Ace Greenberg Bears All

With few exceptions, many of the CEOs and senior Wall Street executives who oversaw the financial crisis have taken their exit, having been fired or having the foresight to leave before they could get canned. Alan “Ace” Greenberg, the former chairman and CEO of Bear Stearns, is not among them. The 83-year-old has been working at JPMorgan Chase in the two years since the bank bought Bear. And when he’s not managing money or performing magic tricks, he found the time to put out his memoir, The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns, chronicling his own ascent from a 21-year-old clerk to chief executive. He found the task necessary after some other books took a few liberties with his, Bear’s and his former friend Jimmy Cayne’s life stories.

The Observer: Why did you want to do this book?

Mr. Greenberg: There have been gross inaccuracies in some of the other books about Bear. I wanted to set the record straight.

You mean House of Cards by William Cohan?

A lot of them got it wrong. That one had so many lies, about what happened about Bear, about me. I’m not blaming the writers. The authors were led down the wrong path by their sources. Almost everything about me in that one was a lie. I wanted to do the book that was true.

You weren’t afraid to go to Jimmy Cayne and tell him what was what, like when you said he should stop taking a private elevator because people resented him for it, and when you were upset that he missed a big meeting because he wouldn’t move his tee time. Do you wish you’d gone to people and said you needed to get rid of him?

No, that was the job of the board. And it would’ve been very difficult to get rid of Jimmy. Things were going well. The stock was making a new high. I knew a lot about my business, but I didn’t know much of what was going on in the mortgage business, so I couldn’t have gone and said, ‘He’s doing something wrong.’

Could you have told them you “knew of someone” smoking pot in his private elevator? They might not have appreciated that. 

I never knew of Jimmy smoking on the job.

You never even sensed anything? You never came to see him in his office and he all nervously shouted, ‘Just a second!’ because he was … you know …

[laughs] Never.

You think you could beat him at bridge?

No, he’s a better bridge player.

What if you were able to take off weeks at a time to attend bridge camp like a certain someone?

[laughs] No, not even then. But besides, that’s a hypothetical. I’m bad at hypotheticals. Quote me on that.

O.K., enough about that guy. How do you still do it? Most people your age are done with the daily grind. You don’t want to maybe kick back?

This is what keeps me going. I love this. Some people stop working and play golf. I’m not gonna golf.

You could take your magician routine on the road.

That’s a hobby, not a job. I have other hobbies, too, you know. I hunt deer-with a bow and arrow. People come to me and say, ‘Come hunt our deer!’ It’s a terrible situation, you know, out here, so many of them, too many of them.

Since you’re not retiring anytime soon and Jamie Dimon has spoken about a succession plan for JPMorgan-do you see yourself taking over as CEO? I think you could outlast him.

[laughs] I’m going to be 83!

So you want to throw you hat in the ring?

[laughs] No, I don’t think so.

Do you and Dimon do lunch?

I’ve seen him a few times, and we’ve said hi. His dad works right around here. Great man.

How many times a day do you do cards tricks?

I don’t know, a few times a day? People come in and ask me to do tricks for their clients.

Do you get a lot of business out of them? Do people say, ‘Wow, this guy must be good with -money!’

[laughs] No, I don’t think so.

Are you going to do some tricks for me?

Oh, yes! Here we go. [picking up a deck of cards] Shuffle this deck. Do you play bridge?


You shuffle cards like you know how to play.

I am good at shuffling.

O.K., cut the deck and I’m going to spread these cards out. I want you to pick one and not tell me what it is. I’m going to perform a miracle here. I’m going to put the deck back together and shuffle through these cards. You tell me when to stop and then stick the card back in. Now I’m going to ask you questions. Fib or tell the truth, doesn’t matter. Just know: This deck is a lie detector. Was your card a numbered card or a face card? Red or black? Heart or diamond? Is your card the king of diamonds?

Yes! How did you do that?

I’ll tell you what I tell my grandchildren: Go to the library and figure
it out!

Bess Levin is editor of


Ace Greenberg Bears All