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'Rogue's Gallery' author Michael Gross riles Met

Given the title of his new book - "Rogues' Gallery" (Broadway Books, $29.95) - you will not be surprised that New York's Metropolitan Museum is cross with author Michael Gross.

Subtitled "The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum," Gross' highly entertaining account is not for sale in the Met gift shop.

The book begins with the Met's last director, Philippe de Montebello, scowling at his rapscallion visitor. Gross has shuffled in, asking for access to staff and archives. He will be denied, but not thwarted.

As the book ends, there's a timely description of ailing Brooke Astor, clucked over by donor Annette de la Renta. Astor's finances, art and friends are the topic of the riveting trial in New York State Supreme Court.

I recently spoke with Gross, whose previous books include "740 Park" and "Model."

So the Met didn't cooperate and now isn't selling your book?

I didn't start with great hope of interaction. I did hope for neutrality. Never in my life have I encountered so much hostility. It was like: How dare I write about a public institution on public land!

In your meeting, de Montebello says that you labor under a misperception that the Met has secrets.

The official history is very sanitized.

Thank you for telling us about Judge Untermyer, who had his private curator clip his toenails and collected so much stuff there was no room for the kids, who fled, and the wife, who killed herself. Which character did you enjoy the most?

It's a tossup between Jane Reiss Mannheimer Engelhard and General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the first director of the Met when it was really a club. You can just hear him yelling, "Poppycock!" at the unwashed masses who wanted to come into his museum. And going through life claiming to be a general for Lincoln!

I also liked Jane. But it's her first husband who is so interesting: the German Jewish banker Fritz Mannheimer, a wiz at currency arbitrage. He is already sick at the altar and soon dies, mysteriously, leaving young Jane pregnant with Annette, who would marry Oscar de la Renta and eventually take mom's place on the Met's board. Is there any evidence Mannheimer colluded with the Nazis and/

or that they killed him?

Colluded is a big word. It's clear that he did business with the Nazis through the mid-1930s, but there's a theory he might have also been a double agent of sorts, helping German Jews get their money and themselves out of Nazi Germany.

I'd like to believe that. One researcher I spoke to believes the Gestapo marked him for death, and poisoned him with arsenic, then a treatment for syphilis. But he offered no proof and so that remains a tantalizing mystery.

What happened to Mannheimer's art collection and wealth?

Vaporized in the days just before World War II when his bank imploded. Aside from a few paintings that ended up with his widow, the parts of his art collection that were seized in Amsterdam and later in Vichy France by Hitler and Goering, were eventually repatriated to the Netherlands and were either sold privately to benefit his creditors or are now in museums there.

But Mannheimer sent art and decorative objects elsewhere before his death - including, but not limited to, the things apparently bombed to dust in London, and a big diamond I write about that his widow sold in Buenos Aires.

The Engelhards have different fates. Charles Engelhard dies pretty young eating ice cream and drinking oceans of Coca-Cola. Jane becomes an educated art patron who eventually removes herself from the social scene to live in Nantucket with the staff she loved. Sad?

Not at all. She had had enough and did not want to be one of those old women who totter into galas. A joke went around that his last words were, "Give me a Coke."

What are the major reasons people collect?

Of course, love of art, like Louisine Havemeyer. Others, like Walter Annenberg, are also trying to live down family history: His father had gone to jail. Untermyer wanted affirmation.

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