Lazard Fréres Not Giddy at Arrival of Bill’s Pal, Vernon Jordan

The cashmere voice of Vernon Jordan slow-danced through the telephone receiver.

“The notion that I’m running from something …” Mr. Jordan paused for a beat. “There’s nothing to run from.”

There was a dash of annoyance in Mr. Jordan’s remarks, but mostly he sounded quietly amused and confident that there was no question he couldn’t field from the 62nd-floor corner office that he has occupied for approximately four weeks in the Rockefeller Center offices of Lazard Frères & Company.

“I’m fascinated by you guys!” he said, presumably meaning reporters, at one point during this impromptu interview with The Transom.

Barely a month into Mr. Jordan’s new gig as a senior managing partner at the private Wall Street banking firm, New Yorkers have become equally curious about President Bill Clinton’s best friend.

A minor controversy over Mr. Jordan’s compensation at Lazard has put Mr. Jordan on the radar of the city’s chattering class. Although Mr. Jordan has always lived out of a suitcase to some extent, the cocktail banter has begun flying over Mr. Jordan’s decision, at age 64, to begin commuting between his home in Washington, D.C., and a two-bedroom suite at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

According to Mr. Jordan, he may now work largely in New York, but he still lives in Washington (where he has remained of counsel to the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, which he joined in 1982). “I still live there. I still pay taxes there,” said Mr. Jordan.

Yet the perception here is different. The perception is that now that his close, powerful friend, the President, has become a lame duck knocking around the White House and making late-night telephone calls, Mr. Jordan has sensed that he must recast his power base while he still has the raw materials to do so.

“Vernon’s power base is about to disappear,” said one person with Washington and New York ties who knows Mr. Jordan. So, the reasoning goes, Mr. Jordan is bringing his considerable resources as a fixer to New York, where he has always kept a foothold. “New York is no stranger to me,” said Mr. Jordan, who has a son and two daughters here, as well as grandchildren. He lived here when he ran the United Negro College Fund and the National Urban League. And he reportedly sits on the board of directors of 11 corporations, many of which are based in New York, including the American Express Company, the Revlon Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

And many of Mr. Jordan’s friends place high in the city’s hierarchy: ABC News’ 20/20 anchor Barbara Walters; Richard Holbrooke, the United States permanent representative to the United Nations; billionaire Henry Kravis; Kenneth Chenault, president and chief operating officer of American Express Company; Warnaco Group’s chief executive, Linda Wachner; literary agent Mort Janklow and former Ford Foundation president Franklin Thomas.

Of course, there is also new Westchester homeowner Mr. Clinton.

Asked if he will be seeing much of Mr. Clinton in New York, Mr. Jordan replied: “Well, I don’t know when he’s going to be here. If he’s here, I’m sure I’ll see him. Or I’ll see him in Washington. I’m not going to stop seeing my friend Bill Clinton. He’s still my friend.”

But he characterizes the power-base theory of his move to New York as “nonsense, just nonsense. I was in Washington before Clinton came, and I’m still there,” he said.

Asked why he took the Lazard job, Mr. Jordan called it “a new hill to climb” and “a new challenge.”

Mr. Jordan may have a way to go before he proves himself as indispensable to the masters of Wall Street as he was to Mr. Clinton, but in this city where millionaires and billionaires pay thousands to sit next to Mr. Clinton at dinner in the Hamptons, Mr. Jordan’s closeness to the President carries some currency.

When Mr. Jordan lunches at that power grid known as the Four Seasons restaurant, he always merits a great table, and, as one fixture at the restaurant noted, it is always the other patrons who get up from their tables to say hello to him. “He is the new king of New York,” said the source, who also observed that Mr. Jordan is always charming and beautifully dressed.

Mr. Jordan has dined out on his closeness to Mr. Clinton in other ways. Not long after he signed with Lazard, the media reported rumors that in 2001, Mr. Clinton was also destined for the banking firm and an $8 million-a-year salary (not including potential bonuses). Mr. Clinton has since denied this, but one Lazard partner recalled that, recently, at a meeting of the firm’s partners, Mr. Jordan said of that rumor: “He’s not coming to Lazard-but I might have to make another call to Revlon,” a reference to the fateful call Mr. Jordan had placed to the company owned by billionaire Ronald Perelman, at the request of Mr. Clinton, on behalf of Monica Lewinsky.

