21. THE MEAT MARKET
Between the Masters and the Doctorate, on the last Monday in March 1958, I mounted the podium in the lecture hall of the New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, checked out the premises for Erica Tietze-Conrat and Craig Hugh Smythe, nodded at Erica, winked mischievously at Craig, and socked it to the assembled art biggies. I‘d pared down my talk to fifteen minutes but didn’t have to talk much since I simply let the slides do the work, punching up a section of the Galleria Farnese on one screen and on another the exact antique sculpture from the Farnese collection that had served as the model. I used the photographs in the book I had found.
Wham, Bam, thank you Ma'am.
I received genuine applause, not the tepid clapping given to the other presenters. Erica Tietze-Conrat came over and said in a surprising "Marlene Dietrich" voice, "We shall have to rewrite the Palazzo Farnese history."
I was collecting my slides as the room emptied and was confronted by a man dressed in a tailored black suit and vest -- a 46-short portly, I thought. He was wearing, incongruously, highly polished brown Army boots. He had a round unmoving face, black hair combed to the side over a balding head and alarming deep black eyes.
He took it for granted that I knew who he was.
"Did you find in your research any reference to a marble and intarsia table?"
"There is a large round antiquey-looking table in one of the Galleria frescoes, but I found no antique model for it."
"I wonder if you could look at the table from the Farnese Palace, it might refresh your memory."
"Across the street, where I work. It'll be ten minutes."
We walked from 78th Street to 82nd Street towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"I suppose you come frequently to the Met," he said.
I muttered yes and didn’t reveal that I almost never did, being far more fascinated with MoMA and contemporary art.
The museum was closed. But whoever this was waved casually to the guards at the top of the steep stairs and we were allowed in. They all but bowed.
We turned right in the dingy main hall and proceeded past the Mastaba of Peri-Nebi. I thought of telling him about my being struck as a kid by all things Egyptian and about the Pharaoh I had buried in my secret hole in the wall but didn’t.
He darted down some stairs, which were chained off to the public and we walked north until we arrived at a huge rolling metal door. There between banks of floodlights was an enormous Baroque table with griffins for legs and a thick marble top inlaid with all sorts of colored marble. I was impressed and told him so.
"The Farnese table. It comes from the Palazzo. I have just acquired it."
I quickly told him that I hadn't come across anything like the table and congratulated him on the purchase. By now I figured he was a curator.
"Come to my office for a minute," he said. It was more of an order than a request and I followed along.
We made our way south through the deserted museum and walked up one flight to a door marked "Mezzanine." He whipped out a large key ring and opened the door onto a long corridor. He then opened the first door on the left. We walked into an office with desks for three secretaries.
That's when I got worried I’d make a gaffe. This guy was positive I knew who he was. I figured he couldn’t be a mere curator, not with so many secretaries. With my eagle eye I spotted a name on a letter, James J. Rorimer, Director.
The man had to be Rorimer. I was amused because Gene Becker, not less than two weeks before when we were chatting about my desire to work for a commercial art gallery had observed, "You ought to try a museum. Become the buyer for one. Like James J. Rorimer did at The Cloisters twenty years ago."
The guy who had to be Rorimer led me into a rectangular office, plunged into a CEO-type leather chair and thrust his Army boots up on his desk.
"And what does your future portend?" he abruptly asked.
I gulped and said, "Mr. Rorimer." He nodded. I sighed in relief. "I have to finish my Ph.D. which I have just begun."
"I have talked about you with Kurt and he tells me that you may be the curatorial type. You seem to have a knack for objects."
"I am leaning towards working for a commercial gallery," I said.
Rorimer became agitated. He fished a pipe out of his pocket, tamped it down feverishly, lighted it, puffed furiously and said, "Don't do it! If you enter art dealing, you will never, never be able to work in an art museum. The prejudices are that strong. If, however, you work in an art museum, and you find you don’t like it, you can always become an art dealer and a far better one at that. Let me know about your progress. I know your father. We are trying to build a new department here, the Costume Institute, funded and supported by the retailers in town and your father -- along with one of his former colleagues, Dorothy Shaver -- has been most helpful. Your father told Lydia Redmond, the wife of our President, that you'd be at the NYU 'meat-market' and I decided to come since I was working here today anyway. I liked your talk. Keep in touch."
