What Does It Take for a Female Tycoon to Get Noticed Around Here?

Photo: Jeff Riedel. Hair by Bryan Lynde; Makeup by Edward Cruz

Lynn Tilton doesn’t think women should have to act like men to be successful in business. “I think women too often give up their identity in a man’s world and believe they’ll only be successful if they’re close to what men are or what men expect them to be,” she says at a New Haven coffee shop, spearing her latte with a straw. Tilton, 51, is the founder and CEO of ­Patriarch Partners, a private-equity firm that specializes in the takeover of distressed manufacturers of a decidedly masculine nature: fire-truck-maker American LaFrance, MD helicopters, automotive company Dura. “I don’t want to feel like I have to fit into a male mode to be this sort of successful industrialist,” she continues. “I take pride in the fact that I can be all woman in a man’s world. And,” she adds, lowering her already deep Mae West voice another octave, “as you may have noticed, I am all woman.”

It’s hard not to notice: Tilton’s lipstick is frosty pink, her eyelashes are long and inky black, her hair is Barbie-doll blonde, with curls spilling over cleavage that is invariably visible, invariably tan, invariably accentuated by a diamond necklace, and invariably supported by a tight-fitting garment made by one of her favorite designers. Today she has chosen a Roberto Cavalli miniskirt accessorized with spike-heeled suede boots and a fur-trimmed cape. “There’s never been a carcass I wouldn’t put on my back,” says Tilton, adding that she’s been a vegetarian for 40 years, so she’s earned it.

Her brand of femininity is so over-the-top, so cartoonish, it’s as if she were playing a part, the Wonder Woman of Wall Street. But this is pretty much how she sees herself: an Ayn Rand heroine in six-inch heels who has men stay the night, then eats them for breakfast. “I’ll be your girlfriend,” she’s told clients, “but I won’t be your bitch.”

“My job is to make men better men,” Tilton often says, and that includes teaching lessons to the ones who try to hold her back. Like Claudio Gemme, the CEO of Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali, a producer of electric motors and generators, who failed to treat Tilton with proper respect when she first came to tour the soon-to-be-bankrupt factory in Genoa in 2005.

“He was like, ‘In Italy, we like-a the women,’ ” she says. “ ‘We like-a them in the bedroom. We like-a them in the kitchen. Not in the boardroom.’ I’m thinking, I’m going to buy this company, and I’m going to fire these arrogant men.” A week later, at the bankruptcy auction, when Gemme, who had been at the company for 32 years, failed to provide essential paperwork, Tilton grabbed him by the knot of his tie and, in a boardroom full of people, shoved him against the wall. “You’ve showed me no respect and no appreciation,” she hissed. “Today I can give your company away. So when I say ‘Step right,’ you step right. When I say ‘Step left,’ you step left. Do you understand that dance?” Then she stormed out.

“She’s got balls,” a trustee said.

Gemme loosened his collar. “Three.”

“Now we get along great,” Tilton says with a laugh. “He loves me. He would marry me in a second.” Gemme, she says, was afraid Patriarch would sell the company for parts. But with their backing, she says, Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali has turned back to profitability. For his part, Gemme confirms that “everything happened exactly like Lynn says it did,” and mentions that they now have a marketing slogan that stresses “the power of three: ‘Innovation, Intellect, and Integrity,’ ” and a new logo, an A with three balls.

Patriarch currently claims over $8 billion in annual revenue, and Tilton says the company has made her a billionaire as well as the owner of more businesses than any other woman in America. These claims can’t easily be verified, but they’re impressive enough that Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean at the Yale School of Management, has invited her to speak on a leadership panel, which is why she has helicoptered up to New Haven today.There are three other executives on the panel, but Tilton quickly takes over, telling salty yarns about dinner at Silvio Berlusconi’s house (“I’m grateful for being too old to sleep with him; it makes for a less difficult exit”), hot-tubbing with “the Dubai leader’s son,” and the time she grabbed Tony Blair’s rear, then lectured him on industrial policy.

“We need an industrial base,” she tells the audience. “And that’s what I told Tony Blair. I let him know I thought the demise of the U.K. was based on the fact that they had let go of all of their industry.”

