Wall Street’s Golden Throne

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When leaked documents revealed that Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain spent $1.2 million on an office renovation in 2008, months before the 94-year-old brokerage announced the billions in losses that later led to its collapse, the reaction was as swift as a guillotine. “Click here to see Thain’s Top 16 Outrages,” crowed the Daily Beast, which gleefully itemized the Caligulan amenities bought with company funds, including a “George IV Desk,” an $11,000 “Roman Shade,” and an $87,000 area rug. But it was the objet mysteriously described as “something called a commode on legs” that many thought emblematic. Had bank CEOs gotten so self-aggrandizing that they now required for themselves literal thrones on which to defecate? In fact, the answer was no. The scandal, according to Margaret Russell, the editor-in-chief of Architectural ­Digest, was elsewhere. “I was appalled because so many people didn’t fact-check,” says Russell, who is friends with Michael Smith, who designed Thain’s suites. “A commode is not a fancy toilet. It’s a very commonly used word for an antique chest of drawers.” Specifically, Thain’s was an eighteenth-century English piece. Ironically, she said, Thain, who was retained in 2007 to revive the firm after the disastrous reign of CEO Stan O’Neal, had been trying to restore dignity to the space. “His predecessor had a Battlestar ­Galactica–style office,” she says. “He wanted something that reflected the nature of what they did.” Enter the commode. “John Thain may have been guilty of something, but it wasn’t bad taste. He certainly has very good taste.”

From the Archives: ‘Who Is John Thain?,’(January 8, 2007)

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Wall Street’s Golden Throne