That summer of 1958 I asked my father and Pauline if they knew anyone in any art galleries with whom I could get an "in." He mentioned the "smart, socially connected Harry Brooks at Knoedler Gallery -- who works with Coe Kerr there and offered to give him a call.
Pauline added, "Harry's the perfect extra man at my dinner parties."
How would I know, I thought, never having been invited to any. Maybe that would change now that I was a "Doctor." Never happened.
"Do you know anyone at Wildenstein and Company?" I asked.
Pauline immediately said, "Of course, you know that's a Jewish firm."
I didn't pursue it.
I landed an interview with the ebullient, handsome, flighty, and unaccountably nervous "perfect extra man" Harry Brooks at Knoedler, the respected old master and modern American gallery on 57th Street.
The interview hit the rocks right away. Brooks started off the interview by saying, "Understand, there are no jobs here -- the art recession is hurting us -- but I have a minute, so tell me about yourself."
Seeing that there was little hope of any job offer, I let loose and spelled out both my strong and weak points. I emphasized that because of Princeton’s general education and my European trip -- I knew the entire field of art history. I was adept at spotting fakes. I could write like a whiz and was a damned decent executive owing to my Marine Corps experience. I was capable in French, Italian and German. That got him excited. Brooks began to hint that there might be a job after all and started talking about a salary -- $6,000 to start.
He kept me there for an hour and even began to shunt his many phone calls to his secretary. Then he simply had to go. "Can't have lunch, but let me introduce you to a brilliant art historian about to work for the Met. Maybe the two of you can have a bite."
The "brilliant" art historian, Michael Thomas, turned out to be a bubble-cheeked, curly-haired youngster who slouched with studied nonchalance. He was just out of Yale and looked it. I had the temptation to shout at him in my best D.I. voice, "Suck it up, whale-shit." He invited me to the elite Racquet Club for lunch and I thought, why the hell not?
I have no idea what Thomas thought of me but he was the most supremely self confident kid I'd ever met. He asked if I'd ever been to the club before and I told him my father was a member and that I'd "suffered" through a summer's membership a few years before.
"'Suffered' -- how can you suffer at the Racquet Club?" he asked, taken aback.
"I found the rigmarole to play squash a bit off-putting," I said. "All those guys picking up my stuff and the members a bit distant. In fact, I had found the place insufferably snobbish and turned down the opportunity to become a member."
He changed the subject to his forthcoming life's work at the Metropolitan.
"Jimsie Rorimer -- he's the director there -- gave me a position starting next August with Ted Rousseau, the curator of European paintings. I expect to become the director of the museum one day."
I shot back a quip and a white lie, "When I become the director -- ‘Jimsie’ wants me to work there, too -- you can become a trustee." And by God, it happened, well, almost.
Figuring that I'd probably not be hired at Knoedler, I walked into the impressive house of Wildenstein & Co. on Madison and 64th Street without bothering to get an appointment. An elegant gentleman sitting at a desk in the marbled vestibule greeted me politely. I asked to whom I should send my CV. He wrote down the name of Louis Goldenberg, the general manager of the place. Several weeks later I had an appointment and spoke to him for nearly an hour. He impressed me when he said that research, publication, communications were eighty percent of the job at Wildenstein, and salesmanship only twenty percent. He asked me to write him a one-page letter outlining what I believed I could bring to the firm. I did and was granted an interview with the patriarch of the firm, old Georges Wildenstein himself -- a singular honor.
The old boy then in his early eighties was a legend in the field of art history because of his habit, it was said, of taking dozens of photographs with him to bed every evening and memorizing them to keep his eye sharp.