Mr. Jordan laughed when this was recounted to him and said that this account was “not true.” He suggested that we had heard the punch line of a joke he had told about the First Lady that he had made at a dinner. “I had said, ‘I hope she wins, otherwise I might have to call Revlon.’ But that’s an old story.”

When The Transom replied that we were certain of the setting of the line, Mr. Jordan said: “I’m not aware of that.”

Mr. Jordan said he was also not aware of any unhappiness on the part of his new partners at Lazard following a story that broke in The Washington Post on Jan. 22. At first, some of Mr. Jordan’s Lazard colleagues were annoyed that his compensation was kept secret from the firm’s other partners, especially in light of a policy of openness among partners that has been in effect at the firm for the last couple of years.

That annoyance was heightened when Mr. Jordan’s actual salary was uncovered. According to the Post , Lazard had agreed to pay Mr. Jordan $5 million a year for five years, plus a housing allowance toward his suite at the Regency (a two-bedroom number at the Regency generally rents for $18,000 to $28,000 a month), plus any bonus that he may be awarded based on performance. (Sources familiar with the situation told The Transom that $5 million a year is the least that Mr. Jordan can earn).

Apparently, this figure is slightly above average as Lazard salaries go, and rather unusual for someone like Mr. Jordan who has virtually no investment banking experience.

Mr. Jordan would not comment on his salary package. “You know, I’m not in the Congress. I’m not running for office, so I don’t think it’s anybody’s business,” he said. He did add, however, “I am not aware of any unhappiness. I have gotten marvelous cooperation here. It’s my judgment that we’re just moving on and doing our business.”

When asked about his lack of experience in the field, Mr. Jordan replied: “What do you mean my expertise is not in that? I can read, and I can add and subtract and multiply.” Asked if he will specialize in any type of investment banking, he said: “I will probably be just as I was as a lawyer: a generalist, all over the place.”

In other words, Mr. Jordan has always tended to cover all the bases, except, some contend, when it comes to the coming Presidential race. Sources connected to Mr. Gore’s Presidential effort note that, in contrast to his closeness to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Jordan, a Democrat, has little relationship with Vice President Gore.

“That’s another dumb impression you have,” Mr. Jordan told The Transom. “I was on the … Vice Presidential selection committee. Al Gore is a longtime friend. I am supporting him with enthusiasm. I am not on his staff, and I do not talk to him every day, but I am fully supportive.” Mr. Jordan said he has also contributed money to Mr. Gore’s campaign but that he would not become any more involved in it. “I work at Lazard,” he said.

The Transom Also Hears

… Notes from the Beverly Hilton: With Bill Clinton in Los Angeles on the weekend of the Golden Globes, the Left Coast was abuzz with rumors recently that our star-struck Commander in Chief was contemplating risking the cheese factor of the awards ceremony (Courtney Love’s tits-on TV!) and presenting Barbra (Left Side) Streisand her Cecil B. De Mille award. According to Ms. Streisand’s spokesman, Dick Gutman: “I don’t believe it was ever contemplated. In fact, I know it wasn’t the case that the President was at all thought of as a presenter for Barbra.” Mr. Gutman explained that John Travolta, who played the President in Primary Colors , was supposed to co-present the award with Shirley MacLaine, but came down with a case of conjunctivitis. Mr. Gutman said he had heard that Mr. Clinton was in the hotel for a presentation he made at Cal Tech. “And there was some talk that Merv Griffin [who owns the hotel] had invited the President to stay over,” but that never happened. A White House spokesman said only: “The President was never officially asked or invited to the Golden Globes.” But did Ms. Streisand invite him to present her award to her? Replied the spokesman: “He wasn’t invited at any level that we dealt with.”

… The Jan. 21 edition of W.W.D. ‘s Suzy column wondered: “Is Elizabeth Hurley being eyed by a New York bachelor tycoon?” and “Does Hugh Grant know about this?”-making some Gotham gadflies remember that Ms. Hurley seemed glued to the hip, in a platonic sense of course, to billionaire Ted Forstmann at last December’s Costume Institute gala. But anyone who saw Hugh Grant and Ms. Hurley in action at the Creative Artists Agency party at Muse following the Golden Globes ceremony would have dispelled that notion. One witness noted that at one point during the evening, Mr. Grant cut Ms. Hurley’s wait time for the ladies’ room considerably when he yanked her into the single-occupancy men’s room and the two spent a considerable amount of time in there.