Philip Potter’s luck was soaring as high as the summertime Dow. At the age of 25, he was working for a major investment house and making very good money. But then Mr. Potter, a Yale University graduate, gave an interview to a reporter from The New York Times , and his luck came crashing down.
The Times article on Mr. Potter-who was, until recently, an associate in the Private Client Services group at Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Company-appeared as part of a two-page spread in the Sunday, Oct. 19, paper. The whole package was headlined “Faces of the New York Economy.” The section devoted to Mr. Potter was headlined “Big Earner, Big Spender, Little Burden.”
It was a piece of reported social satire unusual for The Times , listing Mr. Potter’s possessions and mentioning that he “drops $300” on tips and drinks in a given weekend. “He spends at a rapid clip,” went the article, “whether at stylish restaurants in his Park Avenue South neighborhood, at downtown clubs like Lucky Strike or the 10th Street Lounge or in replenishing the Bombay Sapphire and single-malt Scotch in the bar at home.”
Apparently, Mr. Potter didn’t do much to dissuade the Times reporter, David M. Halbfinger, from thinking of him as anything but a materialistic mini-Master of the Universe. Mr. Potter told the reporter he wore custom-made $800 suits and custom-made $80 shirts and that he had an $800 cellular phone and a $3,500 Rolex watch. He posed with the cell phone for the photograph that ran alongside the story.
Mr. Potter’s good fortune seemed palpable on the night of Oct. 18. He was at an engagement party, according to his friends, and he told people that he was going to appear in the next day’s Times in an article on successful young New Yorkers. Some friends accompanied him to the newsstand at around 2 A.M. Soon after he got a look at the article, on page 15 of the Money & Business section, Mr. Potter didn’t look too happy. He knew the piece made him look like a parody of a greedy young Wall Street guy on the make.
“He was completely torn up and terrified,” a friend recalled.
“As soon as he read the article, he knew he was done,” another friend of Mr. Potter’s added.
Indeed, he was done. Kaput. Finished. At least in terms of his career at Morgan Stanley.
On Monday morning at work, Mr. Potter allegedly received a call from Morgan Stanley president and chief operating officer John Mack, who is known as Mack the Knife. Mr. Mack told Mr. Potter that the interview with The Times represented a lack of good judgment and could not be condoned by the firm.
A few hours later, after a phone call from his boss in the Private Client Services group, Mr. Potter was out of a job.
A Morgan Stanley spokesman would say only that Mr. Potter resigned.
Mr. Potter, who would not comment for this article, has no idea what he plans to do next, according to a friend. The friend added that he’s still reeling from what he believes was an instance of exploitation by the press. Indeed, another person said Mr. Potter briefly had a greeting on his answering machine saying he was duped by The Times .
On the face of it, Mr. Potter did violate the firm’s Code of Conduct by talking to the press about Morgan Stanley and his life and work without seeking permission from the corporate communications department. But one of Mr. Potter’s friends said the reporter misrepresented what he was looking for. “It wasn’t like Phil walked into the interview saying, ‘Hey, see my TV, it’s this much,'” said the friend. “I think [the reporter] pulled out the comments one by one in a long conversation to paint the picture.”
“That’s untrue,” said Times spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen. “David represented exactly what the story was about.”
Whatever happened, the young banker’s friend said the article didn’t capture Mr. Potter. “He’s not a big-bravado, high-roller, talking-to-you-about-money type,” said the friend. “He plays chess and hangs out and is smart.”
In the Times article, Mr. Potter said he was confident he would survive any Wall Street bloodletting. He ended up not making it to the big plunge of Oct. 27.