He has been romantically linked to several of the city’s most desirable spinsters with blue-blood certification. For some time, gossip columns buzzed with marital rumors that paired him with Heather Roberts, sole heiress to her father’s hedge fund fortune estimated at close to one billion dollars. But the relationship collapsed under the relentless barrage of media frenzy, especially lurid accounts of Mr. Gruels’ alleged infidelities.
In the wake of the break-up, a distraught and heartbroken Ms. Roberts moved to Europe. She has since lived in self-imposed solitude in a bucolic Swiss village cradled by verdant hills. Mr. Gruels would not comment on what the tabloid press dubbed “The Roberts Affair,” citing his concern for Ms. Roberts’ privacy.
Mr. Gruels also has a visible social profile on the west coast. He has dated several Hollywood notables, including a well-publicized fling with daytime soap star Anne O’Dwyer who plays a seductress attorney in “As Tomorrow Turns.” The film producer, Ian Fisher, has been a close friend. Both men met five years ago in Barcelona, Spain, where the producer was exploring a movie that was ultimately abandoned and Mr. Gruels was vacationing. A man with a talent for captivating conversation, the entrepreneur persuaded Mr. Fisher to look at the gallery during his next stop in New York.
Not only did the producer buy two high-priced Buddha busts, he also invited Mr. Gruels to consult on the set décor for “Jungle Adventures,” a sometimes dark, mostly spooky spoof of “Tarzan.” It was reported that Mr. Gruels was also asked to take a small acting part in the movie, but he declined. Asked about that, Mr. Gruels sipped his red wine—he’s a fan of merlot from the Cape vineyards of South Africa—and seemed to mull an answer. Instead, he flashed a good-natured smile that suggested an unyielding resolve. After stating that he never saw himself playing a faitour, he indicated that he would much rather talk about “foreign gods, inc.”
His fans and critics alike acknowledge that such focused drive and singular devotion explain the gallery’s transformation from a marginal operation run by his father to a high-profile business with international visibility and stature. “No doubt at all, he put this business on the world map,” said Joseph Titts, owner of a competing gallery that opened two years ago in Seattle. “He’s made it glamorous for wealthy people to set aside a budget for acquiring gods. I may not like his appetite for self-advertisement, I may not like the shameless way he goes about things, but I must grant him his due: he’s the gold standard in this business. I’m sure I’ll wake up tomorrow hating myself for adding to his already extra-extra large legend, but facts are facts. No question at all.”
Mr. Titts had toyed with opening his gallery, “Sacred Treasures, Inc.”, in Boston, Massachusetts, but thought better of it. He openly admitted that fear that his gallery would stand no chance in the northeast, where Mr. Gruels has made “foreign gods” a colossus, dictated his move to Seattle.
Mr. Gruels’ impressive strides are rooted, according to his personal testimony (corroborated by those who have known him longest), in an adventurous spirit wedded to an undying commitment to innovation. Those attributes are themselves a legacy of his childhood.
The only child of a divorced father struggling to stabilize an unusual and fledging business, he learned as a child to probe the world on his own and to improvise for fun. By the time he was five, he could spend just ten minutes to put together complex jigsaw puzzles that adults would find hard to fit together in an hour. The year he graduated from Brown, magna cum laude in History, he forewent scholarships from such Ivy league heavyweights as Cornell, Yale and Harvard that would have enabled him to pursue graduate studies.
Instead, he worked alongside his father at the gallery for six months. Then, in the company of three friends, including his girlfriend at the time, he tramped for six months in Asia, Africa and parts of South and Central America. They hitchhiked for most of the trip, and bivouacked whenever it was not too hazardous to do so.
During a stop in Morocco, Mr. Gruels and his party created a stir—and serious diplomatic embarrassment—when, their shirts flying in the desert breeze and the lone female dressed in a mini-skirt, they walked past a mosque during Friday prayers. Moroccan police arrested them in what was an act of mercy that saved the insouciant and unruly youngsters from the fury of an enraged mob. The quartet spent the night in sultry police cells. The next day, the Moroccan government filed a formal complaint with the American embassy, accusing the four of espionage. “It was a silly ploy by the Moroccan authorities,” said Mr. Gruels. “They went for the most flamboyant charge in the books. It was designed to generate maximum international tension—and calculated to appease their local constituency. It was their way of saying to their citizens and the Arab world, “See? We can fuck these Yankees.’”
A flurry of sweltering diplomatic exchanges ensued. In the end, Moroccan authorities agreed to release the four to the American ambassador, but ordered their deportation within twenty-four hours. Robert Carrington, who was only two weeks into his commission as ambassador to Morocco, went down to the police station to secure their release. “His face was red as raw beef,” recalled Mr. Gruels of the ambassador’s countenance. “A man’s silence has never been more terrifying, nor spoken louder. Not a word did he say to us from the time he met us at the station to the time we were put on a flight to Nairobi.”
Mr. Carrington, who retired from diplomatic service and enjoyed a brilliant stint as an academic—teaching at the Harvard School of Government—still smarts from the personal and diplomatic humiliation. Reached at his home in Boston, he was at first reticent, citing his poor health (he’s recovering from a major heart procedure). But he soon pepped up, telling me that he could not remember many occasions when his patience had been taxed more. “All I wanted to do, on seeing the absolutely insolent brood, was to regale them with a torrent of expletives. And there was one whose neck I wanted to get my hands around—to choke and shake the bastard into some sense.” He was referring to Mr. Gruels.
