December 2009, Volume 05 Issue 08
By Lloyd Graff
The death of financier Bruce Wasserstein, a friend from college days, hit me like an unsheathed blow to the chin. It wasn’t just because he had survived quadruple bypass surgery in 2001 or that he was three years younger than me and succumbed to heart failure. It was more about Bruce living the life of a superstar in finance, a master of the universe, a self-made Wall Street billionaire, who I knew from time spent working together on the University of Michigan college newspaper.
Those were heady nights of hot lead sliding out of linotype machines, wedged into heavy trays that turned into plates for the 3:00 a.m. printing.
Bruce wrote about the big issues, like student conflicts with the college administrators over divulging information to a Congressional witch hunting committee. It was Vietnam War time and the campus was alive with dissent; Bruce Wasserstein was smack in the middle of the controversy. I wrote about basketball, football and life, as the sports editor.
I remember Bruce coming up to me and saying, “Lloyd, what are you doing writing sports? Come over to the news staff and do something important.”
That remark was a portend about how our lives would diverge over the next four decades.
Bruce was a brilliant guy, a chess player, oblivious to his personal appearance. Dan Okrent, a sports writer on my team at Michigan, who became an editor at Time Magazine and The New York Times, described Bruce as a “complete slob” in The Michigan Daily obituary. Bruce was usually the smartest guy in the room, even if it was a big room of very smart people—and he knew it.
Bruce graduated college at 19 and earned a law degree and MBA from Harvard at 23. He published a book about anti- trust policy at 25.
If you had asked me at the University of Michigan what Bruce would do in his career I would have guessed he’d become an academic or a writer. He was fat, disheveled and blunt—not the qualities I would have associated with cashmere coated Wall Street bankers.
But Bruce from Brooklyn gravitated to the financial world, sort of cleaned up his style and started building his reputation as a brash, brilliant engineer of corporate mergers.
He used to lunch with former colleagues from The Michigan Daily who also ended up in New York. Before he started his own investment banking firm in 1988, Wasserstein and Perella, he told a friend in the group, “last year I made $11 million, but this year I’m going to make some real money.” He sold the company for $1.2 billion.
So why did Bruce’s death hit me so hard and linger with me? I think it’s what Robert Frost wrote about in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.” You reach a fork in the road of life and make your choice. Bruce went for the big money, the fast life, the Wall Street race. He divorced three times and had just married the rich, politically connected, 29-year-old, Angela Chao.
In a blog written by an old high school chum of Bruce’s who became a foreign correspondent for CBS, Gordon Joseloff recounted meeting Bruce in Tokyo for dinner. Joseloff talked about his journalistic career and lamented his lack of wealth. Wasserstein retorted, “I made more money, but you had more fun.”
As I consider my own career of buying and selling National Acmes, Conomatics and Greenlees, I don’t know if I’ve had more fun than Bruce. I chose the family business and building a family. When he died Bruce was dedicating himself to concocting the strategy of Kraft’s contentious takeover bid for Cadbury—a $16 billion deal, and loving the action, I’ve been told.
Bruce owned New York Magazine and other media properties. Reportedly, he had recently nibbled at Business Week. Bruce enjoyed journalism and he loved the printed word. Me, too.
We humans are programmed to compare ourselves whether it’s about money, body dimensions or children. We want to feel good about ourselves in relation to our peers. I wonder if monks compete in meditation?
Bruce Wasserstein is dead at 61. I hope he was happy with his choices and success.
I hope I find peace with the choices I’ve made and continue to make.