“This is after you grabbed the prime minister’s—” Sonnenfeld starts to say.

Photo: Jeff Riedel. Hair by Bryan Lynde; Makeup by Edward Cruz

“I needed him to feel safe when I gave him a hard push!” Tilton says coyly. “I like to be balanced. With one hand I stroke; with the other hand I smack.”

It’s the Lynn Tilton show—even more so when Sonnenfeld pops in the trailer of Diva of Distressed, the reality series based on Patriarch that is scheduled to air on the Sundance Channel this fall. In the pilot, Tilton appears in head-to-toe ­Gucci and a hard hat, striding around Old Town Fuel & Fiber, a Maine pulp mill she bought in 2009, talking about her plans to convert it into a producer of biofuels, playfully punching a potbellied worker in the gut. “It’s only men I strip and flip,” she tells the managers. “My companies I keep long term and close to my heart.”

Tilton ducks out of the room while the video plays—she worries she looks fat on-camera—but when the lights come up, she takes her seat next to the other panelists and looks out at the class. “What’s the problem?” she asks, her eyes lighting on a male student in the middle row. “You’ve got your arms all crossed and you’re radiating negative energy. So let’s hear it.”

The student, a twenty­something in ­glasses, answers in the uneasy tone of someone who sees no choice but to go for it. “I guess, the trailer is not to my liking? Because of the entertainment value that seems to be happening?”

“But I am entertainment value,” Tilton says. “It’s part of what allows people to follow me.” She isn’t doing the show for the fame or financial gain, she goes on to say in a long soliloquy that touches on spirituality, ideas of femininity, and her larger mission in life. “Women aren’t inspired by money,” she says. “I think we’re more sensitive. This is not just a business to me; it’s people’s lives. I came to create light in the world of darkness.” Patriarch’s work with distressed companies, she says, is “sort of like when someone takes a homeless person off the street and has to put them back into the workforce.”

“I think it went well,” she says later that evening, as she is being flown by helicopter back to New York. She’s surprisingly perky for someone whose day started with a slew of 3 A.M. e-mails, though the same cannot be said for her boots, one of which has slouched down around her ankle. John Bourne, a young employee, bends down to pull it up for her.

“That’s what I like,” she quips. “A man on his knees.”

A female billionaire—not to mention one who wears miniskirts, travels by helicopter, and parties at Berlusconi’s mansion—is a rare and curious thing. But few outside of finance had heard of Lynn Tilton until October 2008, when her outrage at the government’s $700 billion TARP program inspired her, she says, “to come out of my comfort zone below the radar.”

After the bill was signed by the president, Tilton stayed up late, writing a screed that railed against “the financial-market economy” and called for the creation of a federal lending facility to small and midsize businesses. She titled the essay “A Clarion Call to Rebuild America” and had it printed as an advertisement in the Times and the Washington Post. She built Patriarch a website and started a blog, Dust to Diamonds. In January, she was the subject of a flattering article in The Wall Street Journal, which sent Forbes scrambling to establish whether Tilton belongs on its billionaires list. Though fiercely protective of her image, she says she’s compelled to become a public figure. “I can’t change the world if I stay behind the scenes,” she says. “Right?”

Last year, she was introduced to Randy Jones, the dapper Southerner and founder of Worth magazine, who asked her to join him in a bid to buy Newsweek. Tilton agreed to finance it on condition that they redo it as a women’s magazine. She didn’t get the magazine, but she did get Jones, who joined Patriarch as the platform leader of Tilton’s media-and-­entertainment division, designated cocktail-party mingler, frequent handbag carrier, and tireless promoter. “If only we had more Lynn Tiltons in the world!” he exclaims in the Diva of Distressed pilot.

Tilton’s daughter, Carly, who became her deputy last year after working for six years as a trader, isn’t happy about the publicity push, which she attributes to Jones. Or, as Carly calls him, “Him.” (Lynn says that as a child, her daughter once told her, “If it’s got a penis, it’s got a problem.”) Carly’s attitude is causing some friction. “I don’t like how antisocial you’re being,” Tilton said to her daughter during the visit to Yale, where Carly stayed close but out of sight, answering an endless stream of e-mails.