The next day, the Moroccan press carried fervid headlines denouncing the youngsters as “vile infidels,” “godless spies,” “damned atheists,” and “imperialist vagrants.” Around the world, other newspapers reported the incident, many—especially in the Arab world, Africa, Latin America and Asia—viewing it as a legitimate case of espionage. Back in the States, news of the American youths’ arrest triggered strong emotions of (mostly) condemnation or support.
“It was a harrowing time,” said Mr. Gruels in a tone of excitement that belied the sense of isolation and fright he said he and his friends felt. And yet, in a perverse sort of way, the adventure suited his larger purposes. It gave him a first taste of life in the public eye. “In the States and abroad, my friends and I got the kind of media exposure reserved for infamous celebrities—mass murderers, drug bingers, and scam artists,” he said, his eyes agleam with suppressed mirth. “I came to understand the strange sensation of being in the limelight, receiving the glare of publicity. It was a, shall I say, dreadful, awe-inspiring thing. That’s the only way to describe the experience of subjection to that level of frenzied, hectic and searching attention. I came away with two odd, perhaps contradictory, insights. One, publicity can be a cutting, ferocious monster. The second lesson was this: that being the cynosure of heated attention is close to receiving a good deal of raw capital. If you’re astute, you could easily cash in. If not, you could easily be crushed.”
“In your case, you cashed in,” I suggested.
“Big time,” he said, unabashed.
When his friends and he made a one-day stopover in France on their way back to New York, their Paris hotel was mobbed by hundreds of young people craving autographs. A horde of reporters sought interviews with them. Overwhelmed and scared, his friends recoiled from the hysteria. Mr. Gruels alone came forward to bask in the adulation—his word. He began the pedigree of cultivating solitariness, especially in monopolizing attention. It became a grand theme in his life.
And he has never been shy since about cultivating the press.
What many might have regarded as a Moroccan mishap was for Mr. Gruels a moment that contained the seeds of personal triumph—and also of business opportunity. The saga became profitable for his father’s gallery, a coup of enterprise. At subsequent stops through the rest of their rendezvous, Mr. Gruels collected reams of information on local deities and objects of sacred worship. In a few countries, he also established contacts that would prove extraordinarily helpful in moving the treasures from their autochthonous hearths to “foreign gods inc.” in New York.
Mr. Gruels’ excellent instincts and innate sense of enterprise were sharpened at Harvard. From his education, he acquired the know-how to modernize the running of the family gallery. His mantra is “keep it simple, innovate, and have an eye for good publicity.”
As part of his code of simplification, Mr. Gruels concatenated his last name, dropping the Soto that was appended after a hyphen. “Gruels-Soto was my grandfather’s idea, his kind of homage to his East European roots. I couldn’t convince my father to drop it: he was too fiercely loyal to his old man. Understandably. But my calculation was this: Soto was not a bad appurtenance to carry around if you had some money, which my grandfather didn’t have. With wealth to back it up, a hyphenated name can add panache to a man. It can draw attention to its bearer, make him inscrutable and interesting to society. But when you’re a bloody butler—as my grandfather was in England before he emigrated to New York in the early 1930s—then such a name is ridiculous.”
Coming from a man with acclaimed credentials as a self-promoter, the sentiment can seem surprising, even ironic. But Mr. Gruels painstakingly enunciated his point. “The trouble was not only that a name like Gruels-Soto seemed pretentious—in fact, I don’t mind pretentiousness. It was that it seemed something of a crude joke. It was a joke, moreover, made by a man upon his own poor self. Now that’s a shabby way to treat oneself. When you have no money and the world knows it, you have no business swaggering around with a hyphenated, foreign-sounding name. That’s why I pared my name.”
Reminded that, with his personal fortune and considerable fame, he could easily reclaim, or revive, his hyphenated name, Mr. Gruels waved off the idea. “It’s a prop I can do without. Society has accepted me on my terms. If I turned around now to add Soto, it would be a nomenclatorial disaster. It might leave the impression I’m a man with deep anxieties and insecurities. Which I’m not.”
“Are you ashamed of your grandfather?”
“Not in the least. In fact, to say that I admire him would do scant justice to how I feel, deep down, about him. I had just turned eight when he died—less than a week after my birthday. From his sick bed, he had arranged for a wrapped gift to be sent to me. Knowing he was in hospital, I would not open the present. After he passed away, I could neither part with the present nor bring myself to open it. After all these years, I still have it, a mysterious package wrapped in dull floral paper. Hardly a day passes that I don’t think about him. He exuded an aura far in excess of his station, a sense of nobility by osmosis. He frequently returns in my dreams. There’s the whiff and majesty of a god about him. In his dream visitations.”
Mr. Gruels’ devotion to his grandfather’s memory is inextricably bound up with the history of the family’s god-dealing gallery.
The germ that became “foreign gods, inc.” began with a strange pious adventure undertaken by Mr. Gruels’ grandfather, Edward Gruels-Soto.
In 1913, Mr. Gruels’ grandfather began courting a young woman named Anna Tucker. She was the daughter of Reverend Paul Tucker, an Anglican prelate famous for his zeal, as his biographer put it, “to take the Good News to benighted pagans especially in Africa and Asia.” Anna happened to detest her father’s brand of hortatory piety, and was taken aback when her wooer took to spending a lot of time with her father. It was bad enough that the man who claimed to desire her hand in marriage listened to her father’s tales of self-flagellation and his perennial bemoaning of the certain damnation of heathens. What was worse, one day her suitor announced his intention to accompany her father on his next trip to the Belgian Congo.
“I’ve heard a call to be a fisher of souls,” Mr. Edward Gruels-Soto told his stunned lover.
“In which case,” said Anna with calm finality, “consider yourself pitched out of my life and into hell.”
