Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bruce Wasserstein, 1947-2009

I was shocked, while skimming the news a while ago, to come across this Reuters story announcing the death of my law school classmate, Bruce Wasserstein. I hadn't seen Bruce since a class reunion almost twenty years ago; at the time, it struck me how fit he looked compared to the chubby youngster (he started law school at 19, two years younger than most of his classmates, and three years after entering the University of Michigan at 16) I had known from classes and the occasional shared lunch table twenty or so years before. Until I saw the Reuters story, I didn't know about the recent concerns over his health, or the heart irregularities that put him in the hospital several days ago.

The Bruce I knew back in the day was a committed leftist who had been active in Students for a Democratic Society ("SDS"), the pre-eminent student radical organization of the 1960s, as an undergraduate at Michigan. I was surprised when he told me that he was entering the newly announced joint J.D./M.B.A. program, which entailed spending an extra year in Cambridge taking courses at the Business School. He needed, he said, to understand the workings of the system he opposed. For a time, he worked for Ralph Nader, and put his business degree to use in heading the team that produced Nader's critique of Citibank, a thick, statistics laden book the cover of which was adorned with a cartoon pig.

I was surprised, but not shocked, when I heard he had gone to work for Cravath, then and now perhaps New York's most prestigious corporate law firm. The Cravath partnership included several prominent former Kennedy New Frontiersmen, and some who had been student radicals of the '60s were settling into similar career paths, perhaps rationalizing that they could do more good (and make some money in the process which, of course, could also be put to good use) by working inside the system. His leaving Cravath for investment banking, initially at First Boston, also seemed a logical move. By then, I had pretty much lost touch with him, but assumed he still was on the left politically. I was disabused of that notion in 1980, when I volunteered to work on a law school fund raising telethon, and Bruce showed up with a stack of invitations to a fundraiser for Mark Green's congressional campaign. Mark had been Bruce's closest friend in law school and after that a fellow Nader Raider. As he passed around the invitations, Bruce said, "Friendship compels me to do this, but I hope no one here is still a liberal Democrat."

Bruce was preceded in death by his younger sister, Wendy, a Tony and Pulitzer winning playwright, who succumbed to lymphoma at the age of 55. He adopted her young daughter.

I'm impressed by the succinct comment made by "JHL" in response to the piece in today's New York Times Deal Book blog:

Good banker. Created value for clients. Sine qua non of banking, but he would have offered more over time. Peace.
I, too, think "he would have offered more." I envisioned his winding down his frenetic deal-making and, re-kindling his youthful fervor for social justice, applying his tremendous intelligence and practical know-how to some grand project or projects for which he might be remembered long after the RJR/Nabisco and Time/Warner deals are forgotten.