In memoriam: Bruce Wasserstein went from Nader acolyte to Wall Street legend

BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS

Bruce Wasserstein ’70

Described by his colleagues as a prodigy, Bruce Wasserstein ’70 entered Harvard University as a joint J.D./M.B.A. student at the young age of 19, and once armed with an education in business and law, he took Wall Street by storm, quickly rising from a start at Cravath, Swaine & Moore to a management role at First Boston and the establishment of the mergers and acquisitions boutique, Wasserstein Perella Group. Over his several decades on Wall Street, Wasserstein made history through his coordination of blockbuster mergers like the acquisition of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., the acquisition of Warner Bros. by Time, Inc., and the merger of AOL and Time Warner in 2000. After the sale of Wasserstein Perella & Co., Wasserstein became the head of Lazard Ltd., where he organized the investment bank’s 2005 IPO and where the Wall Street Journal reports he was recently engaged in the bid by Kraft for Cadbury Plc.

Despite his phenomenal success on Wall Street, Wasserstein’s beginnings as a law student were characterized by a passion for civil liberties. Mark J. Green ’70, who ran against Wasserstein to be the head of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, remembers a quiet genius who “basically brained his way to success”.  Green, who has had a long career in public advocacy, has written twenty-two books, and was the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York in the 2001 election against Michael Bloomberg, was a lifelong friend of Wasserstein. “Looking back, I guess it was impossible to know that this fellow law student, who I would eat with at Harkness 42 years ago, would end up the leading investment banker of his era and one of the leading donors to HLS ever,” said Green in an interview with the Record. “It wasn’t pedigree or GQ looks, or a Clintonian public personality. He added value, big time, to his clients and his friends.”

When Green won the place as editor-in-chief at CR-CL, he made Wasserstein his managing editor, a partnership which would continue in their work for Ralph Nader ’58. Together they authored the book With Justice for Some: An Indictment of the Law by Young Advocates and worked together on “Closed Enterprise System”, a critical view of antitrust enforcement. “He was always the smartest guy in the room,” said Green. “But by and large he was calm and quiet, so when he spoke, people listened.” Nader remembers Wasserstein as a bright, ambitious man with a dream of  being Chairman of the SEC, but whose business responsibilities precluded such a career. “If he had been Chairman ten years ago, we might not have had some of this trouble,” said Nader in an interview for the Harvard Law Record.

As a philanthropist, Wasserstein was a generous man, having recently made a major donation to HLS of $25 million for the construction of the Northwest Corner complex. But Green remembers him for both his generosity and his loyalty. “If he took you into his orbit of confidence at a personal level, a company level, or an educational level, he stuck with you in good times and bad.” In Green’s campaign to become mayor of New York, Wasserstein acted as his campaign finance manager, and though Green had a history as a populist consumer advocate, Wasserstein was able to convince his Wall Street colleagues to support his campaign. In a remembrance published to Bloomberg.com on October 20th, Green said that even after his defeat in the 2001 mayoral election he received encouragement from Wasserstein to “run for governor”. “The understanding was that I shouldn’t advise him on business, but he could counsel me on government.”

In addition to his investment banking activity, Wasserstein carried an interest in writing throughout his life, which Green described in his Bloomberg.com remembrance, analogizing Wasserstein to Charles Foster Kane. From his early experience as editor-in-chief at the Michigan Daily, as managing editor at the Harvard CR-CL Law Review, and his work with Green and Nader, Wasserstein returned to publishing as an owner by purchasing American Lawyer and New York Magazine, partly with the goal of improving publication quality. “All his deals and billions notwithstanding, Wasserstein’s ‘rosebud’ was journalism,” said Green.

With his untimely passage the HLS community can only imagine the accomplishments that may have been yet to come. Nader looks back with certainty that the community has lost one of its most valuable citizens. “Bruce Wasserstein is heralded as a brilliant investment banker and financier who avoided the egregious excesses of his speculative competitors. What is not known is his philanthropy, which was accelerating into imaginative dimensions. Philanthropically, it can be said that the best of his past would have been the least of his future, so tragically cut short.” Despite its early end, Wasserstein’s life will be remembered, in Wall Street and New York for his legendary business acumen, and at Harvard Law School for his generous contribution to the construction of the Northwest Corner.

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