What Anna didn’t know, because Mr. Edward Gruels-Soto took care to conceal it from everyone, was his far from pious motivation. In fact, he had been sold on the expedition only after hearing Reverend Tucker’s description of a storeroom filled to the brim with wooden and terra cotta deities seized from African heathens and converts. Over a glass of whiskey, the reverend had glibly said, “We call it the den of false gods.”
“And what is to happen to the collection?” Edward Gruels-Soto had asked.
“They’ll be burnt, the lot of them. But that’s after we’re done converting those in darkness. Yes, we’ll make a bonfire of the deities. It’s the kind of grand act Africans would be touched by. They’re a bloody superstitious lot. Unless they see their so-called gods consumed in a conflagration, we delude ourselves to believe them converted. You have to show them the death of their false gods before they will embrace the light of the world, the one true God. Without that dramatic gesture of collective deicide, we labor in vain. They’ll take some snaky bush paths and sneak back to paganism.”
A different plan fixed itself in Mr. Gruels-Soto’s mind.
During the two-month Congolese mission, he trod brush pathways with fearless energy. He traversed vast areas, ostensibly in search of lost souls. Wherever pagans gathered to listen to the missionaries, he took the podium and preached with a passion that impressed Reverend Tucker. “You speak the Word with the spirit of an anointed apostle,” the reverend commended. “Your words burn away the darkness from the heart of heathens.” He brought remarkable fervor to the task of combing outlying villages to haul in more deities.
Before the time came for the missionaries to return to England, Mr. Gruels-Soto had built tremendous persuasive capital with Reverend Tucker. He convinced the prelate to abandon the idea of incinerating the African gods. “Instead,” he argued, “let’s take them home with us. Consider the good that would do. The sight of them will tell powerful stories of your work in the wilderness of Africa. They would be dramatic evidence of your work for God and Crown. Why, posterity ought to know about your tireless efforts to liberate a people from perdition. Above all, the exhibition of these gods would establish your credentials for a royal knighthood. And why not?”
The mixture of flattery and high purpose swayed the reverend. The deities were hauled back to England—and put in the care of Mr. Edward Gruels-Soto. Several newspapers wrote laudatory reports about the brave missionaries. Reverend Tucker was duly noticed by the Crown, and knighted for bringing light to a people who dwelled in Darkness.
Before long, the hullabaloo subsided—leaving Mr. Gruels-Soto in sole possession of the prized harem of deities. In 1932, he emigrated with his second wife and a young son and daughter to New York. Of course, he carted the gods along.
For the next thirty years, the deities were stored away in a padlocked basement room. Caught up in the struggle of making a new life for his family in New York, the old man appeared to have all but forgotten about the cache of gods and sacred totems. They gathered dust and lent an odoriferous air to the basement. Yet, on occasion, he told his two children the story of how he came by the cache of African deities. “I have a hunch some university would pay a lot of money to buy them for a museum,” he dreamily predicted more than once.
In the winter of 1967, Stephen Gruels-Soto was drafted into the U.S. army and deployed to Vietnam. Two events in the marshes of Vietnam proved of serendipitous import for the soldier. His unit overran a fluvial, weed-festered village nestled around a decrepit temple. As the soldiers stepped into the temple a flush of birds panicked and flapped away. The commanding officer pressed forward, but detailed four of his soldiers to secure the temple. Mr. Gruels-Soto, the ranking soldier among the four, rummaged among the shrine’s ruins and took away the busts of two Buddha heads.
A week later, he was injured when shrapnel fired by Vietcong soldiers lodged deep in his right thigh. Airlifted out of Vietnam, he managed to conceal the Buddha heads among the heap of personal effects—and stowed them away.
Once out of rehabilitation, the Vietnam War veteran returned to his roots in Brooklyn. The bullet had left an ugly incisive scar, and hobbled his movement. He became a snappish drifter. He tramped and wambled about, jobless and dispirited, his nerves strafed by recurrent nocturnal recollections of bloody battle scenes. He was a haunted man, his life an implacable seesaw between tedium and tenseness, ennui and bleakness. He hovered between clouds of depression and moments of dizzying exhilaration purchased by relentless drug use.
Embittered by the scars of war, he gravitated toward the swelling circle of anti-war protesters. It was at one anti-war event that he met—and became friends with—a young anthropologist who had done extensive work in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. One day, he showed the Buddha heads to the anthropologist.
“How did you come by these?” the anthropologist asked in equal measures of awe and amazement. “These are rare and valuable treasures.”
“How rare and how valuable?” the veteran inquired.
“Too rare and too valuable, I’m afraid, to be in your possession. Or anybody’s for that matter,” came the reply. One of the Buddha heads was from the Sukhothai period—about 1200 AD. The other was from around 1400 AD, the Kanchanaburi period.
Apart from one bust’s chipped earlobe, both busts were remarkably well preserved. Each had the flame atop the head, eyebrows shaped like the wings of a swallow, one hundred and twenty curls of hair, three folds in the neck, earlobes that brushed the shoulder, arms that touched the kneecap, and exquisite, flawless teeth. They were a dazzle to behold.
“What do you mean I can’t keep them?” the veteran bristled. “I risked everything to bring them out of ’Nam, and I can’t keep them?”
“You could keep them, of course,” the anthropologist assured. “But they’re worth quite a bit. I suspect you’d be better off with the money. I know some collectors who would pay scandalous sums for them.”
The veteran peeked up. “How much are we talking?”
“Fifty grand apiece—at least. If you let me speak for you, you’re looking at closer to a hundred grand each. My commission’s ten percent.”
