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On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal by Tom Barbash

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Good Grief

Tom Barbash spent months living with college-friend Howard Lutnick in the aftermath of September 11, and provides a friendly, insider’s view of what went on with Lutnick and Cantor Fitzgerald in his new book, On Top of the World. Press coverage on Lutnick oscillated from highly positive to highly negative in the weeks after 9/11. Many readers will recall the scene of Lutnick breaking into tears on Larry King Live, as well as follow-up stories that Lutnick failed to meet the promises he made to the families of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died on 9/11.

Here’s an excerpt from early in the book, pp. 71-75:

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21

Howard is out somewhere when I arrive at his apartment, but he'll be back soon. Two of our college friends, like most here, are hard at work answering phones and filing letters that have arrived from around the world, from churches and synagogues, middle schools, politicians and business leaders, a few celebrities.

I had expected a somber place as I walked here, but at least on the surface it isn't at all. Everyone has a role and everyone is communicating. The bosses are Allison’s high school friends, Karen Weinberg, by occupation a TV and film makeup artist, and Lynne Granat, a marketing director for a culinary academy, who have been devoting their days to helping Howard and Allison set up a command center to assist the Cantor families.

Karen tells me what it's been like the last two weeks. Not all the families of those who died live in the New York area; some have come in from as far away as India, China, and Japan. And since there's no one at a Cantor office who can help them with hotels or negotiate for visas, they've been calling here and talking to Karen or Allison.

Those answering phones are equipped with information on filing for death certificates, on insurance, on funerals, and even caterers for memorial services. In addition, the surviving employees have been calling in to arrange rides from their homes to their new offices in New Jersey or Connecticut. Some workers whose divisions have since been closed have been encouraged to relocate to the London office.

"They keep calling needing things," Karen says of the families. "A woman called the other day to ask if we'd found her husband's Producers tickets. She wanted to sell them. Can you believe it? Her husband's dead and she's worried about theater tickets."

The calls increasingly have been about money, about what Cantor will do to take care of the families.

I flip through a copy of the Daily News, and amid a photo spread of the memorials is a picture of eight grim pallbearers carrying the long wooden coffin of Tim Coughlin, Howard's popular head of U.S. Treasuries, who died at forty-two.

It is a sight too rare. Not only have there been few survivors, there are few bodies. Rescue workers continue to dig through the mountain of burning steel and scorched concrete. The families are asked to bring toothbrushes and hairbrushes to the medical examiner's office for the purpose of DNA identification. The details they are given are grisly. Fingerprints can be used, but only if they can find fingers; dental records, if they can find jaws. There are all manner of body parts being recovered. Tens of thousands of tests will be conducted and the slow searching continues, and by the eighth month, fewer than a third of the missing bodies will be found.

Photographs of close friends and of Gary cover the downstairs walls. Most were taken this summer at Howard's fortieth birthday party, which took place at a castle in England. There's Doug Gardner leaning back on a bench, next to Howard, the two moguls in sunglasses away from the office. There's another of Doug swallowing up Howard's boys, Kyle and Brandon, in his huge arms. Doug was a large, big-hearted, deeply principled man, six feet four, his shoulders memorably broad, his chest cut like a weight lifter's. He liked to bang under the boards at basketball, the game his primary love interest until he met his wife.

The photographs are matted on construction paper and the words are penned in Magic Marker: WE LOVE YOU JONATHAN UMAN. WE LOVE YOU GLENN KIRWIN. WE LOVE YOU DAVE BAUER. WE LOVE YOU FRED VARACCHI. WE LOVE YOU JOE SHEA. WE LOVE YOU TIM GRAZIOSO. And on and on. It is Howard and Allison's alternative to the "missing posters" that have appeared around town.

 

Among those photos is one of Howard and Andy Kates, the handsome younger brother of Howard's college roommate Seth Kates. He is wearing a tweed jacket, a royal blue shirt, and a bemused expression. For Howard's fortieth, Allison asked friends to contribute a page—stories, poems, pictures for a commemorative journal. Andy created a fictional interview with an old teacher of Howard's, Mrs. Weiner, who remembered Howard's grade school business savvy.

In a week they will find Andy's body, largely intact—just broken bones. His service is scheduled for Sunday. He was thirty-seven and had three children. His wife, Emily, had just given birth to a son.

I am hardly the first to remark on this, but it is difficult to look at a wall of photographs of people in their prime, with their families and friends, and know that they're all dead. Since most of the photographs are of couples, one can look at the smiling face of the spouse left behind and have that terrible feeling that happens when watching a movie for the second time—looking at a character who is happy and hopeful, knowing that in a few moments their life will be wrecked beyond recognition.

