Beast. Maybe it's a coincidence.
The lesson I've learned after twenty years of practicing the write-around, the journalistic term of art for covering someone or something when you are denied access to them or it, is that generally the only public people who rattle sabers and try and squelch reporting are the ones who are afraid of something. In 1988, after Calvin Klein's PR man reneged on a promised exclusive interview, my editor at New York Magazine asked me to write the piece anyway. The day I began reporting, the company pulled $1 million in advertising out of the magazine. Though I pulled a lot of punches, it was still a sensation and the issue that contained it was the magazine's bestseller that year. That PR man now represents Oscar de la Renta, Annette's husband, and has answered at least one call placed by a reporter to Mrs. de la Renta's lawyer. Maybe it's a coincidence.
In the years that followed, I wrote about an entertainment executive and his wife whose spectacular social mountaineering awed the city. His dark threat, delivered when he realized I was going ahead without him: "One thing I know, if I don't like what you write, the wheel goes 'round." Then there was the society lawyer Michael Kennedy, who had a semi-secret past representing the most radical of '60s radicals, LSD manufacturers and Mafiosi. He sent New York a prior restraint letter when he heard I was looking into him -- a pre-publication threat to sue. The piece came out anyway. He didn't sue. But he and his wife still give me the hairy eyeball whenever we cross paths at parties; a witty friend joked the other day that Annette de la Renta should hire him. The Metropolitan tried to preempt me, too, a little more than a year before the book was published, warning my publisher that it shouldn't "lend its distinguished name to any unseemly or inaccurate presentation." It hasn't sued either, but it hasn't backed down. Instead it's deriding the book as "highly misleading" but refusing to give a single example to show that is so. Like that TV exec said, the wheel goes 'round.
What I can't fathom is that so many rich and powerful people don't understand that responsible journalists bend over backwards to accurately reflect the points of view of people who help them do their jobs -- even if they then let the chips fall where they may. Mrs. de la Renta didn't just ignore my half-dozen requests to get her side of things, she also put the fear of attribution into all her friends. The few who deigned to speak to me wouldn't even allow their names to be used when they were praising her.
What are they afraid of? I suspect the museum doesn't want people to know how things really work behind the scenes in big, powerful cultural institutions, which is what Rogues' Gallery is about. Mrs. Mannheimer Engelhard Reed de la Renta -- to use all of her names -- may not want people to learn how she got so many monikers. So their courtiers are sneaking around town as I type, whispering behind the pillars of the establishment that the book is riddled with errors even though all they have complained about are a couple of trivial details in a 500-page book.
Had the museum trustees deigned to communicate with me, Mrs. de la Renta probably would have saved a fortune, since using a partner at Cravath as a suppress agent has to be awfully expensive (Cravath lawyers less experienced than hers earn $875 an hour). Mrs. de la Renta is very fortunate that in a time of worldwide economic panic, she can throw money around like that when a simple local phone call would have done the same job better. But like I said, she may be rich, but I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that, like anyone who thinks they can stop the free flow of ideas, she may not be so smart.
Or maybe it's me who is stupid, thinking there might be a place in the world for an independent look at a cultural Goliath.