Last month, Michael Thomas went to see his doctor for a routine checkup. At the end, he joked that the biggest problem he was having these days was finding the damn thing.
“It’s actually a real problem,” he explained, on a recent afternoon at his loft in Dumbo.
He had made himself comfortable in a leather chair, one leg flopped over an armrest, the other pushed up against his thigh. He was wearing shorts and a pair of orange clogs. Michael Thomas—novelist, columnist and renowned curmudgeon—is now 73. He had forgotten his teeth at the Century Club the night before (he resigned from the Brook, Whites, Deepdale and Grolier for reasons “varying from taste to penury”; Century is one of six he still belongs to), but that’s not what he was talking about with his doctor.
“You find yourself in the movie-theater bathroom, bouncing from one foot to the other, digging around in your pants, because if you don’t get your aim right you wind up pissing all over yourself,” he said. “It’s what happens. You get old. It shrinks. For the first part of my life, my problems were all caused by it being too easy to find, and now it’s impossible.”
Finding a publisher for his eighth novel, Love & Money, which was released earlier this month, took more than a decade. He estimates that around 25 publishing houses turned him down cold. Many wouldn’t even take the time to read it. The onetime best-selling author feels he’s been unfairly saddled with a reputation among agents and publishers for being “difficult.”
“When he expresses himself, he’s brutally honest, and if you’re brutally honest, some people can be the object to that brutality, really,” said Robert Shapiro, who became a partner at Lehman Brothers around the same time Mr. Thomas did.
“We were all out by the pool,” Michael’s son William—from his first marriage, to Brooke Hayward—was telling me over the phone from his home in Sag Harbor. It was one of those Southampton summers in the late ’60s/early ’70s; dad was with his second wife, Wendell Adams, then. Her attractive younger sister Jane was always around, looking for a wealthy husband.
“Jane was kind of uptight and a little bit prudish, but she had her bikini on and she was kind of showing off her bikini, and my father, right in front of me and my teenage friends and all these other people having the usual cocktail party out by the pool, got up and grabbed her and stripped her bikini off her and threw her in the pool, in front of his wife, too. I’m standing there and I’m holding the Polaroid land camera in my hand but I’m so stunned that I can’t take a picture.”
It’s a habit that, coupled with his abundant talent and ambition, might explain why he ended up “living my life backward.” By age 31, he was made general partner at Lehman Brothers, making $300,000 a year, which was a lot in those days. After the world of high finance had had enough of him, and he of it, he turned his hand to writing novels. His first book, Green Monday, published in 1980, was a critical and commercial success; it spent some two months on The New York Times’ best-seller list and landed his face on the cover of Institutional Investor magazine. In ’84, he signed a million-dollar, two-book contract with Warner Books. As a journalist, he came out swinging, writing important pieces for fancy national magazines like Vanity Fair and Esquire. For the last 15 years, he’s written a column for The New York Observer—with brief absences in the dozen or so times he either quit or was fired. For Love & Money, he was able to work out a deal with Melville House whereby he and the publisher share any profits after all printing costs are recouped.
Michael Thomas was born in New York City in 1936. He went to Buckley, then Exeter, then Yale. Freshman year he read Duveen, by S. N. Beharman, and decided he wanted to be an art dealer. His father, Joe Thomas, a managing partner at Lehman Brothers, had a healthy disdain for money and suggested that was a lot more dignified than banking.
When he wasn’t studying art history, he wrote a column in the Yale Daily News that he called “Looking Down.” He caused a wonderful stir with the line, “You cannot make a madam out of Mother Yale,” about the Miss Rheingold Contest bringing its despicable pimping business to town.
He feels that he crossed the line then, which happens from time to time. After graduating, he stayed on as a teaching fellow for another two years, but by that time he was married and had two kids with his first wife, Brooke Hayward.
Bobby Lehman helped him get a gig as the curatorial assistant in the department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, making $6,000 a year. He felt like his life was pretty much set. Two years later, he was locking horns with some asshole who was up to no good at the museum.
Mr. Lehman asked him if might like to try out finance. How much? Six thousand five hundred. Deal! Then, of course, he had to go tell his father the news that his brilliant son had decided to sell out and take a meaningless job in banking.
Love & Money’s protagonist, Clifford Grange, is a once successful director whose career has come to a standstill when his studio distances itself from his controversial movie and makes him take all the heat. Grange doesn’t help things when he gets belligerent with the media about his producers. Grange is, throughout, engaged in a constant dialogue with his now-dead father, who had been his greatest ally, his best friend.