An interview with William D. Cohan.
William D. Cohan, a former senior Wall Street M&A investment banker for 17 years at Lazard Frères & Co., Merrill Lynch and JPMorganChase, is the New York Times bestselling author of three non-fiction narratives about Wall Street: Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World; House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street; and, The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co., the winner of the 2007 FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. His book, The Price of Silence, about the Duke lacrosse scandal was published in April 2014 and was also a New York Times bestseller. His new book, Why Wall Street Matters, was published by Random House in February 2017. He is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and a columnist for the DealBook section of the New York Times. He also writes for The Financial Times, The New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Atlantic, The Nation, Fortune, and Politico. He previously wrote a bi-weekly opinion column for The New York Times and an opinion column for BloombergView. He also appears regularly on CNN, on Bloomberg TV, where he is a contributing editor, on MSNBC and the BBC-TV. He has also appeared three times as a guest on the Daily Show, with Jon Stewart, The NewsHour, The Charlie Rose Show, The Tavis Smiley Show, and CBS This Morning as well as on numerous NPR, BBC and Bloomberg radio programs. He is a graduate of Phillips Academy, Duke University, Columbia University School of Journalism and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and now lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.
How did you transition from a Wall Street banker to the career you have now?
I graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 1983 and then was a reporter on the daily newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina for two years covering public education in Wake County, which is where Raleigh is. The irony of that was, I had never been to a public school in my life. I did that, learned a lot and decided I’d always wanted to work at The Wall Street Journal for some reason. I really thought it would be interesting to write (this is in the pre-Rupert Murdoch days when it was owned by the Bancroft family) those long pieces that got written about the M&A deals on Wall Street; how the deals got together, how they happened, behind the scenes and stuff like that. I kept trying to get a job at The Wall Street Journal and they would never hire me. My father always wanted me to go to business school. He saw the financial limitations of a journalism career long before I did, so I finally decided to do that. I went back to Columbia to get my MBA and was still hopeful that I would get a job at the Journal when I got done with my two-year MBA program. But again, I tried and again it didn’t happen. It was May of 1987 and, at that time, all you had to do was breathe to get a job on Wall Street. The markets were booming. I couldn’t get a job at The Wall Street Journal but I could get a job on Wall Street, which I thought was very ironic. So, that’s what I did. I went to Wall Street first. I worked at the leveraged buyout, then I worked for the chief credit officer there. After two years I got a job at Lazard in New York where I’d always wanted to work after reading a book about André Meyer, the great Lazard banker. That led to six years at Lazard, then Merrill Lynch, and then ended my career at what became JP Morgan Chase. So, having been a journalist and serendipitously going to Wall Street, after seventeen years it was time to leave Wall Street. I thought to myself, “You know, what can I do now that allows me to use what I’ve learned on Wall Street and use my journalistic skills?” Uh, and that’s when I sort of landed on the idea of writing a book about Lazard. So, I wrote a book proposal, got a book agent and then she shopped it around. There was like a competition among the publishers to publish the book, which surprised me. It was bought by Doubleday, which was part of Random House. I wrote the book beginning in 2004, finished a couple years later—never written a book before, never written anything longer than a newspaper article and I hadn’t done that in twenty years. It was a real leap of faith, but I figured I knew how to work hard and I remembered how to be a reporter and a writer. I spent a year interviewing and then a year writing and then, by some sort of miracle, it came out, became a New York Times bestseller and was Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year in 2007. When that happened, I got calls from The New York Times to write columns and calls to write for Vanity Fair. So, that was it. The miracle happened.
Your book proposal must have shown a lot of promise to receive that kind of response. What did you put in your proposal that caught the eye of an agent? She obviously thought it could be successful before you actually wrote the book.
Well, I didn’t know what I was doing, of course, but I knew there were four main characters that I wanted to focus on at Lazard. Basically, I wrote twenty-five-page profiles of each of the four main characters I wanted to focus on. And so, it was a one-hundred-page book proposal, which is obviously quite lengthy, but I don’t know, that’s sort of just the way I decided to do it. I think that worked—obviously I’d never written a book before and I think that sort of captured the publishers’ imaginations of what the book could be, because the last thing I wanted was sort of a dry book about banking. What I wanted was to make it about the people and the characters and that they were so interesting and crazy and generous. And so that’s what I did.
As an investigative reporter, what were some of your more unusual experiences?
I guess I’m always surprised that the least of my problems trying to write books is getting people to talk to me. I mean, obviously it’s hard at the beginning, but once you start getting a critical mass of people to talk to you, it just seems that they all want to talk because they know it’s going to be written and they want to be part of it, or they don’t want to not be part of it, or they don’t want their rival to be part of it. So, that’s always interesting to me. For the Lazard book, Lazard was owned by a French man named Michel David-Weill and he had a son-in-law named Edouard Stern. I knew Michel from Lazard and I knew Edouard because he was a banker at Lazard when I was there, and he then left. I went to Paris to interview a bunch of people because the firm had a big Paris office. It was a French family and primarily very big French firm. I had agreed to meet Edouard to have him give me an interview for the book about his father-in-law and why he left Lazard controversially. They had a big fight over what Edouard’s role should be. I had arranged to meet him on a particular day, but we hadn’t specified the place. That was sort of in the early days of internet connectivity, like in 2005 or 2006, as I recall. I was at this hotel in Paris on the left bank. First of all, the plugs are different, and I brought my computer to plug into the wall, and then I was trying to get the internet connection and it wasn’t really WIFI per se. Long story short, I couldn’t communicate with the guy because I didn’t know where he was. I only had his email address and I couldn’t communicate with him. We couldn’t set the time or the place. So, then I came back to New York and, of course, I got all his emails and he had gotten mine. This was in February and he was going to be in New York in the beginning of March. So, we agreed to meet up. Well, in the interim, after Paris and before he came to New York in March, his girlfriend murdered him in Geneva, Switzerland. That of course was a big sensational story.