The elegant doorkeeper guided me to the fourth floor and into a chamber, which was covered with café au lait velvet. Louis Goldenberg introduced a stout elderly man as "Monsieur Georges" who hardly glanced at me as he deposited himself in a plush armchair and stared at the velvet-covered wall. He clasped his hands together and started rubbing one thumb along the side of the other. He never stopped and it was hard for me to get my eyes off it. I stumbled through my pitch emphasizing my dynamite skills in research, connoisseurship, languages and writing and then slowly wound down and stopped. It was like the air gradually escaping from a balloon.
Monsieur Georges proclaimed, "Why don't you go to work for your father?" He got up and without another word left the room.
I was told in early winter by Harry Brooks that he had a job for me overseeing exhibitions throughout the country, if I wanted it, starting at six thousand a year. I called James Rorimer for an appointment to see if there were anything open at the Met and in two days I was sitting in front of him. Again he had his Army boots up on his desk and was fiddling with his pipe.
"I’ve been offered a job at Knoedler Gallery and wanted to know if anything has opened up here. I remember vividly your advice about art dealing."
"I'll call you in a week."
He did and offered me a post as curatorial assistant in the department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. It was at the very bottom of the curatorial ladder. Salary? Five thousand and five dollars a year.
After talking it over with Nancy, I accepted and we made plans to move into New York to an apartment in the West Village on the corner of Commerce Street and Seventh Avenue, a three-story brick tenement. We occupied the top two floors and the tarred roof, which was ours to use. It was one-bedroom set-up with our large room and a tiny alcove for Trea and a kitchen-dining area and living room on the second floor. The building's owner lived in the downstairs basement and first-floor apartment.
The Cherry Lane Theater was down the street and around the corner was a lively coffee house. Across was a most valuable resource, a tiny garage and parking area. The garage building looked like something out of a kid's fairy tale with a red tiled roof and shutters on the windows. The owners, Joe and Silvia, lived across Seventh Avenue and became devoted baby-sitters for Trea. Cat Beez became acclimated before we did and within an hour was in and out of the windows, up to the roof, across the street, basking in the sun in Joe's parking lot. For five dollars a month we had an assigned parking space. Joe sold us gas and did all the necessary work on our car.
My first day at the Metropolitan Museum was August 1, 1959, a steaming New York City day. I dressed in a blue blazer and charcoal gray trousers, white shirt and a "serious" tie. I reported to Rorimer's mezzanine office and started to work as his special assistant.
"I want you to work closely with me for a month or two and then I'll send you to the medieval department. As my confidential assistant, you will learn everything secret and important. Of course, you will be utterly discreet for many secrets pass through my office every day. You will work with my full-time assistant, Jack McGregor, on the installation of the Cypriote sculpture collection in the Greek and Roman department. Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer is the curator. He's German and for that reason crusty. He cannot be charmed, I warn you. Someone else you'll come across a lot is my Operating Administrator, Joseph Veach Noble, who is working with me on a secret project about which you'll learn very shortly. And, finally, there's Theodore Rousseau, Jr., the grandee curator of the European Paintings Department with whom I'm working on another secret project, which you'll also learn about shortly. Total discretion! Agreed?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" I barked and almost saluted.
The next day I went to the long corridor leading from the Great Hall to the restaurant where the Cypriote sculptures were to be displayed and saw a bunch of pedestals on wheels being moved around. I met both McGregor, a tall, handsome chap in his late twenties who spoke with a soft Texas accent and a man with a face that looked like the fortifications of some medieval castle with crenellations of immense square teeth. This was Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer who was overseeing McGregor's design of the layout of the Cypriote gallery.
Since it was stifling -- back then the museum had no air-conditioning in the galleries -- I took off my blazer and draped it on an empty pedestal. Dr. von Bothmer strode over, looking like a blitzkrieging tank, and chided me for putting my clothing "on a work of art."
"But it's only a pedestal," I protested.
"Correct. But there will be art placed there and that's close enough."
