Jeff Beck's excess greed

Herb Greenberg

April 05, 1991|By Herb Greenberg | Herb Greenberg,Chronicle Features 1991

In the next week or two the book "Rainmaker: Saga of Jeff Beck, Wall Street's Mad Dog," by Business Week's Tony Bianco, will be arriving in bookstores. It will undoubtedly be accompanied by a good deal of press attention as well as whispers on Wall Street.

In the 1980s, Beck, an investment banker, became synonymous with some of the biggest takeovers ever. Wall Street Journal readers might remember him as the subject of last year's front-page story detailing his years of lies and deception, including his harrowing tales as a war hero in Vietnam, where he had never been. His recollections were so vivid that actor/producer Michael Douglas considered doing a film based on Beck's adventures.

To a broader audience, Beck might be remembered for his cameo role in the movie "Wall Street," where he played a dealmaker giving a passionate speech in a pivotal scene.

To me, Beck was one of the most engaging and entertaining, if not puzzling, sources I ever encountered. You don't expect a leading investment banker to sit down for breakfast at the ritzy Carlyle Hotel in New York, turn his head sideways almost sticking his ear in a bowl of cereal and then pretend to lap it up with his tongue.

You don't expect him to lie, either.

I got to know Beck in 1983 when I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. His biggest deals involved Chicago companies, and all of them were on my beat. So we talked on the phone frequently for several years. I heard all of his now infamous "stories": that he had been in Vietnam, that he had been a college football star, that he had inherited a fortune and that he ran a private multibillion-dollar conglomerate (all lies).

The latter sounded a little farfetched, but it shows what happens when money and power go to the head of someone who becomes as important, and self-important, as Beck.

Early on, I learned be cautious of investment bankers, because their egos sometimes lead them to stretch the truth, but usually only about the deals they've done. The irony is that when it came to the deal business, I never caught Beck in a lie. In fact, one of the few times I thought he had become a little too full of himself that I chose to ignore his comments for publication was when he bragged that he was the brains behind the largest buyout of its time, Beatrice Cos., and that he had hatched the idea a year earlier. It was true!

As the book illustrates so well, the conflict between truth and fiction began taking its toll on Beck. When I moved to New York in 1985, it turned out his secretary and I occasionally ran into each other on the train. When Beck found out, he called me and, in a thundering voice said, "I don't ever want to hear that you talked to her again!"

There will be a tendency for people to say that Beck symbolizes everything that was wrong with Wall Street in the 1980s. That would be a mistake, since Beck never appeared to do anything illegal, and in fact had suggested to several reporters, including me, that now-ex-arbitrager Ivan Boesky was a crook.

Whatever made Beck lie also gave him the drive and creativity to break into the elite dealmakers club. There are Jeff Becks in every industry. It's just that this Jeff Beck existed on the Wall Street of the 1980s, and finished his career at Drexel Burnham Lambert, which symbolized the pinnacle of greed and excess. A liar of such grandiose proportions would seem to epitomize what Wall Street had become.

Indeed, in the book's final chapter, Beck confesses that there were no "boundaries to reality" on Wall Street in the 1980s. If his story is a parable to life on The Street, he adds, it's only to the extent "that it is a story of a person who had a hard time with reality in a land of false impressions."

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