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Wall Street's Secret Society

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Not surprisingly, fear and paranoia persuade all but the boldest gays and lesbians to conceal their private lives. Some count on a stable of attractive "girlfriends" and "boyfriends" to escort them to business dinners and company functions. One investment banker asked a woman friend to leave a breathless outgoing message on the answering machine he shared with his male lover. Another decorates his desk with portraits of friends' children that he passes off as his own.

In some ways, gay white males on the Street have enjoyed an advantage over other minorities -- blacks and women -- because they can pass as straight white males. In the fifties and early sixties, when Wall Street was a less macho place, gay men in particular found it easy to hide in open sight. These men were perceived by their clients -- conservative, midwestern CEOs -- not as New York queers but as cultured, urbane gentlemen.

The code of silence was so strict that in 1983, an executive named Robert Hudson co-owned a brokerage firm with a gay partner, and neither realized that the other was also gay. But as the culture of Wall Street turned increasingly rabid during the late eighties, the Gentleman Bankers of an earlier generation were shoved aside by Swinging Dicks so big they made even Tom of Finland's look modest.

AIDS further changed the equation. Like every other industry in the city, Wall Street suffered a number of aids deaths, the majority of which were disguised as pneumonia or cancer in death notices. Among the epidemic's earliest casualties was Leon Lambert, a name partner at then-mighty Drexel Burnham Lambert and a familiar figure on the city's gay circuit. Activist Larry Kramer, who was invited to attend Lambert's funeral, remembers that Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller delivered eloquent eulogies -- but neither mentioned that the financier was a closeted homosexual or that the real cause of his death, according to Kramer and others, was aids.

The epidemic also pitted gay activists against their more conservative Wall Street counterparts. Up until the eighties, most activists were willing to grant closeted tycoons their privacy, but as the gay movement took a radical turn, Kramer and his cohorts dispensed with the rules. Magazines like Outweek began outing closeted titans like David Geffen and Malcolm Forbes. In a much-talked-about speech in 1982, later published in his book Report From the Holocaust, Kramer took aim at one of the Street's most celebrated figures, Richard Jenrette, for not taking a more public stance during the epidemic.

At the age of 30, Jenrette co-founded, with two of his Harvard Business School classmates, the investment-banking firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, which now grosses more than $5.4 billion a year. In the late sixties, Jenrette launched Alliance Capital, which became one of the world's largest money-management firms, and he went on to head the Equitable, leading a stunning turnaround at the struggling insurance giant. Now retired at 69, he remains the courtly southern gentleman, favoring conservative Brooks Brothers suits. An avid art collector and an antiques buff, he spends most of his time restoring old mansions. He currently owns six, including an 1840 plantation in South Carolina, an 1838 house in Charleston, and a spectacular 1820 house on the Hudson River.

Though scrupulously low-key about his sexuality, he has lived with the same partner for nearly two decades and occupies a position on the periphery of the Gay Establishment. Kramer says that when Gay Men's Health Crisis was founded in the early eighties, Jenrette was among the first to write a check, but the financier spurned subsequent requests to donate more or to serve on the GMHC board.

"The fact is, Jenrette has benefited a lot from the strides of the gay movement," argues Kramer. "We, in turn, need visible people like him to self-identify. Why are gays on Wall Street living by the fears of a previous generation?

"If Dick Jenrette had been a real hero and honest about his sexuality, maybe the current generation would be bolder," Kramer adds. "At this point, he has absolutely nothing to lose."


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