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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Michael Gross

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-03

New York's luxury-apartment industry seems to have gotten its own Boswell in Michael Gross, best-selling author and chronicler of society. In his new book, Mr. Gross dissects stories - all 19 of them, literally and literarily.

"I liken my work to taking apart an exquisite Swiss watch and putting it together again," Mr. Gross said of his new book, "740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building."

"When I take on a subject, my readers aren't going to be spoon-fed superficialities," he said. "I believe in carefully crafted works."

To write his story of the 19-story 75-year-old building, Mr. Gross had to summon all his craftsmanship - gained from three earlier books, scores of articles in major magazines, and a stint at a metropolitan newspaper (where his sister, Jane Gross, still works). He had to reach deeply into his barrel of contacts, cashing in favors - and dispensing new ones - and figuring out ways to crack the secrecy of the building's occupants.

Those occupants include - or have included - a handful of billionaires and a score of millionaires. John D. Rockefeller Jr. lived here once, and the investment ueberbanker Stephen Schwartzman still does. Barbara Walters and Barbra Streisand tried to get in, but the building's notoriously fussy co-op board waved them away. Jacqueline Onassis spent her childhood in 740 Park; corporate barons and financiers such as Saul Steinberg, Ronald Perelman and Henry Kravis have been residents.

These are famously reserved people - "secretive" might be a more appropriate word - and Mr. Gross somehow seems to have got many of them to talk to him. And in doing so, he also sketches the history and machinations of some of America's most prominent corporations: Campbell's Soup, Chrysler, Avon, Time Warner, Loews, and Seagram.

"Buildings like 740 Park aren't just homes - they are clubs," said Dolly Lentz, managing director of Douglas Elliman, who has sold many apartments to New York's elite. "Some people will do anything to get into these buildings. Admission is a sign that you've arrived. Besides, these apartments are simply magnificent."

Mr. Gross says that his book project was not necessarily intended to be a history of 740 Park.

"I did not set out to be a real-estate writer, or someone who'd peek behind big business," Mr. Gross said. "I embarked on doing the most exhaustive research ever done on a single building, but for a larger purpose to use it as a window on to the American aristocracy. There comes a moment in every story when something clicks in your brain - and that's when I stop and start writing my book."

His 562-page book is steadily climbing the best-seller lists. It has garnered major reviews. And it has members of many co-op boards of tony buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues scrambling for cover - out of concern that somewhere out there is a group of authors poised to narrate the innermost secrets of their building.

Mr. Gross won't be among them. This week he signed a contract for a big book on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a project that's expected to take a couple of years. It would not be a stretch to say that a biography of that iconic institution will be as Himalayan an enterprise as writing about 740 Park. The Met's board consists of many luminaries who display the same reserve as that of 740 Park.

The reserve of residents of Manhattan's luxury buildings is understandable. Not only do some buildings require tenants to have 10 or 25 times the cost of their apartment in liquid availability - and these apartments can cost anywhere from $15 million to $45 million - their boards often impose strict conditions.

Those conditions aren't always codified, and explanations are rarely provided to rejected applicants. For example, Ms. Walters and Ms. Streisand were reportedly turned down because they were television and entertainment personalities whose occupancy of 740 Park was likely to draw unwanted attention to the building. New York's aristocratic class, after all, doesn't mind the occasional publicity, but it mostly prefers to control it.

That world of wealth and privilege is well removed from the Brownville section of Brooklyn where Mr. Gross's father, the celebrated sportswriter, Milton Gross, grew up. He'd hoped that his son would become an athlete, although his mother Estelle wanted him to be a lawyer. The wiry son had no such inclinations, although later in life he became an accomplished skier.

Mr. Gross's inclinations were toward the sybaritic life. And when he was admitted to Vassar College when it opened its doors to men, he became almost giddy with the fact there were five women to every man at the celebrated Seven Sisters institution. It was also a time when the culture featured wide use of sense-enhancing substances.

"My major technically was intellectual history - my thesis was on Alexander Solzhenitsyn," Mr. Gross said. "In reality, I majored in sex, drugs and rock n' roll."

His love of music got him coveted writing assignments at several national magazines, including Crawdaddy. Those gigs led to sustained coverage of the fashion industry, and a best-selling book on the lives of models.

He also wrote three detective novels as D.G. Devon, with Stephen Demorest; the central character of those novels was a fashion model, Temple Kent.

In addition to America, his books have been published in Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Taiwan, and China. "740 Park" has already gained notice abroad.

One would think that with such credentials, Mr. Gross would scarcely have a parched period professionally. But his controversial biography of Ralph Lauren wasn't appreciated by the celebrated designer. Mr. Gross says that magazine editors, possibly worried by the prospect of Mr. Lauren withdrawing his annual $220 million worth of advertisements, in effect made him "unemployable," even though he regularly wrote best-selling cover stories for New York magazine, and co-edited its 30th anniversary issue.

In the New York spirit of resilience, Mr. Gross bounced back to claim his spotlight in the book publishing world.

And how did he get the idea of writing about 740 Park?

"I was driving past some of these glorious buildings, and then thought that it would be terrific to examine one of them in detail," Mr. Gross said. "My book was originally titled 'The Sting of the Wasp.' But WASPS no longer dominate these kinds of buildings. You could say they are more egalitarian now. But that, of course, depends on what one means by egalitarian."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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