Within the Nineteen Thirties, Richard Whitney was some of the revered figures on Wall Road. A four-time president of the New York Inventory Change, Whitney had received fame in 1929 when, with the backing of main bankers, his ostentatious shopping for quickly halted frantic promoting on the buying and selling flooring.
A decade later, his fame lay in tatters. By 1938, it emerged that Whitney had coated large losses in his personal portfolio by embezzling from others, together with the New York Yacht Membership, which he served as treasurer, and his father-in-law’s property. To many individuals, he turned a logo of the rot they perceived on the core of American finance, and he served greater than three years in Sing Sing for his crimes.
Whitney was the last word patrician. How might an individual with all his benefits do such a factor? That’s the query on the coronary heart of The Embezzler, a brilliantly fictionalized model of Whitney’s story by that indefatigable chronicler of New York’s bygone WASP aristocracy, Louis Auchincloss. An lawyer, Auchincloss in some way additionally discovered time to jot down almost 70 books, most of them novels. He was a virtuoso storyteller and sensible psychologist who put cash and morals on the heart of a lot of his works.
His routine milieu must be of curiosity to anybody in a management place, as a result of hardly anybody since Shakespeare has performed a simpler job of anatomizing a society’s higher crust — a job through which Auchincloss was solely following within the footsteps of Sophocles, Tolstoy, and plenty of different greats. At present’s enterprise world is dominated by a brand new sort of elite, and it may be illuminating to look at the methods through which previous and new examine.
The Embezzler, first revealed in 1966, is a cautionary story, as a result of in enterprise, failure is all the time an possibility. What issues is how you fail. Have you ever performed so actually and even usefully? Had been your actions ethical in addition to authorized? And may you bounce again?
In enterprise, failure is all the time an possibility. What issues is how you fail.
Auchincloss is simply the person to convey these points dramatically to life, in a novel that’s at occasions shockingly good, isn’t dangerous, and is all the time compulsively readable. A lifelong misfit born into the higher crust, Auchincloss was bullied and abused at Groton, dropped out of Yale, and spent most of his profession as a trusts and estates lawyer, a task that stored him perennially immersed in issues of household and wealth whereas leaving him time and vitality to jot down. Better of all, he understood his tribe but nursed few illusions about it.
The Embezzler is a narrative instructed in Rashomon model by its three main characters: the stockbroker Man Prime, his banker buddy Rex Geer, and the lady they each love at varied occasions, Man’s spouse, Angelica. Auchincloss doesn’t distinguish the voices of the three people terribly properly, however they had been, in any case, merchandise of the identical social and academic milieu. And they’re all keenly insightful. In his virtuoso narrative, the account of every character enhances, contradicts, and clarifies — typically shockingly — what has come earlier than.
Within the first of the three “memoirs” that make up the ebook, Man remembers his time as a preferred Harvard scholar decided to make a buddy of the troublesome and distant Rex Geer, one in all eight youngsters of a Vermont Congregationalist minister, who struggles to earn the cash to remain at school. Rex is preparing to surrender. However Man, by utilizing his items of excessive start, attractiveness, and charisma, intercedes with a professor to study that Rex will quickly win a profitable prize for an economics paper, enabling him to stay at school.
Their friendship cemented, Man lands each of them jobs on the venerable New York banking home of de Grasse Brothers. However Rex, the extra cautious and industrious of the 2, is the extra pure banker, whereas Man is quickly established along with his personal brokerage, one which ultimately handles transactions for de Grasse. Rex and his financial institution climate the crash of 1929 (and the following Despair) properly sufficient. However Man secretly struggles, and to cowl occasional borrowing he falls into the behavior of pledging different individuals’s securities as collateral.
Finally, Man encounters an ideal storm of setbacks. “Silly traders all the time blame their failure on dangerous luck,” he acknowledges. “However I ponder if even the wisest watcher of the market might have foreseen the hurricane that wrecked my Caribbean resort island, the patent go well with that delayed the manufacturing of my Vita-Glass homes, the title flaw that paralyzed my phosphate mines, the federal investigation that slandered my tranquilizer tablets. If solely one in all these tasks had been realized in 1936, my troubles would have been over.”
In his model of occasions, Man means that his more and more reckless transgressions are impressed by his anger at Rex and Angelica. Studying between the traces, we sense the useless and imperious determine he has turn out to be — one crammed with self-loathing and even perhaps liable to violence. The phantasm of Man’s frankness is additional undermined by Rex’s account, which nonetheless confirms his personal morally compromised place.
Issues look extra totally different nonetheless when Angelica weighs in together with her personal devastating model of how these three lives intersected. Auchincloss, not like many male novelists of his era, was good at depicting girls, particularly Angelica’s genteelly Machiavellian mom. I received’t spoil the enjoyable by saying extra, besides to guarantee you that after you’ve gained everybody’s perspective, your understanding might be significantly enriched, even when your certainty in regards to the true nature of the gamers might be shaken.
About Man, after all, there’s far much less ethical ambiguity, for he has destroyed his wealth, his good title, and his freedom — to say nothing of the happiness and safety of his household. Even discounting for his routine vainness, it’s clear he understands the ramifications: “Man Prime was an establishment on which a small multitude of individuals depended: my previous father, who lived, at nearly ninety, like Anchises, on the imaginative and prescient of my glory, my companions and staff, my youngsters and servants, even to some extent Rex himself and his sacred de Grasse companions.”
Man’s defalcations, like Whitney’s, assist result in highly effective new federal securities regulation of the sort his colleagues loathed and feared. (Though Auchincloss has stated his ebook was impressed by Richard Whitney, it’s arduous to think about he wasn’t additionally influenced by Thomas Lawson’s Friday, the Thirteenth, one other novel of two Harvard mates, one born into cash and the opposite decided to make some, whose Wall Road fates diverge.)
The Embezzler is filled with references to classical Greece, and these appear to counsel the creator’s view of why somebody like Man Prime — or Richard Whitney — would do issues so silly and fallacious and self-destructive. The principle purpose, Auchincloss appears to indicate, is character. Man’s is patently poor, and that poses grave dangers to everybody in his life. Now we have lately seen, on a a lot grander stage, how explosively energy and dangerous character can mix.
Man, furthermore, isn’t just insecure and entitled — he’s additionally enabled by membership in a robust caste. Standing and wealth can impart a harmful sense of impunity, a way that had as soon as mirrored, for enterprise leaders, some actual insulation from penalties. That made it too simple, maybe, to go too far. At present, as an alternative of having fun with immunity, executives should take care to stay scrupulously past reproach. It’s clear from The Embezzler that failure is an possibility always, irrespective of who you might be. The problem is constructing resilience into your life, so that you just received’t be tempted to do the sorts of issues — born of desperation, delusion, or entitlement — that flip garden-variety setbacks into outright catastrophes.