The Death of Sherman McCoy

Michael Lewis, New York Times Magazine, August 18, 1996.

TO REREAD ”THE Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe’s glittering portrait of 1980’s New York, is to notice that something has changed since its publication nine years ago. In many ways, the book remains a brilliant description of urban America. In the depictions of white guilt, black rage and the life styles of rich New Yorkers, there isn’t much any visitor to our planet would fail to recognize. What rings false in 1996 is the character of Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street bond salesman at the center of the novel. The Big-Time Financier today has about as much resonance as the yippie; he has become a social archetype from the distant past.

What’s strange about this is that the people on whom Wolfe modeled his character are still alive and making more money than ever. Bond salesmen still exist. For that matter, the environment that made Sherman possible still exists, too: the big Wall Street firms are doing even better than they did in the 1980’s. In the past couple of years, Morgan Stanley and Goldman, Sachs and Bear Stearns have all posted record profits. And yet the characters inside these places hold none of the public interest that they did just a few years ago. Why?

ONE EXPLANATION IS THAT WALL Streeters changed their behavior in response to public outrage. They read the books, saw the movies, studied the lawsuits and decided on balance that it paid them to clean up their acts and pretend to be modest like everyone else. The trouble with this theory is that the average bond salesman admired Sherman McCoy. By the end of the 1980’s, it was not unusual to see a bond salesman celebrate the sale of a block of $100 million mortgage bonds by standing on top of his desk, beating his chest and hollering, ”I am a Master of the Universe!” To the bond salesman (I know because I was one), Sherman was proof that his tedious occupation was in fact exciting. It didn’t matter what he actually did for a living. Everyone was talking about him…

New York Times