In the event, the anthropologist’s estimates proved a tad conservative. The slightly scarred Sukhothai bust sold for one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. The Kanchanaburi fetched one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Awash with cash, the veteran soared to new heights of drug abuse. After nine months of bingeing excess, he checked himself into a treatment facility. He came out detoxified and wiser. With the anthropologist as consultant, he opened “foreign gods, inc.” His first stock consisted of the African deities his father had salvaged from Reverend Tucker’s aborted bonfire.
Stephen Gruels-Soto was too restless a spirit to settle for the sedate office of founder of a business, albeit an unusual one. He became a raider and hustler extraordinaire as well. He foraged into African, Asian and Latin American nations prospecting for deities and sacred figurines. He was once arrested in a Bangkok hotel while negotiating the heist of a Dong Son drum. That episode earned him the reputation of a ruthless thief and desecrator.
The drum in question, dating from 300 BC, had been stolen from a Buddhist temple. Thai press reports said it was one of the few surviving prototypes of such drums left in the country—after many were lost in 1939 in the sinking of a ship conveying them to the Paris Exhibition. Atop the large iron-cast drum were etched concentric motifs representing successive heavens in the Buddhist tradition. Vignettes were patterned onto each circle, setting one level of bliss apart from the next. Together the circles formed an intricate whorl, dynamically arrayed in a tension that worked from the fringes towards a nodal center that Buddhists call Mount Meru—regarded as the consummation of nirvana.
Had Mr. Gruels-Soto succeeded in spiriting off the drum, experts estimated he could easily have received offers in the one million dollar range. Instead, he faced the prospect of prosecution in a Thai court. He was spared, however, after some reported backroom negotiation by his lawyers—and, some speculated, by high-powered American intervention.
In deciding what kind of personal stamp to put on the gallery, Mr. Mark Gruels had to take a historical measure of things. He was very much aware of the deceptive scheme that enabled his grandfather to acquire many fabled African deities. He was equally familiar with his father’s unsavory profile as a raider of gods—and as a man who seized the chaos of war to purloin two prized Buddha busts from Vietnam.
“One of my first decisions was to distance myself from the—quote and unquote— sourcing of the objects we sell. Apart from the trip I undertook with my friends, I have never gone to any country to arrange for shipments of gods. Luckily, a lot of people know about us and are willing to bring inventory to us. My job is to evaluate and authenticate the deities—and determine how much we can afford to pay for them.”
Another innovation has been to put the gallery on the web, something he did even before his father’s death. “My father opened this gallery in 1969. In the early years, the customers were a few collectors—beginning with the shadowy millionaire who bought the two Buddha heads. So this small circle of buyers—weirdoes my father called them—lived mostly in the city, in fact fairly close to here. But we’re now in the cyber age, and we now do business with people all over the world. We sell a ton of stuff to customers in Italy, France, and Sweden. It made sense to create a virtual gallery, to enable our customers to shop online.”
Mr. Gruels is a man of many intuitions—and just as many trained insights. In the beginning, he said, he was intrigued that anybody would be interested in putting up anything from $10,000 to a million dollars to buy godheads from remote places. But on further reflection, he concluded that there was nothing strange about the craving for sacred objects.
“People collect cars, jewelry, books, postcards, currencies, for crying out aloud,” he said with the fervor of a man mounting an offensive. “I’ve seen a T.V. show about people with a sneaker fetish. We have men who collect women, and women who make it their business to accumulate men. Many men and women covet sexual ornaments. Football, basketball and baseball teams go out and buy talented athletes. Sports fans vicariously traffic in the dreams of sports stars and franchises. So why should anybody sneer at a man whose appetite is for deities?” He peered in my face as though daring me to provide an answer. Then he said, “Here’s how I look at it: In the grand scheme of the things that people hanker after, gods would seem not only natural but noble.”
“Noble?” I interjected, incredulous.
“Noble, why not?” he shot back. Then, after pausing and seeming to give the matter further consideration, he made a grudging concession: “Well, if not noble, then respectable at the very least. If you ask me, the accumulation of sacred objects is no weirder than a craving for chocolate. As habits go, I don’t find it unusual, much less revolting. Not in any sense that I can see.”
When he speaks in that vein, he reminds you why he’s regarded as the closest thing to a god aficionado. All too often, he comes across as objectionably cocky. Yet, it is hard not to take him seriously when he pronounces passionately on the subject he’s made all his own: the business of selling gods.
After years of watching his father purvey deities—and several years on the saddle himself—Mr. Gruels said he came away with the conviction that the acquisition of gods was a consummate art. “The art is replete,” he said, “with its own universe of semiotics, rituals, conventions.”
That manner of argumentation is vintage Gruels. He first lays out his argument in broad terms, then proceeds with impressive rigor to explain himself. In this instance, he meant that the parvenus who snatch up deities from distant lands are as motivated by a real, felt desire as an investor buying or selling stock or a Casanova obsessed with sexual release.
“Each collector has a unique story, a distinct trigger. And each desire has a particular accent. Put differently, each collector has a specific way in which his or her hunger expresses itself and is met,” he said with donnish flourish. “My job is to understand each customer, and to find a creative way of responding to his or her—I can’t avoid the word—particular pang.”
He articulates this duty with the verve and passion of a man bound by an almost religious obligation. His preparation to serve his clients involves immersion in each deity’s antecedents. Proceeding with archeological thoroughness, he digs for information on each god, disregarding no minutiae. He studies each deity’s sex, lore and offices with obsessive zeal—until he can speak about it with the kind of flair and mastery approaching scientific insight. That way, he is better able to match people with particular gods, an important part of his job. Are there discernible trends in how people buy gods?