John Swomley, a college friend who introduced Howard and Allison, has dropped his legal practice in Boston for a few days to fill in doing errands and answering phones. Close to ten friends of Allison's and Edie's have put their lives on hold in order to help out. They are not playing minor roles—they are filling human resources jobs and accounting jobs, doing public relations and office coordination. Every room serves a separate function. There are letters to sort, funerals to place on the website, and e-mails to answer. Upstairs in the dining and living rooms, Howard and his executives have been gathering to rearrange personnel, meet with bankheads, even interview prospective employees.

It has, oddly, the adrenaline-laden feel of a start-up. There's just enough time to pull all the elements together, and even then they may miss their deadline. The survival of the company, though it's seeped in history, is far from certain.

"You need any boots?" John says, and it's then that I see the office I'm in isn't an office. It's Howard and Allison's closet. Shelves run the length of the walls, and they hold a Marcosian collection of shoes and boots, leather jackets, and a half mile of suits and jeans. It's like a showroom.

But what's surprising is that the Lutnicks aren't allowing themselves to be self-conscious about it. There's a crisis going on and their house has been turned over to those who are here to help them, and to be with them. You can wander any room or dig through the fridge. There's not a scrap of privacy for Allison and Howard here. Their lives are entirely open.

In this spirit, Howard has ramped up the flow of activity by giving out his home number at the crisis center. The next day it appeared on the website. Anyone from anywhere in the world now can call in and and speak to him. Not such a problem for most people, but these days it seems that everyone, everyplace, has something to say either to or about Howard. The phone rings incessantly. The fax machine churns out page after page after page. The letters arrive in tall bundles.   

Upstairs in Howard's den, his childhood friend David Kravette is sitting by himself. I met Kravette around the time I met Howard, when we were kids playing eastern tennis tournaments. His is the first story I hear about that day, and it is brutal: the sound of the elevators free falling to the ground, the sight of the fireball that came a few yards from his face and that overtook one of his colleagues, a beautiful young woman named Lauren Manning. He tells me the details in an almost matter-of-fact fashion. He says he's doing all right. He's got a new job now in Phil Marber's division. His old division is gone.

It's all about survival now, he says. Getting through to the other side of this.

"I'll tell you this," he says. "If we lost this guy [Howard] we'd be through. There's no way we'd make it. We'd have liquidated the company. That I'm sure of."

Howard arrives at around ten P.M. carrying two huge black briefcases. He kisses Allison and walks around the apartment hugging friends. At the crisis center, when Howard addressed all the families who'd lost loved ones, he requested that if anyone wanted to ask him a question, they hug him. He has always been a physical man, fond of rubbing a shoulder, slapping a back. And it fits with his personality—his pleasure in being a host, in feeding his friends, showing them a good time. Now, though, he looks as if he's aged ten years. There are deep lines in his face from not sleeping, and from crying.

The news here is that against monumental odds Cantor Fitzgerald and eSpeed are functioning smoothly again—or as smoothly as a company can without offices and three-quarters of its personnel. They still need a permanent place for the equities team. Much of Wall Street has been in chaos, layoffs everywhere, at the airlines and investment houses. The previous day, the Dow dropped 4.5 percent in one of the busiest days of trading in history. Cantor is in crisis-hiring mode. They need lawyers, accountants, a human resources team, and dozens of new brokers and traders.

Now a major concern is to specify what Howard meant when he aid the company would be giving 25 percent of its profits to the families. Would there actually be profits? How would they deal with healthcare, bonuses, and unused vacation time?

The problems are manifold. "Our problems have problems," Allison says.

Allison, formerly a partner in a large Manhattan law firm, has been talking to families from the early morning until she can't stay awake anymore at night. "There's no one I know on earth who would do what he's doing," she says. "He's made up of parts no one has. He's got a hundred hearts. If he does this, if he pulls this company through, if all of them pull it through, it'll be the most miraculous thing anyone's heard of."

The operative word for me in that is "if." It is the first time I hear anyone in the inner circle mentioning the possibility that they won't pull through—but of course there's that chance. With all that's happened, how could there not be?

Whatever your perspective about Lutnick before reading On Top of the World, you will come away from the book with new information, and perhaps, a new respect. Was he selfish? Was he generous? Did he really care about those who died? Was he in grief? I came away with the impression of a man who did extraordinary things under tremendous pressure, and who has been misunderstood more often than not. There may be other books about Lutnick, but I hope this is the one that sets the benchmark. Thanks to On Top of the World, I concluded that Lutnick has taken his grief and transformed it into rebuilding a business to provide financial benefits for the families of his friends and colleagues who died suddenly, watched by the entire world.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003

 

ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

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