“Well, I don’t like how you put everything about yourself out there,” Carly shot back.

“She loves me so much,” Tilton says with a sigh a few days later, sitting in the kitchen of her large, Italianate mansion in Rumson, New Jersey. She closes her eyes as a makeup artist rubs highlighter over her cheekbones in preparation for a photo shoot for Spiegel, the catalogue mainstay, which Patriarch bought in 2009 and is revamping as a “magalogue” along the lines of Tilton’s vision for Newsweek. “And I love her,” she continues, rolling her eyes back to allow the makeup artist to line her eyelids. “But she needs to understand that when I choose to do something, she needs to be supportive. Because what I do is so much bigger than what I am.”

She pops her eyes open. “The truth is, I believe that there will very well be violence in the streets in America,” she says. “It’s my great fear. And I think the only thing we can do to stop it is by creating employment. Social unrest comes from people who can’t take care of themselves. If we become a populace of the permanently unemployed, and Wall Street keeps going up, and multinational corporations keep making money, but Americans are unable to work and take care of their families, there is going to be social unrest.” She closes her eyes as the makeup artist fixes a line of false eyelashes. “I believe I have been chosen for this moment,” she says, “where I can make a difference.”

Tilton’s goal is “to be part of the ­intelligentsia. An enlightened thinker. One of the people who are called together to think through economic issues for America. You know, like how George Soros is called on issues.”

She blinks open her newly fringed eyes. “Just so you know, the No. 1 thing that transforms you is false eyelashes. And by the way, they’re impossible to do yourself.”

Tilton’s assistant tells her it’s time to change. Still talking, she walks to a rack of dresses next to the stove that have been pulled for the shoot. Much to her disappointment, her policy ideas have not been embraced by Washington.

“Look, I am the largest female business owner in this country,” she says, coming out from behind the rack in a Herve Leger gown. “I own 74 midsize businesses, and Obama has not once called me into the White House on these issues.”

More offensive, Tilton claims, as a female stylist reaches into the bodice of the dress to plump up her cleavage, the president has borrowed language from her articles. “I mean actually lifting pieces,” she says. “Literally, I can give you paragraphs. I got like twenty e-mails after his speech, when he was like, ‘We need to be innovators and the makers of things.’ ”

Tilton turns to the stylist. “Do you want me to wear an amazing necklace?”

Oooh, yes,” the stylist nods, and apologizes for manhandling her breasts.

“This is the best sex I’m having,” Tilton says. “So go ahead.”

Tilton’s issues with Obama are not much different from those of other business owners of a stripe: She was one of the attendees at the Koch brothers’ infamous anti-administration gathering in Palm Springs last year. But her irritation with the president at times seems more personal, and not just because she voted for him. In addition to the plagiarism allegation (which she admits “is probably his speechwriter, not him personally”), she claims the administration’s plan for a $30 billion Small Business Lending Fund, which proposed to redirect leftover TARP money to small businesses, borrowed heavily from an idea she outlined on Patriarch’s website in March 2009. (Though Tilton’s plan was for the money to be filtered through unregulated “qualified private investors” such as herself, not regulated community banks.)

“That was my $30 billion plan that I had in front of Treasury for months,” she says, as her assistant appears with a box containing a multistrand diamond necklace that, when draped around Tilton’s neck, covers practically her entire breastplate. “I bought it when Dubai’s real-estate market crashed,” she tells the cooing stylists. “So I got a deal.”

By all accounts, Tilton is a savvy business­woman. “She’s definitely very bright, has great command of the issues that she’s been working on, and her motivations are extraordinarily public-­spirited,” says Richard Levin, the president of Yale, whose name was floated last year to lead the National Economic Council. So it’s puzzling that while Tilton claims to want to be a member of the political intelligentsia, she often behaves in a way that all but ensures her exclusion.

