Interviewed by ABC’s Connie Chung on September 14, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick, his face appearing to melt as he wept over his nearly 700 lost employees, seemed to embody some biblical story—a hardened man hollowed out and transformed by grief, and with a new mission. Lutnick vowed to stay in business for the sake of “my 700 families.”
Less than a week later, Lutnick’s sack-cloth and ashes had already begun to fade, replaced by a $3,000 suit. In a weepy, pleading voice (the lesson here: TV tears only work once), he explained to Larry King that he’d made September 15 the date of his lost employees’ final paycheck because Cantor couldn’t afford to pay their salaries. A man who could do such a thing—before some of the families had even accepted that their loved ones were dead—might be capable of anything. For a while, his reputation was worse than Osama’s; with Osama, at least you knew where you stood.
In Tom Barbash’s logy, teary new book, On Top of the World (it began as an as-told-to, before Lutnick, citing time constraints, decided last September to remove his byline), Lutnick pleads guilty to calculation. “Always, we were thinking, Which way do we go now?” he says. “Where do we move? Like chess … You’re staring at the table while everything is in flux, and it’s your move.” Quoting it makes Lutnick seem as callous as his critics suggest (and a rather poor chess player). But this isn’t necessarily so. Anyone who has gone to a funeral knows that mourning has an unspoken but highly codified set of rules and taboos, to which September 11 added layers of complexity. Everything was open to question.
It was in a Cantor partner’s West Village townhouse on the night of September 11 that Lutnick decided that the best way to help the victims’ families was to quickly bring his business back to health—to do good by doing well. It was probably the best possible decision; on the other hand, it’s no wonder people have had a hard time seeing him as a changed man.
As it happens, the Connie Chung interview was partly a sympathy play. “Howard decides to go on television,” writes Barbash, “because he wants the world to know what happened to the men and women who went to work that morning and because he needs his customers to know Cantor Fitzgerald is still in business.”
Simultaneously, he was trying to convince bank regulators that his company could survive the loss of its employees, and that he could still lead it. “Essentially they said, Howard, I understand bad things have happened to you, but this is a business conversation, and … you’re screwed.” Wall Street was back to playing Wall Street games. Lutnick acquired a nickname: “the grim weeper.” And the CEO of one of Cantor’s British competitors crowed in an e-mail about the opportunity to “put one up their bottom.”
Before September 11, what was most notable about Lutnick was his business acumen—and smash-mouth tactics—and a materialism that can verge on self-parody. He bonded with the firm’s founder, Bernie Cantor, over Ferraris and high-thread-count Ermenegildo Zegna suits—highest, fastest, biggest, best. Amid the paneling in their luxurious offices, their stunning collection of Rodins seemed like kitsch.
His television appearances quickly became kitsch, too. He thought he could use TV as a tool, but it had the effect of magnifying the perception of hypocrisy. The dominant tone here is one of media victimhood—but given all the other, more pressing claims on our sympathy, it’s hard to give this one a second glance.
Barbash spent months with Lutnick and the Cantor Fitzgerald survivors, but he spent the time as a friend—he was on the Haverford tennis team with Lutnick—as much as a reporter. His book often feels like a Cantor Fitzgerald scrapbook, a wake between covers, a jumble of first-person accounts and present-tense scene-setting, interspersed with Lutnick’s italicized reminiscences. There are moving stories here, but Barbash is writing for his subjects, not his readers. Lutnick, who began as an author and character, ends up being neither fully.
Finally, Howard Lutnick’s story is not about transformation but about a man wandering lost through the media wilderness before finding his way back to the world he was cast out of (his savior is Willow Bay). Lutnick’s new mission has been folded neatly into the old one. He was a businessman. He is a businessman. You lose, Osama.
On Top of the World
By Tom Barbash (HarperCollins; $25.95).