5 Questions: Michael Gross

Gross_8.6.jpgFishbowlNY caught up with biographer extraordinaire Michael Gross via email, who dished on his running contretemps with Ralph Lauren, ne Lifshitz, hedge-funders and 740 Park.

FishbowlNY: I recently saw 740 Park in the Sociology section of Barnes and Noble and thought “perfect.” It is gossip and it is real estate, but what you do — as I understand it — is sociology made interesting because of the subject (and your style and research). What do you think?

Michael Gross: I thought of 740 Park as a biography of a building, but there’s no such category. I’ve seen it shelved in stores or listed as a bestseller under United States history, New York history, local interest, business, rich & famous, and architecture. I aspire to write in the tradition of Cleveland Amory, Stephen Birmingham and (the non-fiction side of) Nick Dunne, with a little Talese or Halberstam thrown in for reporting cred, so I guess my preferred category would have to be social history.

FishbowlNY: With all of this hedge-fund money it seems just like the 80s again. The 1880s. You’ve coined the brilliant “Schadenschwarzmanfreude,” and blogged about New York’s new gold coast. Is it the competitiveness of the city that leads to all this excess?

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Michael Gross: It’s the same in lots of cities, not just New York. London is worse, isn’t it? And what about Beijing? Maybe living in ant hills makes people competitive? But seriously, there are moments when economic conditions and patterns of social behavior contrive to create ideal conditions for excess. There was such a moment, indeed, the most strikingly similar one to now, in the Gilded Age-which I’ll be writing about for the first time in my next book on the Metropolitan Museum — but there were more recent ones, too: think of the go-go market of the late 60s that gave rise to Saul Steinberg, the Gordon Gekko moment in the mid-eighties, the web 1.0 bubble (which was really the prologue for today) and now, Gekko Redux. They’re the same thing only different which is why writing about them — whether in a book, a magazine or on a blog — is so much fun.

FishbowlNY: You’ve written about Baby Boomers in “My Generation.” After Bill Clinton and George Bush, Americans are already talking of Boomer fatigue. Would you say Senator Clinton is typical of her generation?

Michael Gross: The notion behind My Generation … was that there’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ boomer, and that generalizations about the generation are usually political and simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. I thought that would be the key to its success. Silly me. Unfortunately, people cling to stereotypes, so that book’s failure to choose a side — left or right, forgiving or condemning, boomers suck or boomers rule — was probably why it didn’t sell as well as I would have liked. Remember, it came out during the 2000 election cycle when socio-political polarization was peaking. I was kind of hard on the Clintons in that book but I’ve softened toward them somewhat since then (Bush had made that both easy and necessary). But a corollary theme of My Generation was that smart people evolve, whether they started out scouts or members of SDS (or ELF, for that matter); they change with the times and experience. In her capacity to do that — to come almost full circle from Goldwater gal to leftist wonk to compassionately hawkish centrist — Hillary may just sum up the boomer oxymoron: she’s typically atypical.

FishbowlNY: How much research did you do for Model? How much for 740 Park. Both read like you did a lot.

Michael Gross: Model took a year but I’d been writing about fashion and models for Manhattan inc., Vanity Fair, the Times and New York magazine for a decade, so I had a healthy head start. I also ran out of money while I was writing it which is a really good incentive to work fast. 740 Park took a year and a half, split between research and writing. Moguls proved to be a lot less forthcoming than models.

FishbowlNY: How about you and Ralph Lauren. Has he chilled out yet?

Michael Gross: Hell if I know — though chillin’ isn’t his natural state! He stopped talking to me the moment I made it clear I actually meant it when I said I’d write his biography on the condition that I would control what went in it. What’s really interesting is how little people actually care about him as a man, as opposed to a name on a label. The book got glorious reviews, but it sold fewer copies than My Generation. Lots of my friends think that’s because glossy magazines were petrified of his wrath (and his ad budget ~~smirk~~) and so they didn’t dare cover the book. That’s probably true to some extent, but I finally decided that no one really cares about the real Ralph Lifschitz, or the imagined Ralph Lauren, or how one was swallowed by the other. It’s too bad because in so many ways it’s a classic American story. So despite the reviews, I didn’t feel the book was a success. But then, it’s not clear if Ralph, his wealth notwithstanding, is a success (as a human being, I mean), either!

— Ron Mwangaguhunga