The Mantle of Munchausen

King of the Confessors

by Thomas Hoving
Simon and Schuster, 365 pp., $16.95

Thomas Hoving
Thomas Hoving; drawing by David Levine

“A likable scamp” is how the headmaster of Eaglebrook described his pupil Thomas P.F. Hoving. And, to judge by this memoir—the first of a series to be devoted to Hoving’s greatest coups—a scamp he has remained. But likable? He seems too pleased with himself for that. “I had always,” he brags, “been able to lie convincingly.” “I had the ability to disguise my worst traits. I too could be devious without qualms.” Empty boasts. Hoving, as we will see, is the least plausible of liars. One of the puzzles of his career is why he continues to indulge in mischief that is so easy to detect.

By confessing to derring-do and dirty deeds—smuggling the Romanesque Annunciation plaque out of Italy, bamboozling trustees and prying open a showcase in the Bargello1 for no reason except masochistic compulsion (“ten thousand needles of excitement and pleasure pricked me”)—the ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum presumably hopes to entertain us, but the spectacle of a public figure making a public fool of himself is not edifying. Nor is the spectacle of a confessor to whom conceit comes much more easily than acts of contrition, and who leaves his more outrageous acts unconfessed.

Why, readers may wonder, should someone so concerned with bella figura blow the whistle on himself? Can it be out of revenge that he brought down the wrath of the Italian government on the Met by confessing to smuggling? It looks like that. Or does Hoving suffer from a m’as-tu vu? syndrome—if he cannot be the hero, he has to play the villain?

The m’as-tu vu? hypothesis is confirmed by John McPhee, Hoving’s schoolfriend, who wrote a perceptive New Yorker profile of him in 1967, unnervingly entitled “A Roomful of Hovings.” McPhee described Hoving at Exeter playing hockey “like a George Plimpton fantast,” mimicking the gestures and language of the pros—much as he does to this day, when he bicycles round Central Park, accoutered as if for the Mille Miglia. McPhee also describes Hoving playing poker at Princeton “with the green eyeshade doing the Cincinnati Kid. If anybody had had the sleeve guards he would have put them on.” All very engaging in an adolescent, less so in someone invested with civic responsibility.

King of the Confessors confirms that Hoving has not outgrown boyish role-playing. For instance, when he is taken on in a lowly capacity at the Cloisters in 1959, he turns into the parody of an ace curator, “peering at, sometimes even tasting, every work of art under my stewardship [in order] to comprehend what quality was all about.” (“Tasting”? Is this why Hoving is apt to compare sculpted faces to lima beans?) The juvenile fantast is even more in evidence when Hoving decides to become a demon art sleuth (“You had to be a detective, a part-time diplomat, kind of a spy,” the author recently said)2 in order to…

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