Big, Bad Wolfe

Tom Wolfe’s astonishingly lame hedge-fund article.

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Tom Wolfe

When it comes to writers about the money culture in the last 20 years, there’s Tom Wolfe. And then, way, way, way below, are the rest of us. Two of the best set pieces ever written about money and business are the episode in The Bonfire of the Vanities in which Sherman McCoy recounts how he can’t quite make it on $980,000 a year, and the scene in A Man in Full in which Harry Zale comes to collect the debts Charlie Croker owes to PlannersBanc. While the rest of us listen with our ears to the door, Wolfe eases his way into the penthouses and boardrooms, and emerges with keen insights about the psychology and drama that come with huge piles of money.

Which is why reports that Wolfe was penning a piece about hedge funds in the gorgeous and welcome first issue of Portfolio were so exciting. (Disclosure: I’ve written an article that was published on Portfolio’s Web site, and the first issue contained a review of my book.) While saying this may queer my chances at getting into one of Mr. Wolfe’s clubs, someone has to: The Wolfe piece is terrible. It’s lazy. It has many uncheckable facts. It’s clichéd, resentful, and sometimes self-parodic. And when you finish reading the piece, the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism lingers.

The headline promises, “Twenty years after The Bonfire of the Vanities, the author checks in on the new masters of the universe and finds them even coarser buccaneers than their predecessors could have imagined being.” And we’re off with the some trademark Wolfe-ian prose: “Not bambambambambambam, but bama bampa barama bam bammity bam bam bammity barampa Fire!” The lede describes how a genteel Park Avenue co-op owner is virtually assaulted by one of the building’s new residents. Equipped with vile manners, bad taste, unforgivably cheesy clothes, and even worse diction, this interloper subjects Wolfe’s source—the genteel Park Avenue-ite—to a tirade about Manhattan co-op board politics. Recounting the episode, the woman asks Wolfe: “What is it that makes these people so angry and nasty?”

These people—”hedge fund managers … private equity fund managers … stock and bond traders, and various lone-wolf entrepreneurs such as real estate developers”—are the subject of Wolfe’s piece. With more money than God, they’re redefining New York’s commercial culture and social life. Wolfe knows what motivates these new masters of the universe: “Hedge fund managers are possessed by a previously unheard-of status fixation.”

That banal insight sets the stage for the rest of Wolfe’s story. He tells us that in their desperate search for cachet and recognition, the new masters of the universe behave like barbarians:  the obnoxious Greenwich Little League dad; the guys who talk like they’re extras in 300 (“we don’t eat what we don’t kill”); the guy who takes personal calls in a meeting; the “twinkie wives” who pay surrogates to bear their children because they don’t want to mess up their bodies with pregnancy. But Wolfe’s examples don’t impress, because he doesn’t name names: It’s not clear if these characters and stories are real.

When Wolfe does give us a name, the piece reads like a clip job. He introduces us to Thomas Hudson’s Pirate Capital and Daniel Loeb’s acid pen—both nicely described in Steve Fishman’s New York piece three years ago. As BusinessWeek did four years ago, Wolfe describes Stevie Cohen’s mammoth house: “32,000-square-foot clubhouse and 14 acres of grounds! Next to Stevie’s art collection—which is nothing less than a world class museum!—Stevie’s indoor basketball court, year-round swimming pool under glass, his gym, his spa facility, his theatre for movies and every other electronic medium, his hair salon, two putting greens complete with sand traps and a fairway in between, and, as the piece de resistance, an ice rink the size of Rockefeller Center’s with a 36-by-24-foot rink house for the Zamboni!” This is like a Wolfe parody, a laundry list punctuated by exclamation points!!

Indeed, there’s little evidence that Wolfe has any firsthand experience with these people. Yes, he attended the Robin Hood Foundation gala, and describes a scene at the wedding of Carl Icahn’s stepdaughter. But I don’t think he knows many of the young guys he so self-assuredly describes. (Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know where to look. At one point, he refers to “Merrill Lynch’s 41-story building in Times Square.” Perhaps he means Morgan Stanley’s.)

In the video accompanying the piece, Wolfe reminds us that he’s been a champion of “highly realistic fiction.” Is that what he’s after here? I’m sure there are some hedge-fund managers and private-equity magnates who look, dress, and behave like the ones Wolfe describes. But he’s painting with an incredibly broad brush, and much of it simply doesn’t ring true. For every grasping, snarling, self-promoting hedge-fund manager, there’s an anonymous guy just trying to make a living, or a public-minded financier: a George Soros, or a Joel Greenblatt, who is trying to remake a school in Queens. Steve Schwartzmann of the Blackstone Group deserves all the ridicule Wolfe would heap on him for throwing himself a $3 million 60th birthday party. But on his 60th birthday, quantitative genius James Simons of Renaissance Capital (2006 compensation: $1.7 billion) “hosted a geometry symposium that featured chats on such topics as the Chern-Simons Invariants,” according to the Financial Times.

Then there’s the Jewish Question. “Many prominent hedge fund managers are Jewish,” Wolfe writes, “and on Round Hill Road and Pecksland Road in Greenwich, as well as on Park and Fifth in Manhattan, there has arisen, like a breeze after dark, the sibilant sound of people with social cachet whispering to one another, behind the hand, variations on the theme, ‘Some of my best friends are Jewish, but.’ ” A little later, Wolfe catches himself. “Mercifully, such statistical breakdowns don’t exist, but it would appear that no extraordinary fraction of hedge fund managers are Jewish.” Mercifully? Give me a break. And when Wolfe does name names in this piece, it sounds like an old Jewish law firm: Cohen, Loeb, Icahn, Lampert, Feinberg & Kovner. The obnoxious guy in the lede reminds us of Meyer Wolfsheim from TheGreat Gatsby. 

Here’s the big difference between these masters of the universe and the ones he wrote about in the 1980s and 1990s: Wolfe doesn’t seem to have any empathy for them (as he did for Sherman McCoy) or any awe or admiration for them (as he did for Charlie Croker). He seems to have only resentment. Wolfe notes with glee that posh clubs and elite museums still won’t admit the arrivistes into their midst. He harps on the status anxiety that impels them to behave in such a ghastly fashion. These highly paid people are inordinately fixated on status symbols, on their place in the pecking order. They’re horrid because they want to be recognized not just for professional accomplishments but for their taste and style. Or so says the dandy who tools around the Upper East Side in his white 2003 Cadillac, which, the magazine informs us, “even has white faux-suede floor mats with clear vinyl covers to keep them clean.” Says Wolfe: “It’s the most important thing in my life right now.”