One morning last November, Zoe Cruz walked the length of hallway from her executive suite at Morgan Stanley to the office of her boss, chairman and CEO John Mack, who’d called her in for an impromptu meeting. The distance, roughly 50 feet, represented the final leg of her journey to the highest echelons of Wall Street: Three weeks earlier, the 63-year-old Mack had signaled that Cruz was his first choice to replace him as the head of Morgan Stanley when he retired.
She had come far from the trading floor where she’d started 25 years ago. She had survived mergers, regime changes, and uncertain markets, not to mention the deeply ingrained sexism of Wall Street. With Mack’s help, she had risen through the ranks of upper management to become, at age 52, one of the most powerful and highest-paid women—people—in finance. She thought that she was ready for what was coming next.
Not that things were ever predictable in a career like the one she had chosen. The subprime-mortgage crisis was roiling Wall Street, and Morgan Stanley was getting hit just like everyone else. In recent months, the company had suffered losses of more than $3.7 billion, and $6 billion in additional losses were projected. But Cruz thought Morgan would be better able to weather the storm than most other firms. It was a tough time, to be sure, but she had seen tough times before. And she didn’t think she had anything to worry about personally. Just the week before, she and her husband had gone out to dinner with Mack and his wife, raising glasses of red wine in the dark, wood-paneled Italian restaurant San Pietro.
And so that morning in November, Cruz walked into Mack’s office and took in the view of Central Park that would one day be hers. Her destiny must have seemed inevitable, even imminent.
Then she was fired.
“I’ve lost confidence in you,” Mack told her solemnly. “I want you to resign.” The company’s board of directors had authorized his decision the day before. As a friend of Mack’s characterized his thinking: “It’s you or me. And guess what? I choose you.”
Cruz was stunned. “I have to call my husband,” she said. Morgan Stanley had been her life. She’d worked there her entire career, made the company billions. Her son had married the daughter of another Morgan Stanley executive. And John Mack had been her mentor, her friend. After the ten-minute meeting, she got up and left the building and never went back.
If that meeting in Mack’s office had been the meeting she was hoping for, Cruz would have made history: No woman has ever been CEO of a Wall Street firm. Now it looks like that won’t change for a very long time—there are no other high-ranking women in serious contention for a top job. If women across Wall Street viewed Cruz’s firing as a blow, there were men at Morgan Stanley who seemed almost gleeful about it. The woman they had nicknamed the “Czarina,” the “Wicked Witch,” and, most famously, “Cruz Missile” was out of the picture. They joked that it was worth the $9 billion loss to have her gone. In her rise through the company, Cruz had become not just one of the most powerful women on Wall Street but also the most loathed. It’s a matter of opinion whether those two things are inextricably linked, but for Cruz the same qualities that propelled her almost to the top also prevented her from reaching it.
Of all the recent firings on Wall Street, Cruz’s is the one that’s still vehemently debated. It’s not just because a top executive was forced to take the fall for her boss, though that does seem to be the case. The fascination comes from the fact that Cruz is a woman, and that she had climbed further up the Wall Street food chain than any other woman ever had. She was fired at a time when women on Wall Street were starting to wonder—after more than a quarter-century of getting M.B.A.’s and slugging it out in the firms’ trenches—when one of them was finally going to make it to the CEO’s office. And she was fired at a time when the first serious female candidate is running for the presidency and women’s anxieties about competing in a man’s world are playing out on the national stage. Cruz, of course, would prefer to be seen as an executive rather than a female executive. But it’s impossible, at this point, to make the distinction.
From the beginning, she had the uncompromising ferocity that seems to be characteristic of nearly all women who achieve great success. She was born Zoe Papadimitriou, in Greece, and her parents, who moved the family to the U.S. when she was 14, pushed her to succeed in a land where they were outsiders. After attending high school in a Boston suburb, Cruz went to Harvard, and then Harvard Business School, where she was one of only 168 women in a class of 755. As an undergraduate, she had met and married classmate Ernesto Cruz, a gregarious and equally ambitious immigrant from Nicaragua. Not long after she graduated from business school, she gave birth to the first of their three children, Ernesto Cruz III.