During the 2008 primaries, Tilton, who had donated to Hillary Clinton, was invited to see the candidate speak before a Women in Business event at a private residence in New York. “Lynn strutted in, and she was wearing a nice pantsuit and a nice shirt, but it was, you know, buttoned really low, and she had like a 50-carat something around her neck,” says one woman who attended the talk. Then Tilton raised her hand. “She did one of those things where it really wasn’t a question. This woman, who no one really knew, just went on and on about how much she knew and how prominent she was for like 45 minutes. She came across as a total nutjob. I mean, I understand wanting to be a woman and yadda yadda yadda. But the people who don’t try and conform somewhat don’t get all of the opportunities. And, you know, nobody likes seeing too much boob.”

It’s not as if Tilton isn’t aware that her style can overshadow her substance. “I think the fact that I look like this hinders me in some ways,” Tilton says between outfit changes. “But that’s also what makes me so much more fascinating, right?”

She begins wriggling out of the dress. “I’m all about transparency,” she explains, as the dress falls to the floor. She’s not wearing any underwear. “Where do you get someone who’s worth looking at and listening to?”

Stark naked except for her Gucci heels, seamless Brazilian Bronze tan, and diamond necklace, she flicks through the rack of clothes. “I mean, hello. I’m just trying to be someone who provides it all.”

Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, Lynn Tilton never thought she’d become a Wall Street financier. She wanted to be a writer. She still enjoys fiction—“anything with shadow hunters, angels, ­demons,” she says. “I don’t believe anything is made up. It’s just not yet been discovered.” The Traveler, a futuristic novel in which a young woman from a warrior class is trained by her father to fight against a shadow government, is practically required reading at Patriarch.

Tilton’s own father, who was a New York City public-school teacher for many years, was tough: He would fire trivia questions at his children and then call them morons when they got the answers wrong. “My father was just so brilliant and so talented,” Tilton says. “He sort of thought his kids were cookie-cutter. He struggled with our frailty and flaws. He was always testing me to be perfect. To push. But I knew he loved me. I think he knew that sort of … I was destined to do something special.”

“I mean, hello,” she says, stark naked save for Gucci heels. “I’m just trying to be someone who provides it all.”

She developed a formidable work ethic. In high school, she’d start her homework at 4 A.M. and practice tennis after school until it was dark. At Yale, she majored in American studies with a concentration in literature. But after her father developed a brain tumor and died during her junior year, Tilton’s life plan changed: She married her high-school boyfriend and, after graduating, took a job at Morgan Stanley. After having Carly in 1982, she left the industry, but when she and her husband separated a few years later, Tilton saw returning to Wall Street as her only option. She got her Columbia M.B.A. in fourteen months and soon found herself working at Goldman Sachs.

Wall Street was not the most hospitable environment for women, especially back then. In 1991, after having taken a job at Merrill Lynch, Tilton sued the company for sexual harassment. A settlement prevents her from talking about the details, but Tilton says she doesn’t remember much anyway. “My early years were pretty dark,” she says, fluttering her hand as if to dismiss the memory. “I was so young and scared. The details are sort of shadowy.”

At her next job, as an analyst at Kidder Peabody, there was also “a real locker-room mentality,” says Arlene McCarthy, one of Tilton’s only female co-workers. But by then, Tilton had adapted. “Lynn knew how to put the guys in their place. If someone made a joke she didn’t like, she would give them a look. They wouldn’t do it again.”

She was also, paradoxically, known to be flirty. “She liked to be provocative,” says Tom Bernard, her colleague of the time, who was immortalized in Liar’s Poker as “the Human Piranha.” “Sometimes you’d walk by and hear her on the phone and be like, ‘Hmmm.’ ”

Whatever she was saying, it worked. By 1990, Tilton had transitioned to selling distressed bonds. She bought a home in Boca Raton, where she became acquainted with a group of “Mexican gardeners” who introduced her to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Tilton devoured the book, in which a Yaqui shaman teaches the author the Toltec art of sorcery, and the gardeners became her spiritual teachers.

“They changed my existence,” she says. “I come from a line of Kabbalist scholars”—she claims her father was a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov—“but my father died before he ever passed a lot of this stuff on to me. I wonder always whether he didn’t grasp it—or if he didn’t get around to telling me what I needed to know. Or maybe I wasn’t ready?”