“You bet,” Mr. Gruels answered. “As a general principle, I can tell you that most female buyers prize fertility deities. Most young male customers, especially the recent beneficiaries from Wall Street’s bull market, cast their lot with gods that boast a certain phallic power. Grayer men tend to go for muscular deities. War deities are a favorite of this kind of collector. I know these quick facts, but so would any dullard who spends a day or two in the gallery. The money is in mastering the fluider, less steady details. That takes devoted, rigorous skills. Both intuition and insight.”
To understand the interstices of this strange palate for deities, Mr. Gruels has made a point of observing the collectors up close. Ever the suave linkman, he snagged me an invitation to a marquee party where a new acquisition was shown off to other collectors. Among initiates, such parties are called divine debuts.
The party was held on a muggy summer evening on the sprawling, manicured lawns of a $20.6 million Hampton mansion—complete with an artificial lake and a mini-golf course. Hosted by Howard Washburn, city socialite and frontline developer, and his wife, Kathy, the affair debuted a water god from the Yaure tribe of Cote d’Ivoire—a francophone West African nation.
As I arrived with Mr. Gruels, twenty or so guests milled about the rich green lawn or stood together in small clusters. Most guests wore informal evening fare, many men in jeans and t-shirts, quite a few women in slacks, silk ruffles and bodices. Over all, there was a laid back ambience to the event, but only (it turned out) to the eyes of a novice.
Mr. Gruels proved an overeager usher and conductor, the kind of guide who lets no detail slip by him. He wanted to register the point, for example, that some guests sported pairs of jeans that cost as much as $2,000 dollars—and t-shirts that sold for $250 and up. Twice, after introducing me to female guests, he reeled off the names of their perfumes—and brushed me up on such minutiae as the name and address of the Paris shops where the fragrances were purchased, and at what price.
A dazzling narrator, he dispensed arcane tips and (often scandalous) biographical tidbits about guests. “That one, he has the most exquisite beachfront penthouse in Thessalonica, Greece,” he said of a middle-aged man with a distracted, almost lost, look. “That woman, the one with the pink décolleté top. You’ve seen her? She just divorced her husband. Walked away with $200 million.” Beguiled by my guide’s tone, I focused on the subject, a sweet-faced woman with low-crimped hair and the vein-lined arms of a gym devotee.
My absorbed reverie was unsettled by Mr. Gruels’ urgent whisper. “Here comes Paul Mariani.” He flipped his left hand twice, like a man beset by nervous ticks. It was a covert gesture that, observed by an onlooker, would invite no curiosity nor carry any implication. Yet, it meant everything to me: it branded the man whose story I was being primed to hear. “Do you see him?” he crosschecked. “He’s the balding guy with the tall blonde.” I nodded that I had got it. “That guy—you’re looking at one of the richest men in all of life. He’s got a taste for gods with mammoth phalluses. Don’t know if—or rather what—Freudian fantasies are at play there. Owns half of the Bahamas, the bastard. For all his wealth, he feels like stink because he is a failed poet. His friends call him Bard of the Bahamas. In jest and, I suspect, a little malice.”
“Who’s his wife?” I asked.
“Wife?” he asked impatiently. A frown wreathed his visage. “He’s not—”
His thought wavered as he sighted some new arrivals. He was like that all evening, excitable and easily bored, a man almost on edge, forever abandoning a story mid-stream and latching on to another fascinating narrative. He struck me as one who keeps a tight rein on his fund of stories. It was his call to decide what I needed to know about Mr. Mariani; and he was not going to let my questions detain him.
As the afternoon wore on, Mr. Gruels seemed more reckless—and inebriated. “The couple walking up, they’re the Faytells,” he confided, his lips so close to my ear that my drums pulsed with his voice’s tinny timbers. “The guy’s always drunk, and his wife’s a certified slut. They both come from money, all of it inherited. The man says he wakes up each morning wondering how to spend money—and he must get drunk to come up with ideas. He says it all the time. In fact, that’s his lone banter. He thinks it’s superbly funny, so he retails it every opportunity he gets. His friends think him incredibly insufferable. How else would you describe a man with his whiny shtick? I mean, come on! Anyway, he drenches himself in wine or harder stuff. While he wallows in drunken stupor, his wife, I suppose, has time to choose whom next to bed. She once came to the gallery to take delivery of an item she had ordered from Peru. She tried to interest me in joining her for a weekend jaunt to Belize.”
“And did you?” I asked, stirred by the whiff of salaciousness.
“If you know how to look deep into people, you can tell she’s not a happy guest,” he said, as if my question had failed to register. “She begrudges the Wasburns their acquisition. She goes gaga for well-endowed male deities.” He guffawed.
He quickened as he sported a pair of couples making their entrance. “The Goodalls to the right,” he announced. “Nice people. Their daughters, three in all, are stunning. Their son’s a hopeless case—a drug junkie in San Francisco. To the left, the Sanchezes. I like them too. They have a huge banking fortune in Brazil and Portugal. Through the Sanchez Foundation, they give barrels of money to AIDS causes in Latin America and Africa. They’re separated, but they still do some functions together.”
Mr. Gruels only paused to greet guests, to slap hands with the men and hug the women. Then he hastened back to his post, beside me.
As they mingled on the lawn, the guests munched caviar and crackers, sipped spirits and wine and seltzer-mixed sodas, and exchanged mannered pecks and gentrified gossip. There was otherwise nothing extraordinary about their mien. There was not that veneer of purposeless affluence, one of the going fantasies about the wealthy. An earthy, strangely melodic chant pervaded the air, lending solemnity to the chatter and atmosphere. At irregular intervals, a bird cawed from atop a tree set off to the right of the lawn. Mr. Gruels was the first to notice its call. He keened his ear and was able to spy the bird.