Wow, that’s a wild story. What were some of your responsibilities as a special correspondent for Vanity Fair?
I was a writer for Vanity Fair for thirteen years. I just left actually to be a founding partner of a new digital magazine. It’s called Puck, which has been written about in The New York Times. But, for the first ten years of being at Vanity Fair, I just wrote long-form narrative stories that appeared in the magazine—two or three a year. So that was great. I love writing for Graydon Carter and I love my editor, Doug Stumpf. Vanity Fair realized they needed to have some sort of online presence, so they started with what was called the Hive. I started writing for that as well. Nobody asked me to per se, but I figured that they needed the writers to begin contributing to the online publication. I did that and then Graydon left, and then a new editor came and things have slowly changed a lot at Vanity Fair. It’s not the same publication that it once was—but I kept writing for the magazine, although much less frequently. I would write things, but they didn’t seem to get into the magazine quite as often. I kept writing for the Hive every week and then this opportunity to do Puff came along. You too have equity in this venture that is founded by writers, for writers, for journalists. It seems like a good time to do that and to leave Vanity Fair behind. I would have continued to do both, but Vanity Fair didn’t want me to continue to do both. I continue to write for many other publications and write books. So, it’s still a very full life.
What about as a CNBC contributor?
I was on this morning. I do that when they ask me. For a decade, I was a regular contributor to Bloomberg and then that ended. CNBC asked me and I said sure. Once or twice a month or so I’m on CNBC, so that’s great. It’s just another thing to do, you know, you gotta just sort of keep out there, keep in the arena, keep in the discussion.
That makes sense. Would you rather be a contributor than on staff?
Yeah. Right. I’ve never been on staff. With pockets probably as close as I’ve gotten, it’s still not a situation where I’m getting healthcare, so I guess until you get healthcare, you’re just a 1099 kind of guy. I like my freedom. I like being able to write for whoever I want. I like not having to go to an office. I know none of us went to an office in the last year plus I haven’t gone to an office since I left banking – since 2004, so that’s seventeen years. I like having my own equity. I like being able to do pretty much what I want to do. You know, it doesn’t always work. Like, you know, obviously Vanity Fair didn’t want me to do Puck but by and large, it’s worked out very well.
So you’ve written about a lot of controversial topics, too. How do you decide on a topic for a book? Does it just come to you, or does it weigh on your mind over time?
Well, first of all, writing, researching and writing a book is a little like getting married. It’s a serious commitment and you have to obviously be really interested in what you’re writing about. I only like to write about things that I’m interested in learning more and everything about, living with it day in and day out, year after year for two to three years. I don’t want to do something that I’m not interested in generally and journalistically and making sure there’s a great narrative that can be told, and that there’s a reasonable chance that I’m going to get the access that I need. I never expect to get cooperation from the people or the companies that I’m writing about. And I haven’t with everything. I didn’t get cooperation from Lazard, but I got cooperation from the people who work there. I didn’t get cooperation from Bear Stearns, but I got cooperation from the people who work there. I didn’t get cooperation from Goldman Sachs, but I got cooperation from the people who work there and also with Duke. This book I’m writing about General Electric, it’s not like they’re letting me into their archives but I’m getting cooperation from all the people who work there. That’s more important than getting access to their archives. It’s hard to write books. It’s hard to write the kinds of books that I write. They’re not slapped together. They’re not memoirs. They’re very complex stories and lots of recording and serious writing is required. And sometimes I wonder if it’s too much or why I’ve chosen to go this route. There are certainly ways to write a book that aren’t this complicated or involved. Maybe I’ll rethink it for my next book.
When researching and writing your book, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, what struck you the most?
As a Duke grad, I followed it the best with the way the media covered it. I was in New York. I wasn’t in Durham. It seemed like with the story what happened seemed one way, and then next thing you know, it seemed like something else had happened. And I just decided this is ridiculous. I know something happened here. I just don’t know what happened and I don’t know what really happened. I decided it would be a good story and a good book to take a blank sheet of paper, start at the beginning and figure out what really happened. People had a lot of preconceived notions about what happened, and they’ve been sort of preserved in amber and people sort of, you know, there was a huge constituency out there, the narrative that these kids were railroaded by an ambitious, ruthless district attorney and a woman who made up the whole story and blame these kids—but in fact the truth is much more nuanced and different than that. I figured out what had happened, and I reported what happened. A lot of people didn’t like that version of the truth; they liked their version of the truth. I’m sorry to say that my version is much closer to the reality of what happened than the one they prefer to believe, but in a free country people can believe what they want to believe. And a lot of people, as I say, like their version and not the real version and fine with me, fine with them, whatever, you know, whatever they want to believe. There’s nothing I can do about that. My job is to present the facts as they really happened and let the chips fall where they may.
Your next book about General Electric, what will that cover?
I’m almost to the end of a book called a Power Failure about the rise and fall of GE. It’s a history of General Electric, how it became the most important dominant company in the world, and then how it all pretty much fell apart. It was at one point, the Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Netflix or whatever all rolled into one. It was the most valuable company in the world for a long period of time, and now it’s basically a shadow of its former self. So, it’s a book about how all that happened.