DEALINGS By Felix Rohatyn Simon & Schuster, $27.00, 304 pages
His life is, in some ways, a classic tale of a Jewish boy making good. In 1940, at the age of 12, Felix Rohatyn escaped Nazi-occupied France with gold coins hidden in toothpaste tubes. After migrating to the U.S., Rohatyn earned a physics degree and then fell into a clerical job at Lazard-Frères, the venerable investment bank.
When he transferred to mergers and acquisitions, Rohatyn found his calling. Over the decades, Rohatyn would be intimately involved with many of the biggest deals of the century. He helped Kinney, a parking and funeral company, acquire then “moribund” Avis and turn it around. He identified targets for ITT during its acquisition frenzy. He negotiated for GE in its acquisition of NBC, then RCA. Rohatyn also has a public-service streak, which eventually led him to be appointed American ambassador to France.
Rohatyn’s new book, “Dealings,” is his record of all this: a memoir of mergers, municipalities and money. For the most part, it’s an interesting book, even for the financially illiterate. Rohatyn dumbs down some extremely complicated transactions without patronizing the reader and compresses 40 years of such deals into easily digestible chapters.
“Dealings” is particularly compelling when Rohatyn describes his years of public service. In 1970, while on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, Rohatyn discovered that “Wall Street’s entire capital structure seemed balanced on a weak, impermanent capital base” (which, we know, would never happen again). A few years later, Rohatyn would work around the clock to re-establish New York City’s creditworthiness after a decade of egregious mismanagement. In both cases, Rohatyn was instrumental in a return to solvency — while simultaneously still making deals for Lazard-Frères. One has the impression that he ate, slept and exercised in a business suit.
“Dealings” is also interesting for the quirks displayed by his fellow Masters of the Universe (avant la lettre). André Meyer, the legendary chairman of Lazard-Frères, liked to help Rohatyn’s wife cook dinner. Harold Geneen, the ferocious chairman of ITT, ignored clocks, keeping the curtains drawn whether he was in New York or Brussels. Hollywood dealmaker Mike Ovitz comes off as flat-out weird — overly groomed and needlessly circuitous in conversation.
The author displays some quirks himself. Rohatyn drops so many names that I felt I had repeatedly stubbed my toe: Governor Hugh Carey; Bennet Cerf of Random House; Ahmet Ertegun of Capitol Records; Clay Felker, publisher of New York Magazine; union boss
Victor Gotbaum; Pamela Harriman; literary agent Mort Janklow; François Mitterand; Edith Piaf and Liliane de Rothschild. Admittedly, Rohatyn worked with most of these luminaries. But he also claims to have been friends with many of them. One wonders, then, if he mistakes friendship for a temporary alignment of interests.
Much of the book is given to self-apologetics. Too often he decries, with suspect humility, his own naiveté when dealing with politicians or the press — this from a man who frequently uses the word “shrewd” as a compliment. And even if “Dealings” is not a personal memoir per se, we still learn almost nothing about Rohatyn’s family.
Other blind spots are more confusing. In “Dealings,” Rohatyn frequently announces that he is a liberal and a Democrat. In that vein, he relates that one of his goals as ambassador to France was to “erase many of the theories some of the French had about the way our economy was manipulated and how the marketplace catered only to the rich.” However, most of the deals in “Dealings” are about making rich people richer: Like any other banker, Rohatyn often served his clients by helping them to avoid taxes. Other deals became profitable only after layoffs pushed up a company’s stock price. Such maneuvers, while legal, have not been beneficial to public coffers or to the middle class.
“Dealings” is at its most disingenuous when Rohatyn discusses the current crisis. He writes how he has “witnessed the creation of a new corporate culture… huge deals were what mattered, while consequences for employees and communities were too often overlooked.” But what deal, by his own admission, “set the tone”? The RJR-Nabisco merger, negotiated by one Felix Rohatyn.
Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.