Life After Wasserstein

As friends gather to mourn financier Bruce Wasserstein, Ralph Gardner Jr. reports on the future of Lazard Frères, New York magazine, and his sister Wendy’s famous daughter.

12.14.09 11:17 PM ET

The sadness among his fellow billionaires at Bruce Wasserstein’s December 7 memorial service could only partly be explained by the recognition that inclusion on the Forbes 400 is no guarantee of longevity. Wasserstein, the chairman of Lazard Frères and owner of New York magazine, died two months ago, shortly after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. He was 61 years old.

Corporate raiders aren’t, as a rule, warm and cuddly, and Wasserstein was even less so than most. Known as “Bid ‘Em Up Bruce,” he was one of the more feared takeover artists of the last several decades, devising some of the most brilliant and brutal takeover tactics in deals such as DuPont’s takeover of Conoco, Philip Morris’ bid for Kraft, and Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts' takeover of Nabisco.

One of the guests at the memorial service said that as she listened to his eulogists describe Wasserstein’s loyalty and passion for social justice—he was a muckraking journalist in college and endowed a chair at Harvard Law School in public-interest law in his father Morris Wasserstein’s name—she “kept thinking of all the deals where people got hurt.”

His financial acumen benefitted no one as much as Wasserstein himself. When he sold his company, Wasserstein Perella, to Dresdner Bank in 2000, he pocketed almost half the $1.37 billion sale price. And when he took venerable Lazard Frères public in 2005, after overthrowing Michel David-Weill, its aristocratic if autocratic chairman, he became its largest shareholder. According to The Wall Street Journal, Wasserstein was paid $20.4 million in 2008—$3 million more than the company’s next four highest officers combined. His net worth was $2.2 billion, not including a $188 million payout triggered by his death. In November, Lazard announced that Ken Jacobs, 51, a 21-year veteran of the company would take over as chief executive.

The sadness at his memorial service was almost as much for the Wasserstein clan as for Bruce in particular—a family that seemed to possess a secret formula for talent and success, but also faulty genes. This marked the second time in the last few years that friends have gathered at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to mourn the premature death of a Wasserstein. Bruce’s sister Wendy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, died of lymphoma in 2006. She was 55 years old. And they were predeceased by their older sister, Sandy, a pioneering female executive who held high positions at American Express and Citibank, before succumbing at 60 to breast cancer in 1997. Their youngest sister, Georgette, is an innkeeper in Vermont.

The grief at Wendy’s memorial was understandable. Apart from her comedic gifts, she sparkled: She was generous, unpretentious, and unguarded in a way that overachievers often are not. And she left behind a small child, Lucy Jane, who Wendy had decided to have on her own when she was 48 and whose birth The New York Times covered in affectionate detail.

Since Wendy died, Lucy had been raised by Bruce and his third wife, Claude, along with their children, Jack and Dash. “Lucy continues to be part of that family unit and beautifully cared for by Claude,” said a close family friend and longtime business associate of Bruce. Adds writer Betsy Carter, another old friend of Bruce, “She’s turned into an athlete which is funny, because Wendy wasn’t.”

Bruce also had three older children—Scoop, a law student; Ben, a writer at HBO, and Pam, who works at Tribeca Films. The kids took center stage to read a letter of advice Bruce had once written them at camp—“one of the lines was ‘Integrity may not always make you the most money but it will make you a much happier human being,’” said Larry Kirshbaum, a friend of Wasserstein’s since college who, as head of Warner Books, published Wasserstein’s 1988 Big Deal: The Battle for the Control of America’s Leading Corporations.

Throughout the service, little if any mention was made of the wives. Bruce’s record as a husband was less illustrious than as a corporate raider. He was married four times, most recently last February to Angela Chao, 35, an executive in her family’s shipping company (and sister of former Labor Secretary Elizabeth Chao) whose nuptials to Bruce triggered several think pieces on the allure of beautiful young Asian women for jowly middle-aged masters of the universe. He also had a sixth child, Sky, born on June 30, 2008. According to the New York Post, he fathered her with an unidentified recent Columbia Business School graduate that he met between the time he separated from his third wife, Claude, and met Angela.

“With the kind of money Bruce Wasserstein has made over the years I don’t think they’d need to sell it,” Reed Phillips says of New York magazine.

While Wasserstein enjoyed many of the accoutrements of great wealth—a sprawling mansion in the Hamptons and a duplex on Fifth Avenue—he was famously unkempt, only in later years dressing the part of the Lazard chairman. “He could be very awkward in social situations,” Lawrence Kirshbaum said. “I’d call him an intermittent talker at dinner parties. He could sit and stare into space. He wanted a purpose to every transaction.”

In his eulogy, Adam Moss, the editor of New York, captured the insecurity Wasserstein provoked in lesser mortals when he recalled how, in Moss’s 2004 audition for the editor’s job, Wasserstein’s eyes rolled back in his head in the middle of their conversation and he appeared to take a cat nap. Moss came to admire Wasserstein and his trenchant deconstruction of his fellow power brokers. But he seems never to have fully fathomed why Wasserstein bought New York magazine in the first place. He didn’t use it as a bully pulpit, or to preen before his high-powered friends. There seems to be some thought that he wanted it vicariously to practice his passion for journalism, dating back to his days at the Michigan Daily, except that he didn’t meddle in New York’s editorial content.

Almost as soon as Wasserstein died, there was talk that the family would sell the magazine. But Anup Bagaria, who ran Wasserstein’s media holdings, quickly quashed the rumors by issuing a statement that the magazine wasn’t for sale. It is owned by family trusts controlled by Pam and Ben. Both wrote for the Harvard Crimson and Ben worked as an associate editor at New York in 2005. And it doesn’t make much sense to do so at the moment anyway—and not just because this isn’t the most auspicious moment to be selling magazines given the current economic and digital climate (even though one would assume that several moguls with less inscrutable motives than Wasserstein’s would probably happily vie for the property.) “They’re still building out New York online and doing all the things they wanted to do with it to turn it around, and they’re not going to sell it at a discount,” said Reed Phillips, an media analyst whose company DeSilva+Phillips has advised Wasserstein on media purchases in the past. “They may even hold on to it for longer than that. With the kind of money Bruce Wasserstein has made over the years, I don’t think they’d need to sell it.”

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band played the mourners—they included Mayor Michael Bloomberg and fellow takeover artist Carl Icahn—out of the Vivian Beaumont Theater as Wasserstein would have wanted. He hadn’t anticipated his death but he’d seen the band in the film To Live and Let Die. “He loved James Bond movies,” Betsy Carter said. “He said that’s how I want to go, and they remembered it.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Observer, The New Yorker and other publications.