By Clarissa Cruz
Updated February 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Before the polo and ponies, before the landed-gentryesque ad campaigns, before the red-carpet partnerships with Penelope Cruz and Gwyneth Paltrow, Ralph Lauren was little Ralphie Lifshitz from a modest section of the Bronx. And it would have been easy for Gross to regurgitate the oft-repeated — and simplistic — claim that Lauren forswore his Jewish heritage in favor of the WASPy lifestyle his clothing represents. Instead, Gross, who Lauren originally tapped to write an authorized bio before withdrawing cooperation, offers a dishy (think scandalous affairs and control-freakish tantrums) yet balanced portrait of a man who started out as a tie salesman and went on to head a billion-dollar fashion empire.