In an instant I learned a lot about at least once of the quirky curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I held my tongue and never removed my jacket again. Hell, the empty pedestals might be offended to see someone in shirtsleeves. I would also be chewed out by Operating administrator Joseph Noble -- a 44 tall portly -- who advised me that I should refrain from wearing blazers at the museum. I snapped back that I would decide what uniform to wear. He would pay me back for my "insubordination" later on involving a work of art.
In time I got to appreciate Dietrich. I called him "BvD" after the men's skivvies manufacturer and at first he bridled and then when I didn't call him "BvD" he bridled even more. He was, besides me, one of three Ph.D’s in the place and he advised me never to reveal that I had a doctorate because curators, thinking themselves as being pure connoisseurs, looked down on book-learning and advanced degree types.
Dietrich was a hero of the Second World War. As an Army infantryman with a German name he had been assigned to the Pacific. On his first day on some island he was patrolling the beach with an officer when a Japanese sniper fired at them. The officer was seriously wounded and Dietrich was shot in the heel. He shrugged off his wound, killed the sniper and, despite his lame foot, carried the officer to the field hospital. The officer put him up for a Silver Star. But Dietrich argued that he deserved only a Bronze Star since the regulations stated that for the Silver, you had to have two witnesses and the Japanese soldier was dead.
His special field was Greek vases and he became a legend for spotting shards of Attic Greek black figure pottery in some Flea Market or modest dealer's shop and immediately figuring out that it was a part of a fragmentary cup in storage at the Louvre or wherever else. One evening at my house we were eating walnuts with drinks and "BvD" put the minutely cracked shells together in minutes. He could talk your ears off and had some odd passions. One was washing and ironing his shirts. "Tom, there's nothing more gratifying than to see a wet, mass of cloth become transformed into a pure white, perfectly shaped shirt."
In Rorimer’s office, I became involved with the arrangements of exhibiting the famous Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, which Rorimer had recently purchased at auction for the then world record price of $2.3 million. I was also informed of the top-secret manipulations surrounding the impending news that the Met’s famous Etruscan Warrior was a fake. Operating administrator Noble, an experienced chemist, had re-created the Etruscan black glaze technique and was able to prove that the stalwart Warrior was modern because of its phony glaze. "BvD" resisted the unpleasant news and only bowed when he was shown a thumb of the statue which had been kept as a memento by the Italian who had helped make the fake in the 1920s.
In time I was accepted by the other curators and invited to join their table for the morning coffee break, which lasted an hour. I delighted in playing the "curator's game" with the gang. Every so often one of the photographers would bring a series of photos of details of works of art in the vast collection and deal out a photo to each curator present. The curator who was slowest in identifying what work in the three-million work collection the detail belonged to had to pay for all the coffees. I got pretty good at it. In 2006, with the dynamo design team of Kate Learson and Lori Stein, we wrote a book illustrating that game, called Master Pieces, published by Houghton-Mifflin.
I was given the task of setting up the New Acquisitions gallery just off the Great Hall where today one of the retail shops resides. The grandest acquisition out of a group of a dozen was a smashing seated portrait of a Mesopotamian royal personage, King Gudea of Lagash, dating to 2150 B.C. The king was carved from a block of diorite, a stone which is as black as outer space and harder than a diamond. The squat little king who resembled a little fire-plug looked as powerful as a keg of dynamite. I wanted to show him off in a striking fashion, so I called Jack Lenor Larsen, the textile designer who I’d gotten to know the summer I worked for Bill Pahlmann and he sent over a fabric he'd just invented, a beautiful, nubby bolt of linen. I had it died orange, knowing that the jet-black Gudea would jump out at the onlooker. Rorimer was thrilled when the art critic of the New York Times mentioned the "elegant flair" of my installation.
I spent a good deal of time analyzing the way the museum worked and made profiles of all the top people, especially Rorimer. I was fascinated with him and wary, too. Much to my surprise, I was very good at toadying, not only with Rorimer but also with every member of the staff I managed to meet. And I met a lot of them for I was for a while Rorimer's golden boy and his liaison to the staff. I went out of my way to meet every member of the curatorial staff and ingratiate myself with them, a move which paid off significantly in the future.This is chapter 21 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.