Starting out in the trade, rookie business reporters are often, as I was, given two books to read to learn about the so-called culture of Wall Street, its idiom and its preoccupations, as well as how a writer might go about animating a world that is seemingly devoid of action, a world whose drama unfolds in the clashing of egos, the slamming of phones, and the movement of money from one rich person to another rich person, the boardroom powwows and brow-furrowing punctuated by steak dinners and chauffeured car rides back to Westchester. Do this deal NOW or there’s no economy on Monday!!
Both books were published between 1989 and 1990, and both were authored by very young writers who would both go on to write many more books, as well as many magazine stories for Vanity Fair.
The first book is Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s account of his time at Salomon Brothers in the 80′s and of the creation of the mortgage bond business. The second book is Barbarians at the Gate, authored by two Wall Street Journal reporters named Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. The story of the ill-fated leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, Barbarians, as it is known, became an HBO movie and is often referred to as one of the most influential books ever written about Wall Street.
“Barbarians was one of a trio of books that came out at that time, along with Liar’s Poker and James Stewart’s Den of Thieves,” Burrough told LongForum recently. “Those books did a lot to shape what business narratives became, perhaps a little in terms of style, but I’d argue it was more their commercial success that got dozens of my colleagues charging out to get book advances – and for good reason. The sales of those books suggested there was a thirst for those kinds of stories. What jumps to mind is Roger Lowenstein’s biography of Warren Buffett [published in 1996].”
Burrough, who has been a Vanity Fair correspondent since 1992, spoke to LongForum about the rise of Wall Street journalism, coming back after a best-seller, and managing the fragile ego of bloviator Conrad Black.
Barbarians at the Gate had that fly-on-the-wall, inside-the-boardroom, scene-by-scene style that is the hallmark of deep access reporting and influenced many books after it. Which books influenced you and John Helyar in writing it?
There were a couple of books that had already been done that were very good, and were similar in style to Barbarians. The first was Indecent Exposure, by David McClintock. The second was Greed and Glory on Wall Street, by Ken Auletta. Those books were very influential on us. I think we knew going in what we wanted to do. We were very lucky. We’d been at the Wall Street Journal and everyone on the deal was talking to us.
The timing of your career was very fortunate. You started out in business journalism at a time when Wall Street was getting interesting. What changed in the early 80’s?
In 1983, right around the time I started at the Wall Street Journal, things changed. The 70’s had been immensely boring. But the 80’s saw the rise of Wall Street and the rise of Michael Milken and the whole leveraged-buyout craze. These things suddenly made business reporting something like sports reporting. People were reading it. Boone Pickens was suddenly on the cover of Time.
Like when the financial crisis put Wall Street news back on the front page in 2008.
Exactly. And at the time, with the notable exception of Ken Auletta’s book, this world had not been written about very well.
Barbarians was published when you were not yet 30. What’d that kind of success mean for the rest of your career?
It was odd. John [Helyar] and I covered the [RJR Nabisco] deal for the Journal when I was 27, and then we wrote the book when I was 28. You start off with that success and it’s easy to think that every book after is going to be a John Grisham best-seller. But of course that just isn’t the case. In 1992, I published Vendetta [about American Express], and it tanked. Then I did another book called Dragonfly [about NASA] and it tanked, big time. Would I ever, for a minute, wish Barbarians never happened? No. But in the post-Barbarians period I had to make a deal with myself. I didn’t need to be John Grisham, just a solid long-term player.
So how did you find your way as a book writer?
I had to reconsider what I was doing. I decided that I needed to stop doing what everyone said I should be doing and figure out what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to write the kind of books I read, which were history books. That led me to Public Enemies [about the birth of the FBI], which turned out to be the most fun I could have with my clothes on. It made a nice little book and a nice little movie [with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale]. It was the best I’d done since Barbarians, and it helped me find my way. I became a book guy who writes about popular history, and a magazine guy who writes about business and the mis-dealings of the rich.
But that’s not quite how your magazine career started out. When you joined Vanity Fair in 1992, after a decade of covering business at the Journal, it seems nearly all your stories were about deaths and murders. The death of the son of an orthodox Jewish real-estate family. Deaths in yacht races and deaths on Everest. Deaths of Wall Street bankers and financiers and heiresses. Murders in France. The murder of a Russian dissident. How did this beat come to be?
Murders – it’s all I’d do if they’d let me. Murder trials are such a great excuse to climb through the window of a new world. They show you so much about a community. Think about Capote’s In Cold Blood. Another book that was really influential for me was a book of true murder stories by Calvin Trillin, called Killings.
Today we see less of those stories in magazines.
Yeah, there don’t seem to be as many of them around, and those that do pop up are immediately jumped on by CNN and 48 Hours. Still, not a month goes by when I don’t Google “millionaire murder mystery.” Most of the ones that don’t get covered, however, are abroad, in places like India. And I don’t need to tell you how those pitches go over with people at Vanity Fair.
The faster the news cycle spins, the more long-form ideas get sucked up and spent in the daily press.
What it’s done, largely, is take away my ability to find new, untold stories. It used to be easier to pick up a regional murder mystery. As a result, what I get assigned to now are stories that are bigger and bigger, stuff that is harder to get exclusives on, like Marc Drier and Conrad Black and [hedge-fund king] Steven Cohen.
As you say, those bigger stories are harder to get exclusives on. What’s your secret?
Hey man, I have to beg and grovel like everyone else. But I have two very nice things on my business card. One is Vanity Fair, which opens up a lot of doors, and the other is Barbarians.
Everything changed in 2008. I hadn’t done a Wall Street story in 15 years, and suddenly they threw me at Bear Stearns when it crashed. That brought me back to Wall Street, and I’ve enjoyed the return.
This month’s Conrad Black story was interesting. You seemed to hang the story’s lead on an absence of action. So much had happened since the Black trial in 2007. The world had forgotten about him. His crimes, as you say, were penny ante. Maybe the judge would send him back to jail, maybe she wouldn’t. But the whole thing was sort of ho hum, and your story seemed very sympathetic to Black. Still, he’s going back to jail, it appears. What accounts for that outcome?
Well, they’re still crimes. He’ll probably do another seven months. Who’s to say whether it’s right or wrong? Who’s to say it’s disproportionate? But, yes, my view was that his crimes were penny ante.
Have you heard from him since the story ran?
Amazingly, Conrad thought the story was mean. He felt fooled by me, raked over the coals. He latched on to some pejorative language at the beginning of the story, the stuff about his speech to the judge being bloated.
I have the piece here. You wrote:
It is hard to think of Madoff or Marc Dreier or any other white-collar criminal even imagining the speech Black now delivers in his plummy, singsong baritone. It is classic Conrad Black, rambling, bloated, verbose, and self-pitying, alternately pugnacious and deferential, laced with references to figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Cardinal Newman, and the British jurist Lord Denning. Hunched at a lectern in front of the judge, Black thanks his “army” of supporters on “every continent but Antarctica.” He uses the word “Mephistophelian.” He concludes with Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a poem that has soothed many a brow during periods of stress.
And so on like this.
Yeah, so what he’d been criticized for was talking too much. Bloviation. But come on. He’s a bloviator, and a very charming one. He’s from like 1756. But that’s what I like about him. I found his anger about the piece startling.