Michael Gross' hotly anticipated tome about the Metropolitan Museum, Rogues' Gallery, arrived in bookstores last week. An account of the museum's "history of curatorial excellence, social climbing, and skullduggery," the book is full of salacious detail about some of the most prominent members of the New York society. But you won't hear much about the book's juiciest bits in the mainstream media coverage. Could it have something to do with the fact that Gross delves into the murky past of Oscar and Annette de la Renta, a couple at the very top of the social pyramid?
It's clear Rogues' Gallery has rankled more than few members of Upper East Side high society. Unless you read the book, though, you'd have a hard time figuring out what is causing such offense. Earlier this week, Vanity Fair referred to "the book's explosive allegations," but didn't say what they were. Liz Smith waded a bit deeper in her online column on Wowowow, explaining that Gross' book included a "devastating attack theory on the designer Oscar de la Renta"—one, she said, that "really goes beyond the pale." Again, though, she didn't explain what was so devastating.
So what is it that Gross wrote about de la Renta that is offending so many? It turns out that Gross has assembled a very different history of the designer and his socialite wife, Annette, at least compared to the version of events that Oscar has described on so many occasions over the years.
Gross's account goes back decades, back to when de la Renta was a mere "Renta." (He only added the noble-sounding "de la" after he arrived in the U.S., explains Gross.) And he details how de la Renta got his start in fashion, a career that blossomed when he met an Estonian-born baroness and two-time divorcée named Aino de Bodisco. De la Renta had little interest in an intimate relationship with the much-older baroness who, says Gross, had "bad skin and wore heavy makeup." But "she was wealthy and well connected," and de la Renta soon found himself living in a free, luxe apartment and commenced an apprenticeship at Balenciaga soon after. The relationship was short-lived. Once he no longer had much use for his "sugar mommy," de la Renta moved on to an affair with someone else—a man—and then his first marriage to Françoise Langlade, the editor of French Vogue at the time. Langlade had been divorced twice and was widely known—much like de la Renta—to be bisexual. But both seemed derive benefit from the marriage, especially Oscar, who suddenly had one of the most influential figures in fashion as his chief promoter.
Langlade passed away in 1983. Oscar didn't remain single for long. Shortly thereafter, he took up with his current wife, Annette, who was married to another man at the time. Leaving her husband for the gay designer wasn't much of an issue for Annette, who would go on to become one of the dominant behind-the-scenes players at the Met. "He could give her the life she wanted," explained Annette's mother to a friend at the time.
We called Gross to ask him why these details, which have never been reported previously, had not been mentioned in coverage of the book thus far. "I can't say why no one has written about this. I can't read their minds," he said. "Maybe they're afraid of a 98-pound socialite and her dressmaker spouse? Maybe they're sacred cows? But like Abbie Hoffman once said, 'Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.'"