“I wonder if it’s admiring the company,” he mused.
“Perhaps, it’s enraptured by the god,” I suggested. “A captured deity must make an arresting sight. Even to a bird.”
He fixed me with a lugubrious expression. “That’s it,” he said, as if I had conveyed a rare, inspired epiphany. “There’s a point there.”
He raised his eye to the tree where perched the bird, his face marked with furrowed concentration. His posture, straightened, bespoke unflappability. He sustained this stance for two or so minutes, and then he switched back to me.
“You know,” he said, “I’m many things, including superstitious. Sometimes, in my dreams” The thought seemed to trail off and disappear into a mute, mysterious hole.
“Yes?” I said, hoping to nudge him back to speech.
He took my hand and tugged me in the direction of the god.
A wooden statue, squat in stature, dominated an antique Formica table placed in the center of the lawn. This, it occurred to me, was the party’s center of gravity, the occasion for the gathering. Yet, there was no nimbus about the god. It was inert, bereft of splendor, with no aura to speak of. Untouched by the human buzz, it sat there with statuesque rigidity. Its gaze was cast down, lewdly fixated on its right hand that fondled an outsized phallus. Its mouth had an exaggerated pout—a stylized O—as if the god was stilled in an attitude of amatory glee.
I became aware of uninhibited talk. Here and there, I gained impressions of people in various stages of tipsiness. Even so, the guests’ easy airs seemed somewhat sedate and prim compared to the god’s hedonistic, boorish and profane posture. The god appeared out of place, a creature of singular loneliness and deracination. An utterly sad, displaced, orphaned deity.
Again, Mr. Gruels grabbed my arm and pulled me forward. In a peremptory tone, he said, “It’s time you met the Washburns—the parents of the god.”
“Parents?” I asked, astonished.
“That’s the language.” His manner was deadpan. “You become parents to any god you acquire.”
“Is it a transformation of the sense in which we speak of god parents?” I asked.
He nodded absentmindedly.
The hosts made their fortune in the futures market—then they branched off into real estate development. Mr. Washburn wore khaki shorts that revealed long, sinewy legs. He was dark-haired and somewhat pained in manner. A burgeoning belly, a paunch that undermined the hint of past athletic glory, marred his physique. Mrs. Washburn, a former beauty queen and cheerleader for the New York Jets, had a curvy body tempered by her wavy, groomed hair. Her silken top was cut so low it put her breasts directly in the line of vision. She wore a pair of velour shorts. As they walked, the couple leaned into each other in an odd manner, like two drunks who must husband their energies to keep from falling.
“Paul and Greta Washburn,” Mr. Gruels said as soon as we had the hosts’ attention. “Father and mother of the god.” Then he told them I was researching a feature on “foreign gods, inc.”
Mr. Washburn’s eyes lit up with a faint impression of curiosity. He gave me a nod that hinted at a bow held in abeyance. Extending his hand, he steeled his grip on mine. The tightness seemed an attempt at warmth, a way of canceling out the aloof distance suggested by his silence. His wife greeted me with the easy, depthless smile of an adept hostess.
“Welcome to our party, honey,” she said. She drew her face close to mine, as if demanding a peck. I gave her one and, as I withdrew, saw that she held out the other cheek. I again obliged. “Always on both cheeks,” she said, schooling me on the etiquette of her crowd. Her breath had the heat and unwelcome reek of cigar mixed with white wine. I imagined her as a supercilious, puffy chatelaine quartered in an opulent mansion. “Have you gone inside to see our other energies?” she asked. “You must.”
“Energies?” I asked Mr. Gruels after the Washburns had drifted off.
“That’s the lingo,” came his response.
The Washburns went from cluster to cluster. Guests droned with compliments. To each group, the hosts retailed some tidbit about their latest acquisition. At one point, Mrs. Washburn shouted out to Mr. Gruels. “Come over here, honey,” she commanded, vigorously waving her arm. On his return, he explained that she had forgotten some detail about their latest deity—and summoned him to remind her.
I was standing momentarily alone—Mr. Gruels having being drawn away by an agitated middle-aged woman with a rouge-gleeful face—when the hosts strayed my way, and stopped. Mr. Washburn had found his voice and seemed eager to talk.
“What do you think?” he asked, pointing me in the direction of the exhibited deity.
What was I to say? I did not belong to the god-owning set, and could not fathom the mindset of the breed. My thoughts were very much in evolution, inchoate. I was like a man ambushed—thrust onto an unaccustomed role. I felt stifled by the unformedness and incoherence of my attitude. Yet, I was aware that my mind felt a strong affinity with the deity, a sense of shared kinship in isolation. What could I say in that circumstance? Then it occurred to me that Mr. Washburn, in all likelihood, didn’t really care what I said. Deep down, did he desire to hear my thoughts, convoluted and tangled as they were?
The couple’s eyes bore into me, intense, waiting.
“It’s remarkable,” I finally managed to say. I hoped the vagueness had veiled my confoundedness.
“More than remarkable,” Mr. Washburn countered. His face retained its mask of imperturbability, but his tone was that of a schoolmaster correcting a pupil who’d chosen euphemism when hyperbole was demanded. “Look at it again,” he urged. Then he trumpeted what he expected me to see: “You can’t miss its solid inner character and poise.” Solid inner character and poise? It was all mumbo jumbo to me, but I nodded vigorously.
Mrs. Washburn suddenly fretted, “Oh my God, you don’t have a drink.” I protested that I had had two drinks, and was quite satisfied. She ignored my protest, and beckoned to a waiter. He waited while she reeled off the choices to me. Finally she asked me what I had had.
