How a banker helped save New York

NEW YORK — Last week at Frank E. Campbell, the Madison Avenue funeral home, Michael Bloomberg (former mayor and current presidential candidate) delivered a eulogy in memory of Felix Rohatyn — banker, writer, urbanist, saviour, mensch.

That Rohatyn had come to this country as a World War II refugee, that he had forged a singular life in public service in gratitude for what America had given him, that he listened passionately and brought discordant voices together to harmonise in the name of the city’s resurrection — this was the theme of Bloomberg’s warm appreciation.

Felix Rohatyn was head of public-benefits corporation created and is credited with playing a leading role in rescuing the city from insolvency in the 1970s.
Felix Rohatyn was head of public-benefits corporation created and is credited with playing a leading role in rescuing the city from insolvency in the 1970s.Credit:AP

Historians have pointed out that there is an obvious through-line, for better or worse, from Rohatyn’s New York to Bloomberg’s. As a financier who chaired the public-benefits corporation created to rescue the city from insolvency in the 1970s, Rohatyn’s dominance marked the beginnings of a power shift in New York’s governance in which the wealthiest and their political supplicants assumed more and more control.

Yet the line is hardly as straight as it seems. It bends and curves when it hits the volcano of arrogance that so often characterises today’s moneyed class and the collective belief that if your portfolio is big enough you are entitled to manage the empire.


When you consider that “leading the free world” was the expressed ambition of Adam Neumann, the departed head of the failed WeWork, the goal of simply becoming the president of the United States, shared by various very wealthy men, some with little qualifying experience, seems comparatively modest.

The financial community has not covered itself with glory in these last 50 years.

Felix Rohatyn

Born in Vienna, Felix Rohatyn was never going to be president. But neither did he hold the aspiration, according to his son Nicholas. He had no intention of running for mayor or governor or for the Senate offices he might have reasonably held. He was content to do the unglamorous work of negotiating and number crunching, of policy rather than personal profile.

His vision of political life was the vision of commitment to a cause — in his case, the restoration of the city he loved to a place of economic vitality. He was appointed to the positions he held, elected to none of them.

He had hoped to become secretary of the Treasury at some point, a goal that had eluded him. His was not the agenda of someone who imagined his name would be known to every fourth grader in the year 2150. I would challenge anyone between the ages of 10 and 90 to quickly — or even slowly — recite the names of the last five Treasury secretaries.

It is fashionable for a certain kind of New Yorker to lament the turn the city has taken over the past 20 years, to become nostalgic for the value system of a prior time. Felix Rohatyn certainly lived well — on Fifth Avenue and in Southampton. He did not take his cues from the ranch-house ways of Warren Buffett. But he rejected much of the excess of what came to distinguish New York, beginning in the 1980s — the self-serving habits and misplaced priorities.

In 1986, Rohatyn and his wife, Elizabeth, who were important figures in the city’s philanthropic life, came to offend members of their circle when they questioned the rising costs, and the point, really, of the many charity events that defined a certain kind of social experience in New York.

Rohatyn became a vocal critic of Wall Street.
Rohatyn became a vocal critic of Wall Street.Credit:AP

“There is so much concentration on the gala and on catching a glimpse of the gala-goers, we’re losing sight of the purpose of the exercise,” Rohatyn said at the time. “The opulence of some of these affairs becomes an embarrassment when one remembers the misery the charity is trying to alleviate.” It bothered him that there was so much investment in going to dinner, essentially, while the outsize need in the city was going unmet.

A decade ago, long before Wall Street was forced to admit that income inequality was a destructive thing, Rohatyn spoke out about the problems of uneven wealth distribution and the insidious corporate obsession with shareholder value and bottom lines, at the expense of a deeper consideration of the consequences: layoffs, cuts to employee benefits, broken communities. His relationship to Wall Street had become more ambivalent. “No matter how much I try to be really objective,” he said at the time, “the financial community has not covered itself with glory in these last 50 years.”

It is hard to imagine his brand of rich person running for office today. Twitter was never going to be his game; he wrote for The New York Review of Books. The snarkiest thing he ever publicly said about Steven Rattner, the protégé who some say pushed him out at the investment bank Lazard: “He is a social climber with no commitment to public service.” A sentiment, in the age of Donald Trump, at once charming and naïve.

Ultimately, his son Nicholas suggested, he was a man from a different era, one that may be gone for good. “He really believed in the power of government more than the power of wealth.”

The New York Times

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