Remembering Bruce Wasserstein

The late Lazard CEO understood journalists, and journalism.

Bruce Wasserstein. Click image to expand.
Bruce Wasserstein

Bruce Wasserstein, the investment banker and CEO of Lazard who died Wednesday at 61, is being remembered in the business press as one of the pre-eminent deal makers of this era. As a player and adviser in dozens of transactions, including the iconic RJR-Nabisco deal, he earned the moniker “Bid ‘Em Up Bruce.” After running his own firm for years, Wasserstein became involved with—and ultimately took control of—the storied investment bank Lazard. Wasserstein occupied a unique place in the financial and money culture. But he was also the rare Wall Street figure who understood journalists.

Writers, editors, authors, and media types often find themselves on the same panels or in the same restaurants as Wall Street titans, but they live in different worlds. There’s a huge differential in power, status, quality of suits, and, above all, wealth. Most billionaires and writers share little in common—from their educational backgrounds (MBAs vs. MFAs), to their places of residence (Upper East Side vs. Brooklyn), to their attitudes toward life (earnest, practical get-at-it, Type A’s vs. professional ironists). While they may occasionally feign interest, most of the people who make financial news aren’t really curious about the schlumps in the media trade.

But there have always been a few investment bankers who want to be regarded as having done something more than made money, and an even smaller number who want to be intellectuals. Many of those have been associated with Lazard. Felix Rohatyn, the former éminence grise at Lazard, has written frequently in the New York Review of Books. Steve Rattner, the former New York Times reporter turned dealmaker and Democratic adviser, cut his teeth at Lazard. Pete Peterson, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, has written a half-dozen books. Real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman has spent a chunk of his fortune running the Daily News and U.S. News & World Report.

And there was Wasserstein. He sometimes seemed more of a New York intellectual than a Master of the Universe. His early résumé was identical to that of many New Republic editors: He edited the Michigan Daily in college; went to Harvard Law; wrote an impassioned, anti-establishment book with fellow Naderite Mark Green; and studied at Cambridge University. After he made it big as an investment banker, rather than writing a How-I-Made-My-Gazillions memoir, he put together a 820-page treatise on corporate transactions: Big Deal: The Battle for Control of America’s Leading Corporations. (The thumbnail bio on the book jacket noted that “his sister Wendy is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.”) He also became a financial backer of quality New York journalism. Wasserstein bought the American Lawyer in 1997 and founded a solid magazine devoted to covering the M&A industry, The Deal. In December 2003, he acquired New York magazine and installed a team that made it great again.  (Disclosure: I wrote more than a dozen articles for New Yorkafter its acquisition by Wasserstein.) He did so not out of a desire to have his own platform or a column—a la Zuckerman—but with the intent of making excellent journalism into real businesses. (Wasserstein sold the parent company of American Lawyer in 2007.)

Wasserstein was simpatico with journalists in one other way. People with power and wealth tend to look and act like they have power and wealth: the tailored suits, expensive haircuts. When folks like Donald Trump, Jack Welch, or Henry Kravis walk into a room, you can tell they’re somebody by the way they carry themselves. Wasserstein dressed more like a professor at Columbia than a member of the Forbes 400.In public appearances, he could be sardonic, reflective, and ironic—qualities not usually seen in moneymen. Several years ago, while on a tour of a preschool with a group of other status-conscious, suit-wearing parents, I noticed a slightly older guy half-paying attention. His hair was a bit unruly, and he wore unpressed khakis and a windbreaker. I pegged him as a book editor—until I got a look at his nametag.