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Divorced, Never Separated

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Steve thought of nothing but filling his coffers.
Illustration by Marcos Chin  

Steven A. Cohen was born to be a trader. His father worked in the garment industry, while his forceful, stern mother taught piano 60 hours a week—though Steve notes that none of the eight children can play. Steve got more than his share of attention—he was a star student and athlete—but he craved more. “You’d do better in a family of two kids,” said his mother, also named Patricia.

In his parents’ household, money was tight and earning it much valued. “Money makes the monkey jump,” his mother liked to say. And Steve had a gift. In high school, he took a summer job at a clothing store just to be near a brokerage. “So I could run in and watch the tape during my lunch hour,” he told author Jack Schwager. The tape recorded the minute-by-minute changes in stock prices, and Steve could read it like a textbook. “In those days, [if you watched the tape] you could see volume coming into a stock and get the sense that it was going higher,” he told Schwager. Another summer, his job was playing poker late into the night, which he credits with teaching him how to take risks. He learned quickly. His younger brother Donald remembers seeing wads of $100 bills spread on his desk in the morning. Right out of Wharton, where he was an undergrad, Steve was hired as a trader, and was soon affiliated with Gruntal & Co.

In the go-go eighties, Patricia and Steve led what looked like a dream life. Money seemed to flow to Steve by some law of nature, and they liked to spend it. They traveled first class, and had a 5,500-square-foot apartment on East End Avenue, one among several homes. Steve liked Patricia to look great, an interest she shared. “I could buy as much clothing as I liked, as much as $50,000 in one month,” she later wrote.

Patricia stayed home tending the family and decorating their homes, partly from thrift stores—even then, she says, Steve had a miserly streak. Certainly, Patricia appreciated the lavish side of their lifestyle. But the job that supported it caused her problems. Trading is taxing work, and Steve internalized the stress. His moods would swing up and down with the Dow. “He used to come home beat-up, impatient, at the end of his wits,” Patricia says, and then take it out on her. “He could be demanding, hypercritical, and a screamer; if he had a bad day, he’d explode.”

In Steve’s view, it would have helped if Patricia sympathized with the strain on him. Instead, she seemed put out, as if his working so hard was self-centered. Steve understood how the market affected him; after the relationship collapsed, he went on Prozac for a time. But he could have used a little appreciation—after all, he was “going to war,” as he referred to his job, for her and their two children. But after work she’d meet him at the subway exit with the kids, as if to say, Okay, your fun time is over. As Steve experienced it, she didn’t want him to be happy.

Patricia comes from a fractured family, and she has her own ideas of the good life. She issued dramatic, “evangelical” speeches urging Steve to remember the simpler, family-centered pleasures, like trips to Disneyland or splashing in the pool with his children. She pressed him to change. Somehow she’d missed a fundamental element of Steve’s character—she hadn’t realized how ambitious he was. “Maybe I mistook his youth for idealism.”

By 1988, things were almost over—though, of course, they weren’t. Patricia insisted on divorce, but Steve beat her to the punch, serving her with papers charging that she’d abandoned him and refused to have sex. At first Steve moved out, but then, partly on his attorney’s advice, he returned to their sprawling apartment, with the kind of explanation that would echo for the next two decades. “I had every right to do so,” he wrote in an affidavit. “I paid all the expenses.” Their romance had turned into its mirror image. Steve now took some pleasure in Patricia’s discomfort, though she pushed his buttons, too. As he wrote, “She well knows how to do [that].” There’d even been a fight; Steve hit her, she says. “The one physical confrontation we had during this entire period was provoked by [Patricia],” Steve wrote. “Although she called the police, it was not necessary that she do so.” And yet even as they were divorcing, their connection was intense. They continued to talk on the phone for hours at a time, and even sometimes slept with each other. Neither one could get away.


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