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The Death of a Showman: Tom Hoving, 78 WITH ADDENDUM

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Thomas Hoving, vamping on his book cover

I had been thinking about Tom Hoving today, only to return home from a Guggenheim press lunch and some pre-Hanukkah shopping to learn from Randy Kennedy‘s online NY Times report that this morning he had died. [UPDATE: Eric Gibson‘s appraisal for the Wall Street Journal is here. My own further comments on Hoving are here.]

I was thinking about him because during the last two days I happened to have spoken to his two successors. Today was a fluke: I was standing on the chow line for lunch at the Guggenheim’s new spiffed-up eatery, The Wright, (which I cannot review, because most of what was on my plate contained nuts, to which I am violently allergic). While I was chatting about journalistic hard times with another writer, I became vaguely aware of a stentorian voice behind me. Finally, I turned around. It was, in fact, the Mellifluous One.

“What are you doing here?” I asked after two double-takes.

“I’m one of your colleagues,” Philippe de Montebello replied. After I looked at him incredulously, he explained that he was referring to his reportorial gig for WNET‘s SundayArts program, for which he was scouting out the restaurant.

That’s what got me thinking about Tom Hoving: I started wondering what it is about the Metropolitan Museum directorship that impels its occupants to join the lowly journalistic tribe (which gave them so much trouble) after they leave their elevated post. Tom had a stint as a correspondent with the television documentary show 20/20 and then as editor of Connoisseur magazine. And there were all those confessional books about his bad old days at the Met.

Finally, there was a gig writing posts and appearing in videos for the online Artnet magazine. His Artnet oeuvre included the serialization of what he called (in an e-mail to me), “my new reveal-all memoir, Artful Tom.”

I have to believe that this memoir began life as a book that didn’t get published: Tom had previously sent me a chapter from it, which he described as “the third segment of my autobiography [that] I have just sent to my agent.” His working title was, “‘The Artful Tommy,’ Zigzagging My Way Through Museums, Parks, TV, Magazines and Illicit Antiquities.”

Here’s how he later described to me some of the upcoming contents of his Artnet series, in an e-mail plugging it:

* Secrets about my madcap, wealthy socialite step-mother.

* How petty theft ignited my art interests.

* How I smuggled art treasures from Europe as a young curator.

* How I helped the Italians get back my beloved million-dollar Euphronios krater.

* Why I got fired from Connoisseur magazine.

* The inside story of the Getty Museum’s Greek and Roman department.

* How I got the police to move bodies out of Central Park as Commissioner of Parks

* Why I loathed being director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

* Inside stories of ABC’s magazine-of-the-air 20/20.

* When the Mona Lisa was sprinkled with water all night at the Metropolitan

* How I suckered France out of one of its prime medieval treasures.

* And many other antic tales from a nutcase.

He said it, not me.

I actually wouldn’t call him a nutcase, though his determined self-sabotage seemed somewhat aberrant. I found him to be an unreliable narrator: He would send me tips that wouldn’t completely check out when I examined the details. It was puzzling to me that he spent so much energy trying to tear down the museum world in which he had previously been preeminent. He seemed to be expiating his past behavior by candidly exposing it. Maybe he was also settling scores—a would-be investigative journalist with a personal axe to grind.

I’ll tell you what I liked about most about Hoving’s tenure at the Met (aside from “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” one of the greatest shows that I will ever see): His love of publicity led him to attend most of the museum’s press previews, where he willingly hung around and spoke at length to even the youngest reporters (like me). That’s a practice that neither of his successors had any interest in perpetuating.

ADDENDUM: His lasting legacies, aside from some stellar acquisitions, include the blockbuster foreign-loan exhibition (and the attendant merchandising of high-priced reproductions related to those megashows) and, most importantly, the democratization of what used to be a quiet preserve for the discerning few.

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