Following Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and arriving on bookshelves the same month as Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Vanity Fair writer Vicky Ward faced an uphill slog with the publication of The Devil’s Casino. Thousands of readers no doubt assumed the book was one more of the dozens of volumes that purported to offer explanations for the biggest financial collapse in 70 years of world history.
That assumption was wrong. As Ward herself takes pains to note, The Devil’s Casino is an intimate, inside look at the people of Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street investment bank whose record-setting bankruptcy is widely credited with triggering the meltdown of 2008. Like the close-up portraits of the rich and famous that often appear in the pages of her magazine, this book is nothing more, and nothing less, than a character study of homo sapiens wallstreetianus. The characters here were employed by Wall Street, or bound to the firm through marriage, but it’s difficult to believe that a similar book about the people of any of the other Wall Street behemoths would read much differently.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers by Vicky Ward @@@@ (4 out of 5)
When President Obama met with Bob Woodward after reading Obama’s Wars, he suggested that Woodward had better sources than he did. Any of the principal players in the Lehman Brothers debacle might well have said the same thing about Vicky Ward. She conducted hundreds of interviews with Lehman employees, including virtually all the firm’s top executives in its glory years as well as its endgame. She spoke, too, to a number of the wives of key executives, gaining an invaluable perspective on their home lives (or the lack of them), their marriages (and divorces), and their occasional activities outside the company.
To paraphrase one insider confiding to Ward, all in all this was a sorry bunch of rotten, greedy scoundrels at the helm of one of the world’s most important financial institutions. There were exceptions, a (very) few of them notable for their restraint and honesty. By and large, however, this was a company — and an industry — that by its very nature tended to attract people interested in little but money, fame, and power.
After all, when you strip away the rhetoric, what else does Wall Street produce? The financial shenanigans practiced by the characters in Vicky Ward’s unsparing portrait had precisely nothing to do with directing needed resources into worthy businesses. That definition of Wall Street’s purpose is sheer myth. Instead, the work of the boys and girls of Lehman Brothers was all about self-aggrandizement.
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