A few months before he got out of jail, Sam Waksal sent word that he needed a new place to live, and his daughter Elana set about finding a home that would measure up to what the immunologist, biotech entrepreneur, intellectual, sophisticate, friend of Martha Stewart, former “Page Six” regular, and federally convicted inside-trader calls “my aesthetic.”
Waksal had been set back a bit by prison, but never entirely brought low. During what he euphemistically waves off as “my time away,” many of his belongings lay in storage: his Jean-Michel Frank furniture from the forties; much of his art, including a Rothko, some works by Cy Twombly, and a world-class collection of rare Etruscan pottery, some of which he found himself on faraway digs; and his beloved books—“old volumes, as old as I can get them,” like an eighteenth-century French translation of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy. And last summer, upon his conditional release from a halfway house in the Bronx, Waksal had everything moved into a peaceful apartment his family had found for him—not in Soho, where he’d famously lived, worked, and thrown fabulous parties, but on the Upper East Side.
“I decided it was actually hipper than Soho—especially since I’m living here now,” Waksal says. He means it as a joke. “When I came back, Soho was sort of, you know, like a shopping mall. Being in exile, one of the things that was terrible was the brutality of the aesthetic. It’s brutal. And where I am right now, it is not.”
Waksal is sitting at the far back table of a small, warmly lit café in his new neighborhood. A young-looking 61, he speaks in a warm, soft twang. He has always been stylish for a scientist—slender and elegant in dark bespoke suits with monogrammed French-cuff shirts (“None of this is brand,” he says. “It’s made”)—with a taste for fine art and attractive women and exclusive parties. But he is also well-read and ostentatiously intellectual. As he sips an espresso, he starts name-checking Continental philosophers—Sartre, Kant, Spinoza, Wittgenstein— assuming I’ll keep up, as he talks about prison: the “ineffable sadness” of the place, and how he transcended the monotony by reading (or, in many cases, rereading) almost the entire Western canon, including two different accounts of the Peloponnesian Wars. He also passed the time by writing two novels, a memoir, and some poetry, and teaching courses to his fellow inmates with titles like Science in the 21st Century and The History of the Western Idea, and—most popular, by far—Philosophy and Business. “They always wanted to know, ‘How did you use this information to be successful?’ ” he says, laughing. “I wanted to say to them, ‘I’m in prison, guys, I’m not successful.’ ”
And yet he is now. Despite his conviction and five years in prison, Sam Waksal has emerged, at least in business terms, a success. Last November, just three months after his release, ImClone, the biotech company he famously founded in Soho 25 years ago, was sold to the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly for $6.5 billion. At the center of the sale was a now-successful cancer drug called Erbitux, the same drug whose approval problems with the FDA in 2001 had led to Waksal’s insider-trading conviction. At the end of that year, facing unexpected hurdles in the Erbitux FDA-approval process, Waksal oversaw the dumping of some 79,000 shares of ImClone in a series of suspiciously timed trades that would go on to bring him down and also lead to Martha Stewart’s obstruction-of-justice conviction. Waksal is no longer with ImClone—he resigned in disgrace, and he is forbidden for now by the court to head any public company. But he still had ImClone options at the time of the sale, and so he likely made a fortune off the Eli Lilly deal (he won’t say how much, though he will say “the world doesn’t have to worry about me”). That he would have made more and avoided five years in prison if he’d only been more patient, or really believed in his own drug, or both, does not need to be remarked upon. Erbitux, which last year generated more than $1.5 billion in sales, has prolonged the lives of thousands of cancer patients, and the drug’s approach is widely understood to be a model for the next generation of cancer treatments.
Although Waksal has been humbled somewhat, he is by no means a changed man. Even now, he struggles to explain exactly why he did what he did. He is determined to return to the biotech world and is actively seeking investors for another start-up. Perhaps most importantly, he feels vindicated by the success of Erbitux. Waksal is starting his second act determined to behave as if nothing ever went wrong in the first. “The moving finger writes,” he says—he’s quoting the eleventh-century Persian mathematician-astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam—“and having writ, moves on.”