Can I crash?” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says to Alexandra Lebenthal, first-time novelist and CEO. It’s only 8 a.m., but like everyone else breakfasting at the Regency Hotel at this hour, the senator is coiffed, caffeinated, and ready to network, fresh from a morning TV appearance to discuss the just-passed financial-regulation overhaul. “It’s a good bill,” the senator declares, plopping down at our table. “Way better than when we started. It sort of balances the fine line of oversight, accountability, but leaves us competitive, which is really important, because the worst thing we could do is destroy the ability to have a vibrant market. Well, you look great,” she says to Lebenthal, and asks her about her Hamptons summer plans. “Are you going to any parties? The funnest one is going to be Ron Perelman’s. That one’s going to have movie stars. It’s going to be the hit party, so make sure you know about that!” And with an air kiss, she’s off to the next table.
Lebenthal, who runs her family financial-advisory firm, Lebenthal & Co., is a regular at the Regency, which is one of several New York power spots that appear in The Recessionistas, her fictional retelling of the financial crisis from the vantage point of wealthy and connected Manhattanites like her. It catalogues her set’s habits in almost anthropological detail—Sarabeth’s, the Carlyle, Swifty’s are also mentioned, but the Regency is the center of it all. “I’ve been coming here for a really long time,” says Lebenthal, picking at the cup of raspberries she’s ordered (eating is “taboo when it comes to power meals,” is one of the book’s many truisms). “My business partner jokes that if I have to go anywhere else for breakfast I get really agitated.” It’s easy to imagine Lebenthal—bright sweater draped primly over her tiny, toned shoulders—being a little high-strung. The 46-year-old mother of three says she wrote The Recessionistas “mostly in the car” on the way to the Hamptons last summer.
“You’re actually seeing quite a busy morning,” she observes, surveying the room. “Frank Zarb is the older man,” she murmurs, nodding imperceptibly toward a table where Eliot Spitzer’s balding head can be seen bowed deep in conversation with a pair of men whose suits exude Establishment. “He was a senior person at Citi and Shearson, but then he was the head of the NASD. A big, huge, important regulatory job. And then that’s Andrew Tisch. The table next is Jim Tisch, Andrew’s brother. That’s Al Sharpton’s table. He’s here a lot, actually.”
Like Lebenthal herself, The Recessionistas is incredibly girly—a tightly plotted mystery narrated by a cast of wives, assistants, and mistresses—but it’s packed with information. In one scene, the wife of a manager of “a long-short hedge-fund that specializes in big macro calls” describes his business: “He doesn’t always have the balls to stick with what he wants to buy, so he buys some of what he doesn’t like, too, and agrees to sell some of what he likes if he screws that up. It usually works out, or at least it doesn’t make him look dumb, and we make lots of money no matter what!” It’s like Too Big to Fail Goes to the Beach.
Lebenthal started working for her father, the colorful municipal-bond salesman James Lebenthal, when she was 23 years old (one of her first bonds sales was to Paul Volcker), before taking over the firm in 1994. Like her father, who pitched the firm on TV, Alexandra is comfortable in the public eye. (She even has a column on the New York Social Diary website.) In today’s tight-lipped finance world, this makes her a little unusual.
The book is centered on real-life events, from the fire sale of Bear Stearns to the Bergdorf Goodman–Manolo Blahnik lunch event that one character—the spendthrift wife of a Lehman bond salesman—attends on the day of that firm’s collapse. Lebenthal doesn’t actually know anyone who went to that lunch (she found it on a party-photo website, “and I just thought, this could not be any better”). But none of her surgically altered, status-obsessed characters, she insists, is based on anyone in particular. And while some of them might come across as slightly ridiculous, the book isn’t mocking. “I don’t see that world as totally ridiculous,” she muses. “I think that everybody actually has good in them.”
But then she’s one of them, and they’re her target audience. “Here’s what I envision. Husband and wife—David Einhorn or whoever—are sitting by the pool, and she’s reading it. And the guy is intrigued enough that maybe he’ll read part of it.” And if they don’t like it, so what? “I feel like, it’s not my career. I did not set out to be Tom Wolfe,” she says, folding her napkin neatly and preparing to head into the office. “I do have a backup plan.”