EVERYWHERE Tony Marx goes, he does a lot of smiling and nodding. As the president of the New York Public Library (a job he took over in July 2011, after eight years as the president of Amherst), it is his job to smile and nod at big-name writers around whom the library plans events.
It is his job to smile and nod at the business leaders who serve on his board. It is his job to smile and nod at heads of foundation boards, at members of the City Council and officials in the Bloomberg administration, whom he lobbies for money and patronage, since the library (like most publicly financed institutions) has been subject to brutal budget cuts over the last four years.
Anyway, smiling and nodding are certainly what he was doing on an early September evening at a cocktail party for the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art at the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle, working the room, introducing himself to anyone and everyone, offering tours, giving pats on the back and providing reassurances to people who appeared to be slightly wary of him.
Mr. Marx has had to reassure a lot of people of late.
Last November, right on the eve of the annual Library Lions dinner, he was arrested in Harlem at 2 p.m. on a Sunday after he sideswiped a parked truck with a library-owned vehicle. Mr. Marx then failed a Breathalyzer test, which determined that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08. (Mr. Marx pleaded guilty to charges of driving while intoxicated and was ordered to pay a $500 fine, give up his license for six months and attend counseling.)
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The arrest was, of course, big news in the tabloids, and for a while it appeared as if Mr. Marx’s tenure as the library’s president might be short-lived. But despite having what several board members described as “intense conversations” about his future, they ultimately decided not to fire him. Recently, in an interview in his office, he declined to discuss the incident except to say, “It was a stupid mistake and it won’t happen again.”
In April, Mr. Marx was again in the news, this time when a host of big-name writers and scholars, including Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard and Jonathan Lethem, took a stand against the board of trustees’ plan to move off site millions of rare books in the 42nd Street flagship (because of budget cuts, they explained), while plans were being completed to spend $300 million to have the space there spruced up by the star-architect Norman Foster. Opposition also came in a 5,300-word cover story in The Nation, then a two-part series in the literary journal N+1.
Resistance to the plan crystallized with an Op-Ed article for The New York Times written by Edmund Morris, and headlined “Sacking a Palace of Culture.” In it, Mr. Morris, a biographer of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, referred to himself as “a habitué of all of that great institution’s research facilities” and explained that “it was with a surge of emotion, therefore, that I read newspaper reports about the determination of Anthony W. Marx, the president of the library, to spend $300 million to transform the main building, long devoted to reference, into what sounds like a palace of presentism.”
No matter that the plan was under way well before Mr. Marx had assumed the presidency of the library; he was now the public face of a dispute that seemed poised to divide the city’s cultural and business communities.
Yet on this recent Wednesday evening, you would not have thought Mr. Marx was a man under siege. In fact, there seemed to be something of a spring in his step. He posed for photos with foundation staff members, joked with Nan Keohane, the former president of Wellesley, and chatted with a historian named Susan Zuccotti, who had done her dissertation at the library and took the opportunity to let Mr. Marx know that she was “very concerned” about the plan. Very concerned indeed.
“My big problem is,” she said, “not so much now, but I had three kids. If I’d had to wait three or four or five days to get a book, it would be very difficult — — ”
Mr. Marx, holding a glass of Diet Coke and listening politely, took this is as a moment to make a gentle interruption. The library had hoped, Mr. Marx told her, to “encourage people to order in advance. That doesn’t work. So I believe the board will vote next week to change the plan so that basically all the books on site are going to stay on site.”
“Well, that is fantastic!” Ms. Zuccotti said. “That’s fantastic news.”
Mr. Marx smiled and nodded.
ON paper, Anthony W. Marx, 53, would seem like an ideal candidate to run the nation’s largest public library system. Like many of his predecessors, most notably the near-legendary Vartan Gregorian, he was a well-regarded academic. And at Amherst, he proved himself not only a popular leader, but also an effective fund-raiser who in 2009 presided over what the college heralded as the largest unrestricted cash gift ever made to a liberal arts college ($100 million), a skill that would be crucial for anyone taking on the perennially cash-strapped library.
But there was more.
Mr. Marx grew up using his own branch of the library in Inwood, where his parents were anything but rich. His mother was a physical therapist and his father (whose education stopped at high school) worked at a steel trading company.
At Yale, which Mr. Marx transferred to after two years at Wesleyan, he studied political science and did his senior thesis on Plato’s Academy, using it to discuss the role of education in society.
He went to graduate school at Princeton and studied with Albert Hirschman, the father of development economics. Mr. Marx also ventured to South Africa, spending 3 ½ years, on and off, working for a nongovernmental organization that set up a school for black students whose education had been stymied by apartheid.
Shortly after getting his Ph.D., Mr. Marx joined the political science department of Columbia University in 1990, and met his future wife, the sociology professor Karen Barkey, whom he married two years later. (The couple have two children and now live near Columbia in faculty housing.)
In 2003, he was hired as the president of Amherst, a school that was known for being politically left-leaning, but conservative when it came to getting anything done in the way of reform. A particular focus for Mr. Marx was diversifying the student body, bringing in not only more minorities, but also international students, veterans and the middle-aged.