“Get him something lighter,” she ordered the waiter. “A cabernet sauvignon. The Venezuelan series.” Turning to me, she said, “It’s vintage. You should never not have a glass in your hand. Not at my party.” Her tone was emphatic, as if I had erred egregiously. She had given me a second lesson in her enigmatic etiquette.
She drew her husband away. I watched as they meandered through the gathering. She gave and received pats and hugs and kisses—and she urged drinks on reluctant guests.
The catering team consisted of five young men in black pants, white shirts and black bow ties, and five lithe, leggy women in skimpy skirts and bosom-popping bras. Some of them stalked about the greens holding aloft gold-trimmed trays filled with hors d’oeuvres. Others ferried fizzy drinks, mellow spirits and wines from inside the mansion to the guests outside.
After a while, the couple sought me out again. They were now in the company of a female guest they did not introduce. Mrs. Washburn was livelier than I had seen her, heady with excitement.
“Have you seen it up close?” she inquired, pointing toward the stolid deity. “Go near. Look at it. Gaze at it. Touch it. Smell it!”
I stood still, like an obstinate student, hardly tempted. What I wanted to know was how and why the couple got into the racket of collecting gods.
“What does owning gods mean to you?” I asked with studied delicateness.
“Everything,” she gushed with flippant ardor. “Oh, honey, you know no thrill until you own a god.” Daubed with sweat, her silken shirt clung to her body, revealing the outline of her brassiere and taut, aroused nipples. Her body was bevel, pressed onto her husband’s side. Her right arm was curled around his waist, while her left hand unsteadily held a glass of cognac. “Let me let you into a secret, honey. For me, life may be divided into two. There’s life before you own a god. Then there’s the bliss of sharing your home with a god. The former is an empty life. The latter is full of” She glanced up at her husband. “Honey, what are those favorite words of yours?” “Transcendence and glow,” he chimed.
“Yes, transcendence and glow,” she echoed. “It’s a new”
“Intimacy of self-knowledge,” her husband completed.
“Thanks, honey.” Turning to me, she repeated, “It’s a new intimacy of self-knowledge. It’s better experienced than explained.” The other woman exchanged hugs with the Washburns, then walked off to join a different cluster. Picking up the thread of his wife’s statement, Mr. Washburn said, “We know because we own four gods. Two are African, two from Brazil. Today, we’re the proud parents of three African gods. There’s something about them, African gods. A calm tension.” His face was animated by that kind of smile the rich deploy to hint at wealth’s infinite potency and reach.
“To be more specific, we own a Wolof god of justice and an Ewe goddess of fertility,” his wife specified. She spilled some cognac. “Now we’re broadening out with this Yaure spirit of rivers. It represents infinitude.” Mr. Washburn kissed his wife’s forehead. “She has all the facts on her fingertips,” he said. “I marvel at her ability to come up with all these details about our acquisitions. I’m never good at remembering their tribes of origin. Or much of their specific histories. I’m a poor parent of our gods.”
“Honey, don’t be harsh on yourself. You’re a fabulous dad to them. So you don’t always remember all their facts, big deal.”
“Nice of you to say, sweetie.” Then he said to me, “By the way, we’re planning on acquiring stuff from Mexico and Honduras. We’d long looked for something from Asia. Eight months ago, we nearly landed a Shinto bust, but that bastard over there beat us to it.” He pointed to a spry balding man sucking at a cigar: the same man who, according to Mr. Gruels, owned half of the Bahamas. “That’s why today is extra special. He and a few others very much wanted this baby, but we outmaneuvered them all.”
Mrs. Washburn drew closer to me, to whispering range. “It’s a highly competitive thing—because there simply aren’t enough gods to go around. Whenever you get a great god, you leave a whole lot of people on the sidelines. They feel beaten to something, it sucks, and they sulk. It’s an awful feeling, believe me. We’ve been in that position too—a few times. Yes, we all go to the lucky bastard’s outing party, but yea, you feel like shit and you stew inside.”
She stepped back and stood in front of her husband. He clasped his hands around her, braiding his fingers just below her stomach. She now appeared sandwiched between her husband and me.
He said, “Our sights remain on the Asian market. Then the next big thrill—the ultimate triumph—would be to acquire a Greek god. Talk about a major acquisition. Oh, what an earth-shaker that would be!”
“He’s promised me an Indian god for Christmas,” she confided. “Didn’t you, darling?”
“It’s a goal—and it’s doable.” He gave her a brisk kiss, this time on the lip. Then he said, “The trick about acquiring gods is, first, you need to be in tune with your inner being. Then you must know which gods are compatible with the person you are. This might sound corny, but it’s true: acquiring a god is very much like buying a stock. Instinct and intuition come into play. But so do experience and knowledge. If you buy the wrong stock, you’ve handed yourself over to the cleaners. The same with gods. Acquire a wrong god and you’d even feel more wretched and put out. Stocks you can always offload, even if at a terrible loss. But there’s nothing more difficult than offloading an incompatible god.”
“Don’t forget, honey,” the wife prodded, “you also must not put two incompatible gods within the same space. If you bring two hostile gods under the same roof, there goes your sleep. Compatible gods generate synergy. Hostile gods? Forget it.”
“Quite true,” concurred her husband.
“Isn’t all this fascination a novel form of paganism?” I asked the couple.
“No, I call it a powerful form of reality,” retorted the woman. She bared her teeth in a self-confident smile.
“Powerful reality,” echoed her husband, nodding.
