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Q&A: Michael Gross

Veteran journalist Michael Gross talks about the making of his latest book, 740 Park.

By Elizabeth Spiers - October 24, 2005

Veteran journalist Michael Gross's new book, 740 Park, is an extensive biography of the life and history of the world's richest apartment building. Gross's impeccable research is beautifully synthesized into a comprehensive narrative about class, money and power.

Gross has written six books including Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, and My Generation, a book about the baby boom generation. He is a Contributing Editor at Travel + Leisure, a Contributing Writer for Radar, and his work has appeared in a number of other publications including The New York Times, New York Magazine, George, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Interview and Details.

mediabistro's Elizabeth Spiers spoke with Gross about 740 Park and the process of writing it:

What's the genesis of the 740 Park book? (How, when and why did you decide you wanted to write about it?)

After writing a book about Ralph Lauren, who came from a quasi-aristocratic Jewish family (thought he didn't know that) and for complex psychological reasons grew up compelled to dress like and act the part of a WASP aristocrat, I thought it might be interesting to write about the sort of people he modeled his look on, ie genuine American aristocrats. My first thought was to choose a great American family and trace its story from the Mayflower (or thereabouts) to the present...hopefully dealing with a Supreme Court Justice, a Buddhist, a murderer, a drug addict or two, and maybe a psycho along the way. My then-publisher didn't think that was broad enough and though she liked the idea of telling a larger story through a microcosm, urged me to find one that let in more light, more people, more kinds of people, which struck me as sage advice.

A few days later, I was in a cab going down Fifth Avenue, looking up at the old apartment buildings, when I passed one where I knew that WASPs had given way to Jews, one of whom had just sold his apartment for millions to Paul Allen of Microsoft, and I decided to write [about] a building. The next step was figuring out which building. It didn't take long before I focused in on 740, which was distinctive not only in terms of its architecture, quality and the price of apartments, but also in terms of the people who lived there. Unlike so-called "good" buildings (ie anti-Semitic buildings), 740 had evolved with the times, which made it a perfect vehicle to tell my story about the evolution of America's capitalist aristocracy.

How did you begin your research? Was your process different for Model and/or Genuine Authentic?

Genuine Authentic taught me a lot about genealogical research, which came in handy doing this book, although 740 Park is a slightly different world than the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, from whence L'il Ralph came. I started by looking for anything that had been written about 740 Park in the past (there was very little) and simultaneously trying to construct a list of every person who'd ever owned an apartment in the building. That, to be blunt, took forever because co-ops are not real property and there are no public records. I used newspaper accounts and reverse telephone directories, primarily. At the same time, I called the wife of the president of the 740 co-op board, who happened to be a New York Times reporter, and asked for the board's cooperation. Alas, professional congeniality notwithstanding, that turned out to be a dead end and the possibility of "official" cooperation evaporated. Then, I heard from Andrew Alpern, who is an historian of New York apartment buildings, and Dan Okrent, who'd just publsihed Great Fortune, a great book about Rockefeller Center, that there might be some files about 740 Park at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. In fact it was a treasure trove and I spent almost two weeks there. With that, the wind was beneath my wings and the research process really took off.

How did being stonewalled by the co-op board (if that's a fair characterization) affect how residents and former residents responded to your requests for interviews and information? How would the book, and the writing of the book, been different if they had cooperated? From what I remember about Genuine Authentic, it started out with Ralph cooperating and ended up a sort of write-around. How much does that sort of thing hamper your ability to get the real story? Or does it, really?

Yes, it was a stone wall. Ashland limestone, to be precise. Former residents cared not a whit. Co-op boards can only terrorize current and prospective tenants, not past ones, thank goodness. The widow of a board president, who still lives in the building, did try to stop at least one person from giving me an interview. That person, who must remain nameless, took me out to lunch and talked for hours, instead. Current residents broke down into three groups. Many refused to talk to me (a few of whom even made a point of expressing how angry they were that I would dare write such a book). A few gave on-the-record interviews and are quoted in the book. And many spoke to me on a not-for-attribution basis; some told me a lot, some merely confirmed and corrected information gathered elsewhere, and some were so gracious and helpful that they invited me into their apartments. One current resident even offered me a book party in the building, but I declined, explaining that I feared some of the neighbors might not appreciate that as much as I did.

Of course, the book would have been different. A writer is to a great extent a mirror that can only reflect what it is able to see. Some writers depend on access and only reflect what they are shown. Others have the skills to find things out that are not delivered on a silver platter, and it's my experience that when dealing with the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrated, a story based on that sort of enterprise is usually far more interesting and revealing than one based on access. But even enterprise reporting benefits from some level of access. I don't turn my nose up at cooperation! The current residents who took my calls were able to clarify and amplify and affect the way I portrayed them. Any good writer should feel a responsibility to reflect the point of view of their subjects, even if you ultimately feel that's only one side of the story. So I guess, that's all a long way of saying, yes, had some of those who declined to speak to me done interview, their versions of their lives would have been included alongside the ones I was able to piece together on my own.

In the case of Ralph Lauren, I feel I was lucky that he didn't cooperate, but only because he's made self-delusion his own personal art form--and he's a genius at it. Had I been dependent on his version of his own life, the book would have been narrow and frankly, a commercial fantasy like the ones he depicts in his ads. The day he bailed on me, my editor said, "It's probably going to be a better, more honest book now." And indeed, I think that's what happened.

What have you learned in the process of writing the first three that has made it easier to write this one?

What have I learned? That it takes a long time. That's it's hard and it doesn't get any easier. That you just have to do it. And as a great writer and friend once said to me, "When in doubt, just lay brick." In other words, you have to work even when you don't feel inspired. So just sit down and write, even if you think that what's coming out is terrible. Foundation work isn't sexy, but it's what the rest of the edifice rests on.

Upcoming readings in New York:

Tuesday, 10/25 Strand Books @ 6:30pm 828 Broadway @ 12th Street

Wednesday, 10/26 Barnes & Noble @ 7pm 1972 Broadway @ 64th Street

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