It wasn’t always a seamless process, and some professors complained that Mr. Marx was arrogant and talked too much about democracy when his management style was fairly autocratic.
“Faculty members wanted to be consulted more,” said Amrita Basu, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies there. “They felt Tony was trying to change too much too quickly.”
But the board of the New York Public Library, which heard a fair amount about these skirmishes, thought that if anything, this made him more qualified for the job, not less.
Said Joshua Steiner, a former chief of staff in the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton and a vice chairman of the board of trustees at the library, “If you look at Tony’s experience in a complex environment pushing through meaningful change, that to my mind was a clear and important indicator of his willingness to think deeply about issues and to believe strongly in the importance of change.”
And by the time Mr. Marx left Amherst, it was being heralded as a beacon of change, offering a higher percentage of its student body financial aid than almost any other liberal arts college in America.
IN 1981, the New York Public Library, broke and facing a slew of terrible options, hired Mr. Gregorian, an Armenian academic and an expert in Asian studies, to help rescue the place.
“When I accepted the presidency, someone told me to see a psychiatrist,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Because we were bankrupt.”
At his first meeting, the agenda was how to shut down the branches, sell off the collections and charge the public admission at the central library.
It was time for a savior, and one arrived in the form of Brooke Astor, the socialite and philanthropist, then in her late 70s, but still a formidable force on the city’s social scene, which she would remain almost until her death at 105 in 2007.
Mrs. Astor had recently been sidelined at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was looking for something to do. “They’d invoked a clause making her an emeritus and she didn’t feel very emeritus at all,” said the journalist Meryl Gordon, who wrote the biography “Mrs. Astor Regrets.”
So Mrs. Astor called Mr. Gregorian, and they joined forces with Richard Salomon and Andrew Heiskell (a former chief executive of Time Inc.) to begin a huge fund-raising effort. Soon enough, in came big donors like the real estate developer Marshall Rose, and the heiress Celeste Bartos. The library began holding increasingly high-profile readings with authors and started giving galas like the library Lions dinner, which had its first event later that year.
Tables cost $10,000 each, and the guest list (much of which came from Mrs. Astor’s formidable Rolodex) rivaled any state dinner. Look over there: it’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis! And a hop, skip and a jump away, Norman Mailer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Not to mention countless other Social X-rays, who, to quote Ms. Gordon, “realized that if they donated to the library, they’d get invited to dinner.”
In short order, junkies disappeared from the steps of the central library, the facade was cleaned up and scores of curators were hired. Services at the branches around the city improved considerably.
The library was a hot institution, one that bestowed upon its benefactors a decided social cachet — something that future presidents would come to rely on. (On Oct. 22, as a fund-raiser for the library, the board will stage a reading of works by Nora Ephron, this reporter’s mother.)
In 1989, after Mr. Gregorian left to become the president of Brown University (he’s now the president of the Carnegie Corporation), the organization was taken over by the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, a Jesuit priest and former president of Georgetown University, who three years into the job died of a heart attack. As his successor, the board tapped Paul LeClerc, a Voltaire scholar with prodigious fund-raising skills.
Over the next few years, the library raised $100 million in donations to open the Science and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison Avenue. In 2001, the organization completed a $38 million renovation of the performing arts library at Lincoln Center.
But with the financial crisis of 2008 came severe budget cuts from the city. The science library and the mid-Manhattan branch (on 39th Street) fell into disrepair. The size of the research staff declined by almost 30 percent. Meanwhile, the main branch at 42nd and Fifth was being closed down with increasing frequency for corporate events — a necessary fund-raising move but one that rankled staff members, some of whom complained that a monument to intellectual life was turning into a nightclub.
Even a $100 million gift from the financier Stephen Schwarzman, earmarked for the upgrade of the central building, did little to quell a sense among the rank and file that the library board was perhaps more interested in the building’s housing than the books inside it.
What to make of Kanye West’s appearance at a Paper Magazine gala celebrating the magazine’s 25th anniversary? Or the fact that at a 2011 Thom Browne fashion show, in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room, there were models kneeling before a makeshift altar as Gregorian chants blared? An indication that the library was successfully moving into the 21st century, or proof that it had totally, completely, lost its way?
“We began to say that it was going to be Cipriani Fifth Avenue,” recalled one recently retired senior administrator, who asked to remain anonymous because of a separation agreement he signed with the library.
“I’d be in the elevator and there’d be a blond girl in a little black dress who worked in development escorting people around and saying, ‘You have to mention in your release that this is in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building.’ I can’t tell you how many times we dismantled really serious pieces of equipment that cost us millions of dollars to acquire so that we could have a free rein for, oh, runway shows during the February and September fashion weeks.”
“We have existential questions to ask,” Mr. Marx was saying as a spokeswoman hovered nearby. “How do we build and deploy our staff to meet the educational needs of this city? How do we ensure that we are providing ideas and information to New Yorkers and to the world at a moment when that is all becoming digital while preserving our great book collection?”
He was sitting in his office at the central library, and if it sounded a bit like a script he had delivered before, well, that’s probably because Mr. Marx was reading from a page of notes he had come prepared with.
