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.
Grange’s career circumstance bears a certain resemblance to Michael Thomas’ own life experience—his book Hanover Place met with a mix of rave reviews and a personal attack by Judith “Miss Manners” Martin, née Perlman, who accused the author of being an anti-Semite. (Her lead: “Doing the author the courtesy of assuming that ‘Hanover Place’ is intended only as a dramatization of Wall Street anti-Semitism from 1924 to 1990, rather than an example of it, is a strain.”)
The father-son device, however, is fiction. Michael’s relationship to his father was one defined by distance, not closeness. But the dialogue does pop up at times: As sons do, Michael has spent a lifetime trying to figure what went wrong with the man who had so much friend-mentor-father potential early on.
“I’m the only person I know who was introduced to my stepmother after she had already become my stepmother,” he said.
Distance prevailed even during his tenure at Lehman, when father and son worked in the same building. In those days, the Lehman brothers ate lunch at the round table: “Let’s say there were 35 partners, and some would be out of town, and some would be in the smaller rooms with clients, and there’d be maybe 15 or 25 of us. But, by ’71 or early—yeah, ’71, when Joe Thomas sat down for lunch, he would have two or three martinis. So I’m sitting there, and I don’t drink during the daytime, and so I’m sitting there, and, you know, your father’s at the end of the table, and everybody can see he’s half in the bag. And it’s tough.”
And, much like his father, he found the work pretty uncompelling. He compensated for that by enjoying himself a little too much and boasting a little too loudly about the wonderful talents of Madame Claude.
“I mean, this was a wonderful time,” he recalled. (At this point in our conversation, he asked his son Francis, who recently graduated from college, to fetch him another Scotch.) “Madame Claude loomed very large; she was the biggest madam in the world, she had the best-looking girls. I remember once when I was at Lehman Brothers, our French partner, Jean Francois Malle, who is now dead, who was the brother of Louis Malle, we were in the bar and this fabulous-looking girl was there, and Jean Francois said to me, ‘She has to come with us now.’ So I called Madame Claude.”
Her name was Annabelle. Later he would host a dinner party, eight men and Annabelle. “And she was fabulous,” he said. “Fabulous.”
“We used to say if a girl is in a room and she’s better-looking and has good manners and that her conversation is better than any of the other women in the room, the chances are she’s from Madame Claude.”
It was a different time. Michael Jr., the first of three with wife No. 2, remembers fondly: “We had a German au pair, so when I was a toddler, I could speak German. But then he got caught in flagrante delicto with the au pair and, uh, my German lessons ceased abruptly.”
By 1972, “internal politics at Lehman were becoming intolerable,” Mr. Thomas writes in the three-page single-space résumé he’s kept up over the years for the hell of it—and he was a part-owner and director of the Rams; he owned a record store, Orpheus Remarkable Recordings!
Mr. Thomas started a corporate finance consulting firm with a fellow outcast, Herbert P. Peterson, who had been president of Chase Bank but was gay, which didn’t go over so well. In ’78, they moved the business headquarters to Dallas. Around this time, the economy started to fall apart, as did the business: Michael Thomas thought now or never, and holed up in a bar with a typewriter and an endless supply of the Famous Grouse whiskey. The result was Green Monday, about Arabs, oil and Wall Street.
Next was Someone Else’s Money, followed by Hard Money, which was loosely based on Bill Paley, founder of CBS. Paley was making a big stink about it because one of the society ladies was running around blabbing that it was going to be some kind of a vicious takedown. Michael got Paley on the phone and explained that the book could not possibly be about him, as the protagonist in the book had a conscience.
He made big waves with a piece in Vanity Fair about John and Susan Gutfreund, who were the first of the emerging class of obscenely wealthy couples to throw parties and pay actors to imitate paintings on the wall and whatnot.
“I was fond of them both, but, you know, if you’re a writer, you can’t resist the material,” Mr. Thomas said, recalling the embarrassing incident that followed, when he arrived at a party in Southampton that was to be attended by the Gutfreunds. By Michael’s calculations, the article would not be published until the following Monday. Not so. He’s pretty sure his friend Jamie Niven, of Sotheby’s, made sure everyone at the party had read it.
“That’s not true,” said Mr. Niven, who considers Mr. Thomas a good friend and the smartest man he’s ever known.
Mr. Niven recalled a party thrown by Jan Cushing for Arthur Schlesinger to celebrate his book about the Kennedys. Needing to fill a last-minute chair, she called up Michael, who drank three Johnnie Walkers straight up before crashing in.
“When he got there, he saw this girl with enormous tits and immediately went over and started talking to her, and soon enough she was giggling a lot because, as I’m sure you know, Michael can be quite funny.”
The girl with the enormous tits was still giggling when Ms. Cushing tried to get everyone to focus up. She asked Michael to ask Mr. Schlesinger a question. “What’s the capital of South Dakota,” he said. The girl next to him giggled, as did George Plimpton and Mr. Niven.
Morton Janklow swept in after Hard Money and was able to wrangle Mr. Thomas the book deal with Warner Books, based on a hot potato of a manuscript he was working on called Rope Spinner. The title of Rope Spinner was changed to The Ropespinner Conspiracy, because every best seller had a three-word title. Then the president of Warner Books, Larry Kirshbaum, shuddered at the next book’s working title. The Firm.
“No one will read a book called The Firm,” Kirshbaum decreed. Screwed again. That became Hanover Place, the beginning of the end.
“He had a lot more anger back then. Now he pretty much vents it on rich people who have made tons of money through no ability of their own,” William told me, noting that in the old days, his dad used to aim his serve at the back of his neck during family tennis at the Meadow Club. “He’s the greatest. He’s such a unique individual. We wouldn’t trade him for the—although I have to say that he has been forbidden to ever get married again. Never allowed to get married again, it’s just like the old joke. Instead of marrying her, just give her everything you own.”
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