Black Cats, Bad Luck, and '90s Madness

American Sucker

Black Cats, Bad Luck, and '90s Madness

American Sucker

Black Cats, Bad Luck, and '90s Madness
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Feb. 18 2004 3:20 PM

American Sucker

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Hey, Katha,

You know, the Bubble seems so far away now, but I'm still nervous about the whole thing because it doesn't feel like we have fully paid the price yet. Is there more to come? Twenty years from now, the Bubble's popping and 9/11 will be viewed as one and the same, which they sort of were. It was the end of Clintonian innocence/insouciance (not that there was anything wrong with it). It's not like Wall Street or Sand Hill Road were so terribly decadent—true, some folks were sending their G4s back from Aspen to Palo Alto to pick up their dogs—it's just that we had no worries! The market would go up forever—maybe not quite like it just had, but up. And even better, globalism was inexorable. The demand for our products, particularly Denby's dear tech products, would be everlasting and insatiable. And the whole world loved us. Well, guess what?

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Life was different then: We didn't know what we had until it was gone. The confidence and, yes, OK, the country homes and Viking stoves. (I really can't understand, Katha, why Denby didn't just buy the Audi! I mean, if it was a metaphor for temptation and he resisted, and therefore the good in him prevailed … well, let's just say I'd rather be bad.) I was very close to the Bubble madness, covering it everyday on TV, online, and in Fortune. In fact, I've been j'accused of aiding and abetting. Almost famously, the self-promoter columnist Michael Wolff, addressing a panel audience asked, "If [Morgan Stanley tech analyst] Mary Meeker should go to jail, shouldn't Andy Serwer?" I was sitting right next to WolfF on the panel! Wolfie's point being that I was a cheerleader or something like that. Yes, I wrote a cover story in Fortune asking if John Chambers of Cisco was one of the greatest CEOs ever. Turns out he wasn't. And I took a fair amount of grief for that. But I was also more than a tad sarcastic when covering the madness. In either case, when David Denby's ears prick up when a strange man on the Street calls out the name of a stock: That cannot be blamed on me or on CNBC. That is close to "the CIA is sending me messages in my teeth."

As for your memoir point, Katha, first let me say that yes, I read your New Yorker piece about online stalking, and I enjoyed it. (You shoulda slipped a damn GPS device in his coat pocket. Be easier.) I suppose you are right about the person and experience being only half the battle. Take my favorite RAF cadet, Billy Faulkner, right? All of his action took place in Yoknapatawpha County, an imaginary place in northern Mississippi. Not much going on there. Except the entire human experience. But you got to have something to say. Does Denby? Yes, he talks about money. and yes, that's hard to do in our culture today. He gets pretty specific, too. Maybe that's why some people are upset about this book. (The response reminds me a little bit of the uproar about Born Rich, the documentary film by Jamie Johnson about young superrich kids in NYC.)

I want to jump around for a minute to tell you a couple stories about folks in Denby's book. First Henry Blodget, boy genius Merrill Lynch analyst cast straight outta the Preppy Handbook. (And now a writer for Slate, covering the Martha Stewart trial.) Blodget went to Yale—he was there with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper—and then made some audacious call about Amazon.com going to a zillion, which it did, and he became a STAHR! I knew Henry a little bit. Strangest thing happened one time. I was on a plane flying to SF; this must have been in 2000 or early 2001, after the Bubble was leaking air badly. I see him across the aisle up a few rows and say hi. About a half an hour later, a black cat walks right down the aisle of the plane!!! I couldn't resist. "Hey, Henry," I ask. "Was that yours?" Tight little smile back.

As for Sam Waksal, what a piece of work. All you had to do was check him out in any online search to see that the man had serious history. Run-ins. Debts. And as for Sam's abode, now that is some loft. I remember not long ago when workers were making the round columns square. As for his parties, there were beautiful "models" there. So, Denby is half right in his portrait of Waksal: This is a guy you very much want to party down with. (Just ask Mick and Martha and Martha's daughter!) But give this guy your mortgage money? Not on your life! So, why did so many give him money? They were displaying some of the darker elements of human behavior. Greed. Laziness. Mob mentality. It's not that complicated. You simply need to push yourself away from the table.

Back to you, Katha, and by the way, I'm with you. More Balzac, less brunches!

And

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and a poet and essayist. Andy Serwer is an editor at large at Fortune and a contributor to CNN's American Morning.