The lengthy lead story about Lehman Brothers in the Business section of last Sunday’s Times appeared to confirm a theory I’ve been trying to put across for some time now (including to some well-known Times business writers): namely, that Lehman’s portfolio of commercial real estate assets was the real problem at that firm. I laid out the bones of the hypothesis on Forbes.com last October 7, within weeks of Lehman’s fall; permit me to quote myself:
“Every report on Lehman that I have recently read is saying that the real toxicity on the Lehman balance sheet is in its commercial real estate holdings and investments. Of no other troubled firm does this seem to be true, only Lehman, which may also explain the Paulson team’s no-bailout call.
“So what led Fuld and his firm into this particular quagmire? I have a one word answer: infatuation. My guess is that Fuld became a fool for love. Not in the conventional sense, but in the way that older men in high places lose perspective when some brilliant boy—the name of Mark Walsh, the company’s former commercial real estate chief, is frequently mentioned—dazzles the emperor with magical, alchemical, odds-defying feats of illusion and financial prestidigitation and is given his head.
“It’s an old story, of which the moral is: Put not your trust in princes. Or Maguses. Good advice. Always.”
It’s nice to see a big newspaper get behind one’s idea. I have no way of knowing whether the Times writer ever read my article (acknowledging other journalists isn’t The Times’ style). Anyway, I have larger, sadder matters to ponder—twice over.
THE OLDEST AMONG my friends, Albert H. Gordon, died last Friday at the age of 107. He was easily one of the half-dozen most extraordinary, original people I have met in my life, one whose passing leaves a giant hole gaping in the lives of those who were close to him. As I write, I can look up to a bulletin board on which is a picture of himself that Al sent me, taken perhaps a dozen years ago on the tee at his beloved Fishers Island links, as always about to neither ask nor give any quarter from the golfing gods.
I first heard of Al as a verb, when one of my partners at Lehman Brothers sighed and announced that, with regard to a juicy piece of prospective business, he had been “Al Gordoned.” That is to say: outflanked, outrun and outbid by the man who of all those who competed against us more or less fairly—a category that excludes some of the greatest names of that bygone era—was consistently the toughest and most obdurate down the stretch. He was a rare mixture of flint and sunshine: nail-tough and yet a complete optimist about this country and its prospects, and an unmitigated reveler in the pleasures of investing.
The Times obituary omitted a bit about Al that I think he would have liked to have had noted. He was a world-class bibliophile whose uncommon generosity delivered the only surviving copy of John Eliot’s 1663 “Indian Bible” to his alma mater, Roxbury Latin School, and helped underwrite the acquisition of the manuscript of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now by the Morgan Library and Museum. Some said he was Harvard’s largest individual donor, and he was also a notable supporter of Winchester College in England, where he sent his sons to receive an education he no longer felt to be available in this country. Finally, it is fair to say that without Al’s patronage, encouragement and support, Heywood Hill, arguably the last century’s greatest bookshop, would not have prospered as long as it has.
It’s perhaps agreeably symmetrical that Al has quit a scene that pretty much resembles the one he was thrust into in 1930, when his friends in the Webster family summoned him to help salvage Kidder Peabody, in which they had a large imperiled investment. Then, as now, men of probity and intelligence found themselves picking their way among the ruins, and picking up the pieces, of a financial system wrecked by a Wall Street on which, as Al notably told me in 1987, for a piece I was writing for The Nation, “young men thought they could do anything.”
AL GORDON got better than a century on the ground. Richard Hambro was granted a mere 62 years when he left us on April 25, not enough by half, but the gap his departure leaves in the lives of his friends is no less empty, no less bleak.
I hadn’t seen Ric for some time. Friendships—especially those with an ocean in the middle—are like continental plates, borne apart as time goes on by age, illness, stasis and all the other forces for separation that soul and flesh are heir to. But there was a time …
When I think of Ric Hambro, I think of London in the late ’60s, and languid June lunches with pretty girls at the Mirabelle, with the roof rolled back, flowers everywhere, cigars and a brandy, and a kind of overall elegance that I hear has been all but ruined by Russians with money, whose devastation of the more civilizing aspects of Western life must cause the Great Khan to spin enviously in his grave. I see Annabel’s as it then was, a place like none other on earth, and I recall sharing a good laugh with Ric as the City banker I brought there one evening knocked back the crucial extra whisky that inspires a chap to cut in on J. Paul Getty. And I see Ric at Wilton’s, the Jermyn Street restaurant he and his family owned, with a menu card whose prices cause even dukes to go pale, enjoying himself to the fullest without the slightest hint of proprietary arrogance. I can hear that laugh and see that smile, and that sly twinkle.
That was the amazing thing about Ric Hambro. He was blessed with charm, looks, athleticism and pedigree to a degree that might be thought unfair. He was elegant to the bone, with a wry good humor. These are qualities, an embarras de richesse, if you will, that have spoiled many a man, that have produced many a clubland shit. But if I had a fiver for every time I heard someone—heard myself—say “Ric Hambro is the nicest man I have ever known,” I would not be searching for tonight’s main course in the dumpster out back. He laughed, and we all laughed with him.
Like many people my age, I got drunk on A. E. Housman’s poetry while still a boy, and that intoxication has stayed with me even into the sere, the yellow leaf. Musing now on the passing of these two friends, with whom I associate a kind of life that seems far, far better than the one we live now, these verses return:
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain;
The happy highways where I went;
And cannot come again.
It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize that ribbon of road, perhaps paved with yellow brick, winding away into the future until it crests just below the setting sun and then slips down and away into the twilit distance. It’s not hard for the mind’s eye to conjure up two doughty figures perched on that last hilltop, looking back perhaps to wave, and then turning away and disappearing.
I don’t know if Ric Hambro and Al Gordon ever met. Probably not. Perhaps, though, they’ll get to spend some time in each other’s company in the afterlife. That would be nice. These two great guys deserve each other. I like to think that we deserved them, too. Barely.