Mr. Gruels materialized at this time, his timing at once impeccable, fortuitous and, it seemed, portentous. His entry appeared to lend sacral tension to the proceedings. He’s the pope of this “powerful reality.”
At the end of the visit at the Washburns, despite my interview with the hosts and opportunistic eavesdropping on the conversation, I remained mystified by this hunger for collecting gods. Yet, my interactions with Mr. Gruels had left me in no doubt that he is the avatar of a mysterious neo-religion. He crystallizes the phantasmal dimension of this most peculiar and yet most seemingly ordinary of yearnings. While he did not found “foreign gods, inc.,” he has come to represent its inscrutable and elastic spirit. In a lot of ways, he could be said to have re-founded not only the gallery but also the passion for owning gods.
Among the set of collectors, he is regarded with something approaching reverence. When I asked him how he could afford to speak so openly about the unflattering aspects of his customers’ private lives, he looked me in the eye and said, “Because I can.” After a short burst of laughter, he expatiated: “I have certain privileges that everybody has come to respect. I may speak bluntly, but they trust that I will not—will never—speak with malice.”
He has parlayed that trust and power into a multi-million dollar personal fortune. He is not shy to admit that he has made—his own word—a killing from dealing in gods. Thanks to his zealotry and promotion, it is no longer incredible to hear of gods and sacred objects from distant, exotic places selling for more than a million dollars. We are not yet in the territory of prices paid for paintings by Picasso, Gogh, Renoir and Rembrandt, but we are in the presence of a phenomenon not to be sneezed at.
Mr. Gruels’ achievement lies in part in taking what began as an illicit interest and transforming it into a truly global trade. Next year, in a move that will fortify his pioneering credentials, he plans to open two god-dealing galleries in Europe, one in Ibiza, Spain—where he owns a seaside home—and the other in Paris. “There’s a growing market for this,” he gloated.
His wealth and passion have established his bona fides as a member of a glamorous and charmed, if sometimes self-absorbed and narcissistic, circle.
As we drove away from the Washburns, I asked Mr. Gruels if he ever felt troubled that he removed sacred objects from places where they have deep spiritual roots and significance and transplanted them to the homes of wealthy clients.
“Nonsense,” he said. Then he stared at me, mute. It was not, it was clear to me, the troubled silence of a man probing his conscience. Instead, it was the silence of a man at peace with himself, one who had arrived at a conviction beyond question. Minutes passed. Then, long after I had forgotten the question, he said, “We live in a world of constant movement. You and I travel all the time. It’s a cliché to say now that we’re a global village, but it happens to be true. I believe it’s as good for gods to travel and find new homes as it is for humans.” “But what’s the problem with their original homes?”
He sighed. “I could reframe your question: What’s the problem with their new homes?”
Ike lingered over the closing words. He remembered when he had first read the piece. His friend, Usman Wai, had paged him. When he called back, Usman was terse: “Man, go and buy today’s issue of the New Yorker Gazette. The main feature in the C section will blow your mind.” Ike had pulled up his cab at the next newsstand and dashed in to pick up the paper. Later that evening, he had settled in his sofa, a bottle of Guinness Stout handy, and read the piece.
The piece had not blown his mind—not quite. Instead, it had riled him up. It had left him incredulous, shocked. After rereading parts of it, he had put it away, disgusted. Here was one more anecdote to support his thesis that capitalism had entered a mad phase. For only derangement would incite any man or woman to desecrate another’s sacred shrines.
Despite the fourteen years he’d spent in America, Ike was still baffled by the American fetish of possessions. He never could make sense of the obsession with owning things. And now it tore at him to know that people scavenged for foreign deities to purchase, spruce up and display to the gaze of fellow graspers and nest fillers. It all underscored capitalist rampancy, a point he harped on in his days as a student. And he hadn’t even been aware then that the rich had set their profane eyes on deities. He hadn’t had any inkling of the existence of god collectors, men and women who de-ritualized sacred objects, turning them into things to be trepanned, acquired, accumulated, possessed—all for aggrandizement and amusement. This brand of capitalism was boundaryless, crude and rude.
Ike’s thoughts inevitably fixed on Ngene, the Utonki deity of war. What if somebody went to Utonki and stole the deity, selling it to “foreign gods, inc.” or some other gallery? The prospect of it had galled him. But that was almost a year ago, the first time Ike read the piece in the New Yorker Gazette.
Now, all those fears, feelings and rueful ruminations seemed to belong to a different time and place, dim and far away, tucked in an irrecoverable past. Too many things had changed inside of him. Queen had divorced him, walking away with his savings, possessions and his dignity—and, did he dare say, his conscience?
All he knew with sure was that his thoughts now converged around the idea of flying home to Nigeria to spirit away Ngene and sell the deity to Mr. Gruels. At first, the thought had scandalized him. He had tried to rebuke himself; he upbraided himself in all the stern silent languages he knew. In spite of his effort, he had found the temptation impossible to shake off. His waking hours were now often preoccupied with speculating what price the deity might command? He peered into what he always took to be his soul. He reminded himself how unlike him it was to peel away at all considerations until all that remained was the vulgar question of dollars and cents. Still his resolve was unyielding.
He let himself be swept by the powerful current of a desire that was nameless but had a face. The face was the itch for more—but more of what, he could not say. All he had to do was steel himself, then steal into the shrine and remove his village’s war god from its lair. Ngene, he was confident, would fetch a handsome price—enough, at any rate, to enable him to quit his frustrating job as a cab driver. Enough to start a modest trade in curios.
Okey Ndibe is the author of Arrows of Rain, teaches at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, MA, and is finishing work on foreign gods, inc. From 2001-2002, was a Fulbright professor at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.