That he personally has become a target of ire is especially baffling. “It feels, you know, weird,” he says. “Very weird. The idea that with all these things that have gone on in the world, and particularly institutions that really put the system at risk, that there would be all this focus on Goldman Sachs and me? That seems so weird.”
Inside Goldman Sachs, at least, Blankfein appears to be beloved. “We’re not supposed to talk to the press,” board member Lois Juliber told me, then gushed, “but I think he’s just terrific.” Among the rank and file, he’s known for his accessibility: He’s not above descending from his 41st-floor office to mingle on the trading floor or leaving personal voice-mails for employees who have distinguished themselves. He is often seen at events wearing a huge and beatific smile. “You will love him,” a friend who works at Goldman texted me before our meeting. “I think he is a misunderstood creature.”
Growing up in the Linden projects in East New York, Blankfein was chubby and brainy. “I would have liked to be a nerd,” he says. “I didn’t even make it to that.” Woefully uncoordinated, he decided to focus on being “funny and entertaining” instead and became known around Thomas Jefferson High School for his Borscht Belt–style sense of humor. By 16, he was already at Harvard, where he earned a reputation for his ability to memorize television jingles and popular songs. This, by the way, is a talent he still retains. “I was born this way,” Blankfein sings at the diner. “Born this way …” He recently attended a Lady Gaga concert with his 17-year-old daughter. “I am one with the popular culture,” he says. (He also once met 50 Cent at a play, where they discussed “businessy things.” “He’s an impressive kid. And by the way, it’s Fitty Cent. Fitty.”)
After graduating from Harvard Law, Blankfein worked briefly as corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, where, on weekends, he developed a fondness for the blackjack tables in Vegas. He soon discovered a career that better suited his interests: investment banking. When he arrived for his first interview at J. Aron & Co., a commodities-trading firm in New York owned by Goldman Sachs, Dennis Suskind, a partner, led him through a roomful of screaming traders to his office.
“Are you sure you can work in that?” Suskind asked, gesturing toward the floor.
“Work in it?” Blankfein shot back. “I go home to it every night.”
“It feels weird. Very weird. The idea that with all these things that have gone on, there would be this focus on me?”
Though he is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Blankfein denies he was driven by the desire for wealth or status and is impatient with the cliché of the striving kid from the projects. “It’s not like I was Jay Gatsby, staring over at East Egg, being like, ‘How do I get to be in that crowd?’ ” (He does now have a house in Long Island.) Blankfein still feels like there was something accidental about his success. “You know, you do stuff, and then people ask you to do more stuff,” he says. “I remember once reading in a Kurt Vonnegut book the question ‘How did you get here?’ ” he continues. “Statistically, it just seems like such a remote thing. But it’s not, really, because somebody has to be here, and if another person was here instead of me, that person would be sitting here talking to you, and you’d say, ‘How did you get here?’ Someone had to do it. It happened to be me.”
Jud Sommer, Goldman’s former head of government affairs, attributes Blankfein’s rise at Goldman Sachs not just to his “raw brain power” but to his “high EQ.” He was interesting, a history buff, and fun to work with, ready with a joke whenever the mood got too tense. He’d stay late for an overseas call, if everyone else was, too. If someone’s father died, he’d understand taking a personal day. “He’s just really a human,” says Sommer. (If that seems like faint praise, remember, this is Wall Street. As Sommer says, “I don’t think everyone is a human at the end of the day.”)
Humans rarely become CEOs of large financial companies, and Blankfein was not the obvious choice to run the firm when Henry Paulson left to become Treasury secretary in 2006. Among the alpha males jockeying for the position were John Thain, whose affectless demeanor earned him the nickname “I, Robot,” and John Thornton, who was rumored to have once said that if a deal didn’t go through, “I will personally slit the throats of all my team and drink their blood.”
But it was Blankfein’s humility that Paulson most appreciated. “The thing that hit me about him was a sort of positive insecurity,” Paulson told the author William Cohan. Still, it’s not like Blankfein would ever be mistaken for JP Morgan’s handsome, affable CEO Jamie Dimon.