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April 1, 2003

The Great Weill: Tearing Down The Walls

By John A. Byrne

Also in this article

  • The Great Weill: Tearing Down The Walls

How Sandy Weill Fought His Way to the Top of the Financial World and Then Nearly Lost It All

by Monica Langley

(Simon & Schuster * 446 pp * $27.00)

Reviewed by John A. Byrne

Fear and greed are grist for the mill on Wall Street. They motivate the saints and scholars, and the scoundrels of our industry. They lift some people up from a life of misery. And they bring down others in brutal failure. Sanford "Sandy" Weill, the legendary chairman and CEO of Citigroup, who just turned 70, is at the apex of a career that has known all of these roller coaster highs and lows.

These are brought to life in Monica Langley's well-researched book on the rise and fall - and rise again - of Sandy Weill.

The book succeeds because the author employs a stylish technique. The fast-paced narrative reads like a novel with little room for puffery. Many of the details of Weill's controversial career are well-known. These include Weill's early association with a sagacious Brooklyn duo, Arthur Levitt and Frank Zarb. And the saga continues with Weill's removal from American Express and his amazing comeback. That comeback began at the unglamorous Commercial Credit in the boondocks of Baltimore.

But if Langley had merely chronicled all the boring details of Weill's triumphs and trophies, then this indeed would have been another boring Wall Street book.

No, Langley, a Wall Street Journal staff writer, summoned her creative energy to tell a rattling good story. But it is as much a story of ethnic identity and social privilege, as it is about the minds of the characters who populate the action. The main character, of course, is Weill.

"He had spent billions to buy back Shearson, launched the Greenhill investment banking experiment, and acquired Travellers. For the moment his immense appetite was satisfied. But to Mary McDermott [Weill's PR executive] he looked tired, the bags under his eyes dark and swollen. He confirmed her assessment. "It's that feeling of fear deep down," Sandy said.

"I'm running scared most of the time. But it's what keeps me going."

So what is it that keeps him going? Early, we are told how Weill's father had left the family home one night, ostensibly to buy a package of cigarettes. But his father never returned. It was a devastating experience for the young Sandy Weill, a shy and chubby Jewish kid from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. It was an experience that helps explain his craving for attention, adulation and loyalty and even good food. (He has remained happily married all his adult life to the same woman, Joan, his wife for nearly 50 years.) As a kid, Weill's only real friend was his little sister Helen, who "worshipped" her brother. He was an easy target for bullies.

Weill, lacking sophistication, social graces and good connections, starts on the bottom rungs of Wall Street, as a runner at Bear Stearns. He earns $35 a week back in the 1950s. But his career propelled him to lofty heights. Sharp and brilliant with details, it brought him into contact with the nuts-and-bolts of a brokerage business.