Beauty and the Big Shots

The Sexcapades and Politics Behind New York’s Bogus Catholic Museum

The white canopy bed was covered with heart-shaped pink pillows and wide-eyed blond dolls, one nearly four feet long. Hidden under a pink spread and dust-ruffle, the bed was surrounded by closets with full-length mirrors on either side, a man-sized armoire at the foot, and a triple-drawer dresser—all as matching white as the headboard. A curtain rod extended across the front of the room, with a sheer (also white) fabric draped over it that extended to the floor and was decorated with roses, vines, and twinkling lights.

The only indication that the oblong East Harlem loft might be the top floor of the offices of the three-story National Museum of Catholic Art and History was the abundant collection of nun dolls—some bought on the Home Shopping Network. On the floor below the loft—connected by a wrought-iron spiral staircase—was a dining area with a perpetually polished table, brass chandelier, two white couches, a pink-and-white lounge chair and hassock, an antique desk, grandfather clock, and huge arrangements of artificial flowers, rhinestones, crystals, and grapes. Off the dining room was a black Jacuzzi decorated with simmering candles, gold-plated soap dishes, and kitsch angel figurines.

Most of the townhouse extravagance—excluding the Jacuzzi—had been paid for with organization funds raised by the millions in the name of a museum that claims to be the nation's sole repository of sacred Catholic art. But after 10 years of fundraising, there is no museum, next to no art, and nothing but suspicion about the project from the official Catholic world. The real business of this nonprofit's half dozen or more employees is finding even more money—the focus of everything that happens on the only floor of its headquarters that has always resembled an ordinary office.

Miss Liberty: National Museum of Catholic Art director Christina Cox
photo: courtesy of Angela Marmo
Miss Liberty: National Museum of Catholic Art director Christina Cox

In the last year or so, many of the group's fanciest furnishings have been carted off to the new $529,000 Jersey home of the museum's director, Christina Cox. A 49-year-old, very blond former model, actress, stewardess, and beauty queen, Cox says she got the idea to create the museum on a cathartic 1990 visit to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. A Rockland Community College dropout with one year of art-sales experience on a résumé whose high point was an appearance in a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous episode about the girls of Cannes, Cox has made her living ever since on the museum's tab. She survived some lean years, but drew a $194,000 salary from it in 1999, according to its latest filing with state agencies.

Still left in the organization's 416 East 115th Street townhouse—which, ironically, was once the headquarters of Genovese crime family boss Fat Tony Salerno—are the red-velvet-framed photos of a beaming Cox with the then president and the pope, as well as her favorite cardinal and favorite crook. The priestly photos are intended to lend credence to the false notion that the project has been blessed by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal O'Connor. The snapshots of Bill Clinton and Bill Fugazy, a felon the former president pardoned who helped found the museum and sits on its board, are a truer picture of its real sources of support.

However, a photo of Cox in her Playboy Bunny outfit—a career stop unmentioned in her résumé—stays in the dresser drawer, shown off to museum insiders only after they get to know her. This piece of her history should come as no surprise. Sex has long been a museum selling point, attracting patrons and confounding clergy.

A painting by Penthouse owner Bob Guccione, for example, was once exhibited at a museum-connected show in the very offices of the Archdiocese of New York, much to the dismay of priests who saw the leather-clad pornographer and his cleavage-baring, flashbulb-popping entourage swoop into their First Avenue enclave. Indeed, a half dozen men who have reputedly dated the never married Cox or her onetime associate director, Stephanie Parker, have also been benefactors of this fantasy art museum, making it more a symbol of allure than altruism, of connections than collections.

Trading on its name as if it were a religious institution, the museum, whose 1995 provisional state charter was opposed by the archdiocese and expired almost a year ago, has become a magnet to the pandering powerful. Clinton attended the museum's last fundraiser in March at the Friar's Club—fresh from the White House and schmoozing with trustee Fugazy. Hillary Clinton appeared at its giant September 2000 dinner to say hello to Ed Malloy, the Building and Construction Trades Council leader who endorsed her in the Senate race, runs the state's largest private-sector union, and chairs the museum's board.

Malloy says that he's asked George Pataki, who is now courting his 200,000-member statewide organization just as Hillary did last year, for $4 million for the museum over the next two years. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has given it $165,000 in council add-ons since 1997, with another $100,000 in this year's budget. Charlie Rangel helped get a $260,000 Empowerment Zone grant, and Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields has put up another $150,000 in the upcoming budget. Vallone, Rangel, and Fields have attended museum events, with mayoral candidate Vallone emerging as its most attentive public champion. Malloy also extracted an $800,000 capital commitment for the museum from top Giuliani deputies for next year, but he says that now appears to be on the back burner.

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