She no longer keeps in touch with her teachers. (“They’re nowhere to be found,” she says. “They sort of left the universe.”) But the lessons they imparted to her—how to master control of dreams, become one with the universe, empty herself of wants, and see lightness and darkness clearly—led Tilton to believe she was meant for more than a life in finance.

By 1998, she had $10 million in the bank, enough to support herself and Carly for life, and she decided it was time to retire. She left her job at the time, as a partner at Amroc, though not before sending clients a Christmas card that has since become legendary: Double-sided, it featured two photographs, one of Tilton in a red lace bodysuit and Santa hat, straddling a stepladder, and the other of her wielding a whip in black lingerie and high vinyl boots. Her clients “were always asking what color underwear I was wearing,” she says. “So that was my farewell gift.”

Tilton thought she had everything she wanted—“Good-looking man, great sex, small island, still looking good in a thong bikini”—and planned on moving to a small island in the Philippines. But one night, on vacation in Costa Rica, she woke suddenly. “I was laying there in this hotel room, and I saw my father and my Mayan teacher very vividly,” she explains. “They said this was not what was planned for me. I said, ‘Why did I go through this path, to empty myself out of any needs or material longings, only to be sent back to New York to be a businessperson?’ And the answer was: You’re not capable of leading until nothing can hold you back. Get your ass back to New York. So I got up in the middle of the night and left.”

In the classroom at Yale, Tilton outlined the four qualities of a warrior, as described by Castaneda. “Cunning is one,” she said. “Not deceit, but the ability to move people in a direction. The second is sweetness. The third is patience, which was hard for me to learn. But the hardest one for me to learn was ruthlessness. Because that word sounds mean. But that’s not what it is. Ruthlessness is the ability to step over someone you care about, someone who has been good to you, for the greater good.”

In 2000, after she left her boyfriend in Costa Rica and came back to New York, Tilton formed a partnership with Dennis Dolan, a distressed-debt specialist at the Japanese bank Nomura. The following year, after the economy tanked, they purchased a portfolio of distressed commercial loans at a 26 percent discount and packaged them, using a structure Tilton later patented, into a collateralized-loan obligation called Ark.

At that time, CLOs (and their cousins, CDOs) were new but not unusual. “The real achievement,” says Michael Meagher, a former colleague at Kidder Peabody, was that she got the ratings agencies to give what was essentially a collection of subprime loans a AAA rating. Institutional buyers piled in, and as the economy improved and the distressed companies paid off their loans, the securities issued by Patriarch grew in value. The influx of cash enabled Patriarch to compile other CLOs for which it served as “collateral manager,” handpicking the loans and collecting a 2 percent management fee regardless of performance. By selling the risk of loans made by one part of the company to an investment portfolio managed by the other part of the company, Patriarch was able to reduce its exposure considerably.

Eventually, however, Tilton, a self-described “control freak,” became frustrated with the one element of this arrangement that remained outside of Patriarch’s influence: the ability of the distressed companies to pay back the loans she issued. But if Patriarch were to own the companies, it could force them to pay on loans regardless of whether that was in their best interest—Patriarch could be the lender, the securitizer, and the borrower. By 2004, Tilton had gotten into the business of owning factories herself. And only herself. Dolan retired in 2002, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. “He has never commented on Patriarch,” his lawyer says. “And he never will.”

As she built her business, Tilton relied on her cunning and patience, buying small, rinky-dink operations—a textile company in Georgia, the “original behind-the-head ear warmers” in Baltimore. Over time, she developed her ruthlessness. “She’s tough. Tough tough tough,” says Jamie Salter, the former CEO of Hilco Consumer Capital, who went up against Tilton during the auction for the bankrupt remains of Polaroid in 2009. “We came in very prepared to win, and she came out of nowhere. Every trick we pulled out of our bag, she had another trick in her bag.” “Luckily, I trust no one,” Tilton said at one point, pulling out an alternate business plan that forced a frustrated Hilco to rework theirs. Later, according to someone present, she told the crowd this variation of the well-worn joke: “There are three universal lies: Margins are weak, but we’ll make it up in volume; the check’s in the mail; and I won’t come in your mouth.”

