Searching for Corned Beef and Talking ‘Muppets’ With Goldman Sachs Turncoat Greg Smith

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Photo: Victor Prado/New York Magazine

"I wanted to go somewhere that is part of my life now,” Greg Smith says apologetically, explaining why he nixed the idea of meeting at a restaurant next to Goldman Sachs’s downtown headquarters, seven months after he flambéed the bank’s reputation in an incendiary New York Times op-ed column. Instead, Smith, who keeps kosher for meat and enjoys a good corned-beef sandwich, suggested Barney Greengrass, which isn’t actually kosher. But the place is closed, so we’re wandering the Upper West Side in search of a nosh.

On a nearby block, we pass a group of teenagers in sagging pants (it reminds him of a scene in Borat) and a giant inflatable rat, probably to protest nonunion labor in a building nearby. The rat’s yellowed teeth hold a cigar; in its hands are two money bags. But when I joke that he should place a rat outside Goldman to promote the book that he had based on his op-ed, the strait-laced and talking-point-equipped Smith winces. “I want to try to reach thoughtful people who can look at something with nuance as opposed to sensationalism,” he says.

We end up at Zabar’s; the café’s frozen-yogurt machine is melting down and creating a huge mess behind the counter. Smith picks out a prewrapped Nova-and-cream-cheese sandwich and tells me to try “the thick pizza. There’s a thin kind and a thick kind. The thick is amazing.” As I eat, Smith tells me about the quiet, writerly life he’s been living since April, after he became Wall Street’s most famous turncoat.

Smith spent most of those months on Why I Left Goldman Sachs, a 277-page memoir-manifesto that is being published this week. In an attempt to preemptively blunt Smith’s criticisms, the bank leaked details from performance reports to suggest that he had grown disgruntled after failing to be promoted to managing director. There was also a full-scale internal investigation over one of the most damning accusations in Smith’s op-ed: the charge that his Goldman colleagues had, on many occasions, referred to their clients as “muppets.”

 “The muppet search is so hollow,” Smith says, taking a sip of his orange juice. “The real problem isn’t calling someone a muppet. It’s that reason you’re calling them a muppet is because they got tricked on an investment.” Smith also denies that a missed promotion had anything to do with his op-ed: “I was doing well in my career. Would I have liked to have been promoted? Absolutely. But was I in line to get promoted at age 33? Probably not.”

A polite, soft-spoken South African with an accent that turns clients into cloints, Smith is an unlikely whistle-blower. He spent almost twelve years at Goldman, going from lowly New York intern to London-based head of the firm’s U.S. equity-derivatives business in Europe. He bled Goldman blue, accepting assignments to mentor college interns and appear in recruiting videos. “I don’t think Goldman became worse than any other bank,” he now says. “I think it became just like every other bank.”

 At 6 a.m. London time on March 14, Smith woke up, walked to his computer, and submitted his resignation—a three-paragraph note to eight of his top bosses explaining his reasons for quitting. Two hours later, his op-ed went live. “I had no idea what to expect,” Smith says. “Part of me worried it would be ignored. But literally, both my British and my American phones rang constantly for five hours.”

The next few days were a blur. A reporter knocked on his mother’s door in South Africa; another found his father’s pharmacy in the mountains of North Carolina. Financial bloggers mocked Smith’s coltish self-aggrandizement (he bragged about, among other things, having won a bronze medal in table tennis at the Maccabiah Games) and pointed out that his impressive-sounding title, “executive director,” is a mid-level title at Goldman. They did not mock Goldman’s practice of making middle managers sound like they run the place.

 Over the ensuing weeks, Smith sorted through the thousands of attaboys he received from supportive readers, then secured what was reported to be a book advance of nearly $1.5 million. For the next five months, he camped out at his apartment to write, taking breaks only for West Wing reruns, sets of tennis in Central Park, and pole-caught-tuna sandwiches for lunch.

 Why I Left Goldman Sachs may disappoint those who hoped for a collection of sordid Wall Street bacchanalia. Smith saw no financial crimes in progress at the bank, and his tales of Goldman life are mostly anodyne workplace micro-dramas told with wide-eyed breathlessness. The book’s most lurid revelation is that Smith once saw Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein naked at the company gym. With the book done, Smith says he’s looking forward to resuming a normal life, possibly as a speaker and pundit. Among other things, he’d like to meet a woman.

“I’m not anti-capitalism at all,” he says. “I want Goldman to be admired. I just don’t like this notion that ethics and capitalism are different things.”

A large man in a cowboy hat wedges in next to us. Smith scoots over to give him room: “I just realized, have I been talking very loudly?”