Masterpiece Theater

No other museum director in American history has had as much written about him as Thomas P.F. Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for ten years (1967–1977). The striking thing is how much of it he has written himself. Memoirs by American museum men are fairly thin on the ground, and when they appear—like Self-Portrait with Donors, by John Walker, a former director of the National Gallery in Washington—they tend to be mild, discreet, and ruminative.

Mildness and rumination, let alone discretion, have never been Hoving’s forte. He is and always was obsessed with publicity, with being quoted and noticed. “The rage for fame infects both great and small / Better be damned than mentioned not at all”—Hoving was the first American museum celebrity, and his compact with the mass media was a Faustian one. But clippings go yellow and languish unread; books are needed. Thus far Hoving has written two memoirs of his career at the Met: first King of the Confessors (1981), an account of his earlier years, centering around the acquisition of a twelfth-century ivory crucifix for the Met, and now Making the Mummies Dance, which covers his period as director.

The two books have much in common. They are written in hectoring, zip-blam-pow prose, replete with malapropisms: the style is the man, for Hoving has always been a lapel-grabber. They present their author as a fascinating buccaneer of the art world, swashing down the corridors of power, up to his long neck in secret deals and perilous transactions; an ace sleuth tracking down “undiscovered” or “hidden” masterpieces; the art world’s Dick Daring or Indiana Jones, perpetually at odds with stuffy trustees and nitpicking critics. And they are laced with fibs, taradiddles, spin, implausibilities, and dramatic inventions. (These begin with his assertion that in 1967, before his appointment as director, he impressed the trustees with the revelation that “the State Commissioner for Human Rights, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was preparing to hit the museum with a series of legal charges alleging massive abuse in the hiring practices and promotions of women employees”—whereas, in fact, Norton’s inquiry into the Met did not even begin until early 1975, almost eight years later.)

The current book is full of “he said—I said” dialogue, and Hoving claims that every line he puts in everyone else’s mouth, some going back thirty years, is reconstructed from his journals and tapes. If so, he need not have bothered, since it all comes out sounding like Hoving anyway. One ends up thinking of him as a male version of that other mythomaniac, Lillian Hellman—but without the literary gifts. Which is not to say that Hoving does not, some of the time, tell the truth; but the background beat of mendacity is such that it’s not always possible to know when he is telling it, or if he cares—so deeply rooted is this curious man’s habit of self-dramatization …

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