The tricks didn’t work: Patriarch lost Polaroid. But over the decade, Tilton emerged victorious in dozens of deals, and Patriarch evolved into a private-­equity firm—though one that held onto its acquisitions, rather than selling them off once they became healthy. She attributes her decision not to let go of money­makers like Dura Automotive to the fact that it’s not a seller’s market. However, the Patriarch-managed CLOs own dozens of Patriarch loans issued to ­Patriarch-owned companies that are severely underperforming. These companies, like the fire-truck-maker American LaFrance, are more like zombies than functioning businesses—they can make their monthly interest payments, but they appear more likely to default than ever pay back their principle. This leaves the CLOs dependent on profitable companies like Dura to pay their principal-plus-interest at a premium rate so that the CLOs remain healthy enough to function—and Patriarch can collect its fees.

For now, anyway. In February, Moody’s downgraded Patriarch’s CLOs Zohar I, II, and III, which hold roughly $2.4 billion in debt, classifying the lowest tranches as “speculative” or “junk” because of the rising default rates of the companies and Patriarch’s lack of transparency about their finances. Tilton says they were downgraded because the ratings agencies have changed their methodology since the financial crisis, and because—hello—“I buy distressed companies out of fore­closure. They’re rating them like they’re Revlon.” She points out that a number of her companies languished before eventually turning around. The more cynical view, however, is that Patriarch’s backing of hopeless companies is self-serving and potentially catastrophic for investors, whose investments are at risk should the loans within the CLO default. Even if the CLO itself defaults, of course, Patriarch will still have managed to extract millions in fees.

Tilton is also finding her personal wealth coming under increasing scrutiny. Though the CLOs net her at least $25 million annually, some in the industry scoff at her claims of being a billionaire. “Not even close,” says someone whose membership in that club has never been challenged. When I repeat this to Tilton, she presents a simple, unaudited spreadsheet listing the values of her cash and gold, homes, planes, and jewelry, which total around a half a billion dollars; and a list of her most profitable companies, of which she is sole owner. “Randy likes the billionaire tag because it makes me so unusual,” she complains. “But I don’t like this onus it puts on me to prove it to the press.”

She was harsher to Forbes, which pressed for documentation for its billionaires list. “She threw the reporter out,” Randy Jones told me in early March. “She doesn’t want to be defined by her wealth.” When the magazine published last week a series of confrontational blog posts challenging Tilton’s billionaire credentials and suggesting Patriarch’s dealings smelled bad, Tilton told me she was convinced that she was the subject of a “witch hunt.”

Patriarch prides itself on its family­like atmosphere. “I tell people when they come in here that they’re coming into our home,” says Carly Tilton at the firm’s Tribeca office, a comfy space dominated by an enormous glamour shot of her mother. Carly makes it clear that she is speaking only under pressure from her mother and Jones.

Tilton pokes her head into the room. “Are you being nice?” she asks.

Carly makes a face.

“Carly, let me talk to you outside for a second.”

Families, of course, can be dysfunctional. “I am the mother, I am teacher, I am inspiration,” Tilton had explained to the students at Yale. “But I am also going to inflict discipline on those who can’t buy into the journey.” Discipline at Patriarch appears to fall into two categories. If the problem is merely that someone doesn’t have the skills to do their job properly, “I stop talking to them,” Tilton says. That’s their cue to quit. If she believes that someone has the skills and is just being lazy, weak, or uncommitted, the discipline can be more severe. A wrongful-termination complaint filed by Andrzej Wrobel, Rand McNally’s former CEO, accuses Tilton of “repeatedly, in business meetings … throwing things at people, hitting and striking them, and calling them a flood of insulting names.” Once, in front of a roomful of people at another company, she grabbed an overweight executive by his collar and dragged him over to a mirror. “What do you see?” she demanded. “Because I see a lazy, fat fuck.”

