Published: Sunday, February 2, 2003
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11:
A Story of Loss and Renewal.
By Tom Barbash.
Illustrated. 282 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $25.95.
Howard Lutnick, chairman of the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, took his son to school on Sept. 11, 2001. Because bond trading is a business that starts early, most of his employees were already at work on the 101st through 105th floors at One World Trade Center when it was struck by American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. Lutnick was on his way to the office by then, and was standing outside the building when Tower Two collapsed. Caked in ash, he began walking north.
He phoned his wife, then went to the home of Cantor's general counsel, who had been in the lobby elevator when the plane hit and had also survived. Then he made his way uptown to see the wife of his best friend and co-worker, Doug Gardner, who did not survive. Lutnick understood, Tom Barbash writes in ''On Top of the World,'' ''that the fact that he wasn't in the building, even if it was to bring his son to his first day of kindergarten, will be a complicated thing for some people to accept.'' Lutnick is still covered with dust, and ''he needs for her to see him this way -- not when he's cleaned up, and not when his mind is occupied with saving the company.''
Lutnick received a great deal of attention after Sept. 11. First he was a sympathetic figure who had lost a staggering 658 employees and who wept during televised interviews. Later he was criticized as something of a callous villain, who cut off those employees' paychecks before they had been declared dead, outraging some of their families. Barbash, a fiction writer and former reporter, knew Lutnick in college. ''On Top of the World'' sets out to tell the story of Cantor Fitzgerald's tragedy, and its survival, largely from its chairman's point of view; the book is interspersed with long passages in Lutnick's own voice.
It's worth pausing, then, over the presence of mind that Barbash attributes to his college friend -- just hours after the disaster, Lutnick is thinking about how he ''needs'' people to see him, and about the business. Lutnick was certainly right about the challenges ahead: ''complicated'' would eventually prove a polite way to describe the relationship between Lutnick and the relatives of many Cantor workers who lost their lives. And throughout this story, Lutnick often comes across as obsessed with persuading the world to ''accept'' that he is a victim, and that the best -- the only -- thing he can do is keep Cantor alive and profitable.
He is certainly right on the first count (among the many colleagues who died was his younger brother) and probably right on the second. The firm is already making good on its pledge to give one-quarter of its profits over a five-year span to the families of its deceased employees. Yet as Barbash's story moves on from the initial shock of Sept. 11 to Lutnick's efforts to save Cantor, a curious thing happens: an anti-Lutnick feeding frenzy. While the executive insists that stopping paychecks was the only way to keep his firm solvent, a chorus of critics -- notably Fox News host Bill O'Reilly -- accuse him of heartless duplicity, painting him as a rich, ruthless and greedy manipulator whose crocodile tears were a public relations gambit. Many of the Cantor victims' families become overtly hostile to him, and hate mail snakes out of his fax machine. Lutnick's struggle to redeem himself in the public's eyes is the heart of the book, and strangely gripping to read.
It's also thoroughly depressing. If the reader sympathizes wholly with Lutnick, his critics seem to be motivated by a cynicism that is unfathomable in the wake of such horror. A more skeptical reader would see Lutnick as too interested in P.R. handlers, and too quick to portray past and present rivals or naysayers as ''not good people'' or even ''jerks.'' And when the firm and the families end up bickering over lost vacation time and bonuses, everyone comes across as petty or worse -- not least because Barbash laces the book with grim recollections of those who were near Ground Zero, which of course make the squabbles seem trivial. Intentionally or not, the book ends up demonstrating just how swiftly grief can be transformed from a source of unity to one of conflict.
Barbash is clearly on Lutnick's side in all this, and wants to assure us that the Cantor chairman has only the best motives. Yet some of his book's most intriguing moments come when he seems puzzled, or even troubled, by his subject. He worries at one point that, ''For Howard, the media has become a daily report card, which he allows too often to affect his spirits.'' Elsewhere in the book, he realizes that what he thought was an office within Lutnick's 6,000-square-foot apartment is actually a closet, filled with ''a Marcosian collection of shoes'' and ''a half mile of suits and jeans.'' Lutnick, he writes, ''is wealthy in a way I don't entirely understand.''
The glimpses we get of Lutnick and Cantor Fitzgerald from the years before tragedy made them well known offer a little insight. Both of Lutnick's parents died by the time he was 18, and he seems to have found a replacement father figure in his mentor, Bernie Cantor. His ascension to the firm's chairmanship while still in his 30's is a success story somewhat tarnished by a nasty legal battle with Cantor's widow. Making it at such an early age brought huge financial rewards, but was not easy: a 1996 story about Cantor Fitzgerald in The New York Times described it as having ''an office culture that makes Oliver Stone's vision of 'Wall Street' look beatific by comparison.''
Throughout the book, Lutnick's unwavering focus is almost unnerving, particularly because it seems nearly identical to the way he operated before Sept. 11. He does not seem racked with survivor's guilt, or to have experienced any second thoughts about a life spent in relentless pursuit of money. To the contrary, the profit motive has been transformed, for Lutnick, into a source of redemption.
And perhaps that makes sense. For a brief time, Sept. 11 pushed market culture and raw emotion right up against each other -- remember the efforts to spark a ''patriots' rally,'' which would have involved buying stocks as a rebuke to terrorists? -- but it's inevitable that this couldn't last. In the end, markets do not recognize sentimentality of any sort. And whatever else Howard Lutnick may be, he is certainly smart enough to know that.
Rob Walker is a contributing writer for Money and Slate.