National Review and ‘Shyster Heaven’

There’s a reason why some words or phrases simply are not acceptable in polite company. They are offensive, redolent with prejudice and hatred, and simply not clever or witty.

Take, for example, the word “shyster.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the word is of “obscure origin,” but its meaning is hardly obscure. Rooted in the German scatological term scheisser , it’s a deplorable and demeaning word which has traditionally been loaded with anti-Semitism. You’d think the editors of the National Review would have thought twice before using the word in a headline. Apparently not: In the magazine’s April 21 issue, a review of Walter K. Olson’s book, The Rule of Lawyers , was entitled “Shyster Heaven.” No doubt the editors found this clever and amusing. It was nothing of the sort-it was either an insensitive oversight or anti-Semitic innuendo.

Surely the National Review staff were aware of the word’s bigoted associations. Some etymologists believe “shyster” is a derivative of Shakespeare’s character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice , used to describe a devious, scheming person of Jewish background who will try any scam in the book to make a buck. In 1895, Funk’s Standard Dictionary defined a shyster as “a lawyer who practices in an unprofessional or tricky manner; especially one who haunts the prisons and lower courts to prey on petty criminals.” In Shakespeare’s play, other characters call Shylock a “currish Jew” whose “desires are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous”; he is accused of being “the devil … in the likeness of a Jew.”

Whatever the formal etymology of the offending word, the ignorant people who employ it are not referring to silver-haired patricians at white-shoe law firms. When they mutter the word “shyster,” they’re talking about Jewish lawyers who in their minds are no different from the scheming, devious Shylock.

The founder and former editor in chief of the National Review , William F. Buckley Jr., surely would have understood the vulgarity of the word and the ugliness of the sentiments. Sadly, his successors apparently have neither his judgment nor his wit.

EI FUK U

That’s not a typo-it’s the name of a Tokyo-based hedge fund, Eifuku Master Trust, whose founder, John Koonmen, recently lost nearly all of his investors’ money within a few weeks. Although the meaning of eifuku is “prosperity” or “good fortune,” one cannot help but wonder whether the American-born Mr. Koonmen chose the name to indicate what would happen to investors who handed him their money.

And some of those investors weren’t too shabby. As The Wall Street Journal ‘s Henny Sender and Jason Singer report, those who put their money into Eifuku included George Soros, wealthy Kuwaiti families and Tokyo-based executives at investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. But it seems none of them bothered to take a good look at Mr. Koonmen, and so they never knew that he had been asked to leave a trading job at Lehman Brothers after he’d had a particularly bad year in 1998. As The Journal reports, Mr. Koonmen “lost so much money that it affected bonuses for Lehman’s entire Tokyo equities division.” In addition to losing money, Mr. Koonmen had shown an aptitude for spending it: He lived in a swank Tokyo apartment, drove an Aston Martin and proudly decorated his office with a pool table which had previously belonged to Long-Term Capital Management, which famously went bust in 1998.

Nor was it likely that Eifuku’s investors knew that Mr. Koonmen, who grew up on Long Island and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a gambler who had made a name for himself at New York’s backgammon clubs. Indeed, the roots of Eifuku were formed when Mr. Koonmen, after being pushed out of Lehman, joined up with an old backgammon pal, John Bender, who ran the Amber Arbitrage Fund. But when Mr. Bender suffered a stroke and decided to close his fund, Mr. Koonmen persuaded several of Amber’s investors to switch to his newly created Eifuku.

Within a year, the Eifuku fund was valued at $300 million. And even though Mr. Koonmen was taking a performance fee of 25 percent of profits, which is 25 percent more than most hedge-fund managers, most of the investors never bothered to meet the man. By January 2003, they should have been very wary: Mr. Koonmen had built up several huge positions. As The Journal reports, he had “at least $1.4 billion in just a few positions at a time when the capital in his fund was down to $155 million.” The chickens came home to roost soon enough: During the first two weeks of January, Eifuku lost 98 percent of its value.

Currently, investors are hoping to recoup some losses as Pricewaterhouse Coopers completes an audit of the fund. But they have only themselves to blame: Who in their right mind would give a dime to a fund called Eifuku?

Leon Levy: Brains, Generosity and Decency

When Leon Levy passed away this month at age 77, New York said goodbye to one of the city’s most respected and generous philanthropists, a man of huge talent and notable modesty, who put as much creativity and energy into giving away his millions as he put into making them.

He learned early: His father was a New York City dry-goods merchant and investor who successfully predicted the crash of ’29. Leon graduated from City College with a major in psychology and quickly began what would be a stunning career in finance. He helped start Oppenheimer & Company, where he pioneered the use of hedge funds and went on to become a managing partner. In the early 1980′s, he and a friend, Jack Nash, started Odyssey Partners, a $3 billion hedge fund which earned its investors an average annual return of 22 percent. Mr. Levy wisely distrusted the stock-market bubble of the 1990′s, taking the position that the values had nothing to do with fiscal reality.

Philanthropy was another of his passions: He gave $20 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and over $100 million to Bard College, as well as substantial gifts to Harvard, Princeton and Rockefeller universities. A particular interest was archaeology: He was one of the world’s most generous benefactors of archaeological research, and he financed a dig in Israel which found a golden calf of the type mentioned in the Bible.

His favorite essay was Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which Berlin described the world as being divided between foxes (people who know many things) and hedgehogs (people who know one big thing). Mr. Levy was clearly a fox who-unlike most foxes, who want to be hedgehogs-was happy in the skin of the fox.

The Observer extends its condolences to Mr. Levy’s wife, Shelby White, his daughter, Tracy White, and the rest of his family.