“I’ve worked on Wall Street a long time, I’ve heard a lot,” says one former employee. “It’s okay to be tough, but this is a different level. It’s beyond the man-woman thing. She has the worst mouth in the world.”

“It’s a form of control and humiliation,” says another employee, adding that the experience of working for Tilton was so emasculating that it took him months after leaving the firm to have sex again. This employee also says that Tilton perceives all of her male employees as being in love with her. Which is perhaps the reason that, holding court in a conference room during her 50th-­birthday party, Tilton offered her male employees a choice: They could take a Jell-O shot off her stomach or lick whipped cream off her breasts. “The crazy part was, she saw it as morale building,” says one person present. “People were hiding in the bathroom.”

The men I spoke to who felt wronged by Tilton tend to talk about her the way people talk about people with whom they’ve been in bad relationships. “Go look up narcissist in the dictionary,” says one. Another cites what could be called the David Gest effect: “If you really explain to people what it’s like to work there, they think you’re crazy and lose respect for you.”

Tilton explains her tactics as good management. “I hug people when they walk into the room, I smack the crap out of them when we’re in there, and I hug them on the way out,” she told me in February. “You have to have that warmth and that fierceness.” But when I later bring up the instances detailed above, she dismisses them as “nonsense” and says, “I categorically deny ever having hit a person.” In the same conversation, she notes that a judge had stricken Wrobel’s complaint from the record because of its lack of relevance. “Do you think this would happen if I wasn’t a woman?”

It’s true that some of the allegations against Tilton carry a whiff of sexism, particularly when Wrobel describes Tilton’s low-cut tops as allowing her “large breasts to be barely restrained to the point of wiggling and moving like they are about to ‘fall out’ at any minute.” Most of the former employees I spoke to praised their former boss even when they disparaged her. There was a reason, they all insisted, that they got into the relationship in the first place. Patriarch is an appealing place to work in part because it offers an opportunity that’s increasingly rare: to earn a Wall Street salary while feeling like you’re doing something good—creating and sustaining jobs. In a country that desperately needs them. And Tilton is a compelling leader to work for, with her impassioned rhetoric, strong convictions, and business acumen. “She is one of the most intelligent, highly numerate people I’ve ever worked with, male or female,” says one Wall Street veteran. And unlike, say, Steve Schwarzman, Tilton makes it clear that she cares. It’s that fourth warrior quality: sweetness.

“If you say anything bad about Lynn, it’s like calling my mother a whore,” says Emil Giliotti, a gruff platform manager who works at Patriarch. Giliotti recalls a conversation he had with Tilton after the takeover of Stila cosmetics in 2009. Tilton was getting her makeup done by an employee, who happened to mention the cuts that Giliotti had made since the takeover: the layoffs, the salary reductions, and the people who had found themselves personally saddled with the bill for their corporate AmEx. (When companies go bankrupt, employees are held liable for the balances on their corporate cards. Now you know.)

Tilton called Giliotti immediately. “Emil, we can’t do this,” she said. “This is not me. I’m not put on this Earth to do this. I was put on this Earth to save jobs and help people.”

“Well,” Giliotti said. “You put me here to make revenue in the companies.”

Tilton knows that caring only gets you so far in business. After the photo-shoot crew has left her house in New Jersey, she tells me about a recent budget meeting with a distressed company that didn’t go well. She likes the CEO, a young guy who came from money but wanted to make his own place in the world. He reminds her of Carly. But he isn’t doing what needs to be done. As she talks, she rationalizes. “I just have to put the business first,” she says. “I have to hurt people sometimes, because what they want and what is needed are two different things. If companies don’t do well, I can’t keep them alive. And that’s what I have to remember, that it’s never one person. It’s the greater good.” Her eyes well up as she talks.

“I know from the outside, it looks fun,” she says, gesturing at the Gucci dress. “But I have this huge responsibility. And I feel it. I feel it. Every. Minute. Of. The. Day.” She smiles wanly. “Really, I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone.”

When I leave, she gives me a hug. “This year,” she says, “is going to be the year of Ruthless.”

What Does It Take for a Female Tycoon to Get Noti […]