“So I had a lot to learn and we have big decisions to make,” he continued, in a conversation that went on for more than an hour. “And that generated considerable debate, as it should, as we try to make the smartest decisions we can going forward.”
Eventually, Mr. Marx got up from the table and embarked on a tour of the library, going first to the rooms that the library plans to renovate. “This should be filled with library users,” he said entering one such room, which had a view of Bryant Park and was being used for storage. “I’m going to start to reopen these rooms. Because there is no reason they shouldn’t be filled with people doing library work.”
He walked into the Rose Main Reading Room, pausing to give a pat on the back to the security guard.
“Literally every seat is filled. Every seat is filled, and everyone practically has a computer in front of them,” he pointed out, adding that some of those computers belonged to the library.
“And you walk up and down and you see that relatively few people are using our books. Right? Which raises an interesting question. Why are they here? Well, partly they’re here for computers and Wi-Fi, but mostly they’re here because it’s an unbelievably inspiring space. And because people actually want to work in inspiring spaces together, not at home alone. And that’s not going to change.”
This went on for a while, his voice trailing off, as Mr. Marx walked the reporter out of the room, giving the security guard another fraternal pat as the two went by.
CALL up people who work with Mr. Marx, and some of the things you will hear repeatedly are that he’s a “little slick,” that the volume is always “on high,” and that he continues to speak to groups of adults the way he might have spoken to his students at Amherst or Columbia.
But Jide Zeitlin, a former board chairman at Amherst who helped recruit Mr. Marx to the college and who has now been friends with him for roughly a decade, said that this was slightly unfair.
“There are some people who pull it off really effortlessly, so that it looks like they aren’t really trying,” Mr. Zeitlin said. “It’s like the duck, smooth on the surface and paddling like mad underneath. Personality-wise, that’s not Tony. He is at times too transparent, so what you see is what you get. But I’d argue it’s honesty. … He cares about what he’s doing.”
Others caution that he deserves time and the benefit of the doubt as he grows into his new position.
“Tony’s a good scholar,” Mr. Gregorian said. “He has democratic principles and he’s learning about bureaucracy and the various constituencies of the library. I’m confident he’ll do his best.”
And increasingly, members of the board — among them Louise Grunwald, Gayfryd Steinberg and Marshall Rose — seem to be moving into his corner. A couple of weeks back, at a board meeting where Mr. Marx revealed an $8 million pledge from the trustee Abby Milstein and her husband, Howard, to keep the bulk of the books on site, the board announced that the library had raised $98 million in charitable contributions in the last fiscal year, a result of 329 meetings Mr. Marx had with potential donors and a record for the most money raised in a single fiscal year.
Annette de la Renta was there smiling brightly. Nearby were David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and Ms. Grunwald. Before the meeting started, Mr. Marx greeted a group of scholars who sat anxiously in the front row and Mr. Schwarzman, to whom he gave a big pat on the back.
When it came time for him to speak, Mr. Marx thanked people on the board, whose work had made it possible for him to raise so much money. Then he thanked the scholars, whose protestations led the board to roll back part of the central library plan.
“We’re really grateful to everyone who contributed, even loudly at times,” he said. “That’s how I think democracy should work. It’s certainly how I think publicly supported institutions should work.”
Said Mr. Rose afterward: “I’ve lived through four presidents, and he has a real ability to know when he’s wrong and to see when things can be improved. I think he’s doing great.”
Mr. Steiner concurred: “I don’t think that the first year has been perfect or that everything has been seamless, but I do feel, and I think the vast majority of trustees agree, that we’ve made meaningful progress. And that while there were moments of discomfort, we would happily trade off that discomfort for the progress we’ve made. That reflects the trustees and the staff and Tony’s work.”
That work also includes an ambitious plan, announced by Mr. Marx and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in late September, to turn every public school student into a member of the New York Public Library.
The way the program will work, said Mr. Marx, is that “over the course of three years, every school in New York will end up with computers and its library connected to a circulating system that combines the Brooklyn, Queens and New York Public Library, which in total have 17 million circulating items. Students and teachers can order online whatever books they need, for whatever research they’re doing at that point, and we will deliver to them the books that they need.”
Scholars continue to be skeptical about parts of the central library plan, but Mr. Marx has clearly ingratiated himself to them somewhat in recent weeks.
“I think he has politician written all over him,” said Annalyn Swan, who in 2005 won the Pulitzer Prize (with Mark Stevens) for “De Kooning: An American Master” and has been one of the most vociferous critics of the central library plan. “But there are better politicians and worse politicians, and he seems to be a better politician.”
As the dispute over the central library plan dies down, Mr. Marx is choosing to see the sunny side of things. “The good news,” he said after leaving the Doris Duke Foundation event, walking toward the nearby Time Warner Center, “is that people are talking about the library. What they want it to be and what they don’t want it to be, rather than taking it for granted and letting it sink. Right?”
At which point he walked into another lobby, got on another elevator, on his way to another cocktail party, another Diet Coke, and more smiling and nodding.
An article last Thursday about Tony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, misstated at one point the estimated cost of the renovation of the central library. It is $300 million, as the article noted elsewhere; not $350 million.
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