Friends With Money

The Prince and The Pauper; My College Roommate became an Oligarch

I knew Anthony G. Petrello as an 18-year-old math whiz. Now he’s the highest-paid chief executive in the country. Where did I go wrong?


Usually, I don’t pay attention—beyond the same unhealthy voyeurism that prompts my addiction to Million Dollar Listing—to the Associated Press’s annual rankings of the nation’s highest-paid CEOs. Why would I? I’m an ink-stained wretch, never planned on making much money, and know next to nothing about business and industry.

It is even less likely that the AP’s little list would rock my world and force a painful re-examination of my terrible life choices. And yet, this week, the impossible became the inescapable.

I have been churning inwardly with depression, hopelessness, envy, and a host of other unworthy emotions, ever since the “highest-paid” list was released and I spotted at the No. 1 position, with $68.2 million in compensation last year, a person who has the same name as my freshman-year college roommate.

It took me a few seconds of browsing the website of Nabors Industries—apparently the planet’s largest land-based oil- and gas-drilling contractor—to figure out that Chairman and Chief Executive Anthony G. Petrello was my freshman-year roommate. Sure, he looked a lot different in his official photo from the last time I saw him, decades ago, at our 10th-year college reunion—grayer, plumper, and possessed of an Alpha male glare—but it was definitely Tony.

I’m hardly unique in experiencing the competitive anxiety—or, in some cases, simple pride—that accompanies the revelation that a friend from the distant past is more accomplished and successful than you are. One can only imagine the stunned musings of certain members of Barry Obama’s high-school “Choom Gang” on the night of Nov. 6, 2008.

Like everyone, I have been surpassed career-wise by long-ago acquaintances and classmates—who include a state attorney general, a couple of wealthy entertainment executives, a famous author or two, and even a top executive at one of the world’s biggest retailing empires—and I’ve done a bit better than some others, a few of whom, sadly, died before their time, one by his own hand. But until Anthony G. Petrello and this damnable list, I’d never had the triumphs of an old intimate hurled so cruelly in my face.

Tony was the skinny public-school scholarship kid from working-class Newark whose thick Jersey accent, loud mouth, and eager demeanor stood out in a student population that, even in 1972, suffered from vestigial pretensions to WASPy privilege and cool restraint. Tony was the Italian-American extrovert, who, during those nearly inedible lunches in the dining hall that featured “pizza” that was actually a cheese slice on a soggy English muffin, liked to joke about his family’s supposed mob connections and was quick to laugh at his classmates’ mealtime “wit.”

And he was the wicked-smart math whiz (who could easily have been the model for Good Will Hunting), who was constantly scribbling proofs of arcane theorems on greasy napkins and, operating at a genius level at age 18, became a protégé of Prof. Serge Lang, a world-renowned mathematician.

It must have been disappointing to Prof. Lang, who died in 2005, when Tony opted for law school instead of fulfilling his promise as a brilliant academic who’d do groundbreaking work in the field of mathematics. It probably was a wrench for Tony as well.

I’d lost touch with him a long time ago; he seems to have spent his 1980s thriving in a corporate practice for a white-shoe law firm in Manhattan, Baker & McKenzie, which ultimately led to a job offer from one of the firm’s more important clients, Nabors Industries in Houston, where he became president and chief operating officer in 1991. By 2011, Tony was running the place; he was seriously rich and getting richer.

Meanwhile, Tony had married his college girlfriend, Cynthia Carrafa, a soap-opera actress and producer, and had started a family. They became active in philanthropy, providing $7 million in seed funding for a neurological research center at Texas Children’s Hospital after their prematurely born daughter, Carena, developed cerebral palsy. Also, like a lot of rich guys, Tony became something of a hobbyist in the expensive art of real-estate litigation, suing his next-door neighbor in Houston, and a potato farmer in Sagaponack, N.Y., in highly publicized disputes over residential properties.

I’m not certain how business titan Anthony G. Petrello reacted to being described in Vanity Fair as “a modern-day Satan”—doubtless not positively—but the Tony I knew would have found it hysterical. “It’s all true!” Tony once announced with a giggle, and perhaps a bit of perverse pride, when a relative in the construction business was accused of consorting with the Genovese crime family. (Tony’s relative was acquitted.)

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As might be expected, I couldn’t resist placing a call to Nabors Industries’ Houston office on Thursday in hopes of getting Tony on the phone and begging him to explain to me where I’ve gone wrong and if there’s anything I can do at this late juncture to reverse my meager fortunes. Or else comfort me with the wisdom that cash, even obscene amounts of it, isn’t everything, and you can’t buy love.

But his secretary informed me that Mr. Petrello wasn’t in, and I was still staring at my phone when an email from Tony arrived.

“One life lesson I have learned is that between being smart or being lucky—lucky is better,” he wrote. “I have been extremely fortunate in work.”

I was starting to feel better already.