Villain Worship

Andrew Ladd reviews new books by Alan Greenberg and John Waters.

“If Bear Stearns were still a going concern,” writes Alan “Ace” Greenberg in his new tell-all, with Mark Singer, about the beleaguered financial company (The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns, Simon & Schuster, $26), “I suppose I would have written a book with a title more along the lines of The Rise and Continued Rise of Bear Stearns.”

As it stands, his actual title isn’t quite right, either; probably more appropriate would be The Rise and Continued Rise of Alan Greenberg—Who, Incidentally, Is a Pretty Swell Guy—and the Totally-out-of-his-control Fall of Bear Stearns at the Hands of Some Other Bozos. (Then again, I’ve never been very good with titles.)

That the book doesn’t do quite what it says on the cover isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Greenberg’s account is still a fascinating glimpse into pre-recession Wall Street boardrooms and the somersaulting rationalization apparatuses of the rich old men that populated them, and the (I suspect unintentional) psychological portrait of the chillingly self-deluded author that arises in the telling is at least as gripping as the tale itself.

But let’s call a spade a spade: at its heart this book is less a story about Bear Stearns than a very public campaign by Alan Greenberg to massage himself into history’s good graces —a campaign he pursues relentlessly on two fronts.

The first of those is an attempt to demonstrate his magnanimity, philanthropy, and general everyday-American-nice-guyness, in a sort of desperate insistence (if you can bear to hear the metaphor one more time) that it’s possible to work on Wall Street without also being totally removed from Main Street.

Right off the bat we learn of Greenberg’s “remarkably pleasant upbringing” in the heartland of Oklahoma, where he worked in the family business and single-handedly steered his high school track and football teams to victory. (Occasionally he wonders if he might have made it to the NF, but his pesky work ethic meant that he was usually too busy being at the top of all his classes.)

If this sounds a little egotistical—and trust me, it does—he’s quick to assure readers otherwise: the most important things he learnt from his childhood were the humility and generosity that he saw and greatly admired in his father.

Most of the anecdotes about the elder Greenberg seem to pretty well support that characterization, too—he anonymously donated shoes to the local softball team, and put in orders with his struggling vendors even when he didn’t actually need anything from them —though occasionally he sounds more like a Sh*t My Dad Says for an earlier generation: “I have three pieces of advice,” he tells his son, who is at that moment leaving for the big city. “Never make fun of a millionaire, never hit a cripple, and never have sex with an idiot.”

Anyway, even with his mostly Rockwell-worthy Oklahoma childhood retreating into the distance, Greenberg was careful never to abandon those humble, compassionate roots—or so he eagerly tells us.

Beyond the more famous of his charitable acts, like his donations to the Little People of America and a fund for men who needed Viagra but couldn’t afford it—not to mention his dictum that all Bear Stearns’s high earners donate 4% of their income to charity—the Greenberg of this book is a champion for the small worker, and a born diplomat with his colleagues, and generous to a fault, even when it comes to the people with whom he disagrees the most.


And that brings us to the second prong in his defense of his good name: the “I had nothing to do with it.”

The subtext here is a rebuttal of the version of events related in House of Cards, an earlier book on the fall of Bear Stearns, which relied heavily on the account of Greenberg’s principal rival at the firm, Jimmy Cayne, and was therefore something of a hatchet job. (Greenberg, though he pretends to take the astonished, “how-could-anyone-say-such-things?” moral high ground, offers no less of a hatchet job in return.)

But the literal narrative is that Bear Stearns under Greenberg’s leadership never had a bad year; what’s more, he says, he was wary of all the repackaged sub-prime mortgages from the start, and if only everyone else had listened to him then everything would probably have worked out fine.

In fact, the real problem was all that gosh-darn magnanimity of his! He couldn’t forcefully disagree with Cayne because he didn’t want to “cross certain lines,” he couldn’t dwell on those disagreements because of his “lifelong resolve to move forward continually,” and he couldn’t leave Bear Stearns, despite his misgivings and unhappiness, because the firm “could ill afford the repercussions.” (Perhaps he should drop “Ace” and go with “Job.”)

Even if all this ex post facto rationalization gets tiresome, though, at the end of the day I find Greenberg’s campaign to rescue his legacy at least a little bit convincing. Partly it’s in the quaintness of his descriptions of Golden Age Wall Street—where men really did go by nicknames like “Ace” and “Bunny” and “Nookie”, and carpooled to work four-at-a-time in bench-seat Buicks (and how can we possibly stay mad at that?)—but mostly the proof is in the facts.

Greenberg did steer Bear Stearns through decades of successful business, too consistently to just be lucky, and throughout that time he took care of his employees and donated regularly to charity, too.

And so what if his retelling of all that reeks of spin? It still seems petty to ignore his good deeds and suddenly pretend he’s evil incarnate just because he’s “one of those Wall Street bankers.” Sure, he got into the business (by his own admission) to get stinking rich, but unlike many of the people who do so today, he did it as a means to an end: he was trying to fulfill the expectations others had of him, and to provide for his family, and to give back to the community.

And though he probably did serve unintentionally as a role model for the younger generations of bankers for whom wealth is the end, we can hardly blame him for the repugnant behavior of those who now claim to be following in his footsteps.


Role models, if you’ll permit the slightly ham-handed segue, are also the focus of the new memoir-in-essays of the same name by John Waters (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $25). In this pleasantly eclectic assortment of character sketches, the campy Baltimore auteur profiles several of the people who have affected his life over the years, along the way covering everything from eyebrow pencils to the Manson Family.

And though some of these vignettes do plod a little, the book’s constantly shifting focus means that it generally stays light on its feet and reliably entertaining.

For that reason alone Role Models deserves a recommendation—Little Richard’s NDA is a particularly high point—but its constant challenge to readers to examine their own role models and their feelings towards same is a welcome and thought-provoking enterprise, too.

It’s not enough, Waters shows us, to emulate our heroes by studying only their greatest successes: just as important are their grand failures and their forgivable peccadilloes, their bad habits and even, perhaps, their quirky ones. If only someone could finally get that message to Wall Street.

About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares. His work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others, and his first novel, What Ends (New Issues Press, January 2014), was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel. Follow Andrew on Twitter @agoodladd.

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