When having everything isn’t enough: if you’d made as much money as Ivan Boesky, would you be in jail?

When having everything isn’t enough: if you’d made as much money as Ivan Boesky, would you be in jail?

Ann Landi

when having everything isn’t enough

Of the spectacles of the late 1980s, few have been more intriguing than the sight of some of the nation’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens risking it all in a dumb brush with the law.

Consider Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur worth an estimated $200 million, who is now in jail convicted of insider trading. Or Martin Siegel, convicted and facing jail, the young millionaire takeover specialist who received briefcases full of cash from Boesky at secret rendezvous in exchange for confidential information on Siegel’s clients. Or Leona and Harry Helmsley, king and queen of a real-estate empire valued at $5 billion, whose trial for tax evasion is scheduled to begin this month. To say nothing of Bunker, Herbert and Lamar Hunt, sons of legendary Texas billionaire oilman H. L. Hunt, found guilty of conspiring to corner the world silver market.

To the rest of us, these people seemed to have everything–houses, cars, works of art, powerful friends and more than a modicum of fame. Still they felt compelled to push beyond the bounds of ethical (and possibly legal) conduct in the pursuit of gains that, by any rational calculation, were quite superfluous.

The revelations about the high-wire antics of these present and potential felons has inspired a national orgy of self-recrimination about America’s decade of greed. But is greed what we really should be concerned about?

Not necessarily, our panel of experts concludes. The real compulsion behind the never-enough mentality–and the danger isn’t limited to the located–isn’t having money, it’s making it.

Keeping Score

“It’s the artistry, more than the desire for monetary gain, that provides the fuel,” says psychoanalyst Abraham Zaleznik, who teachs at the Harvard Business School. Zaleznik regards Wall Street hot-shots much as he does any group of high-performance high-rollers–they are all motivated by an internal measure of success.

The very ambitious are driven by an uncompromising set of standards that divides the best from the also-rans. And to be the best in the money business means, in Zaleznik’s words, “being in the action, getting involved in large delas. They’re not doing it for the money itself. Money is the scorecard.”

The thrill of peak performance at the highest levels is also singled out by University of Wisconsin in Madison psychologist Frank Farley in his analysis of compulsive moneymakers. The leveraged-buyout wizards and arbitrageurs are “Type T” personalities, he explains, thrill-seekers who get high on risk-taking. While some Type Ts get their kicks from mountain-climbing or sexual adventuring, others look to the really big deal for that soul-tingling rush of adrenaline.

Type Ts, Farley adds, are rule-breakers by nature. “Einstein and Churchill would never have done what they did if they hadn’t gone beyond the rules. Many of the people who change history are Type Ts.” In this view, as in Zaleznik’s, Boesky and company are breaking rules in the pursuit of their own peculiar genius. “If you do things strictly according to law, you will not do many creative things,” says Farley. “It just so happens they’re doing things that are negative.”

A certain need for danger may be inborn in some, says University of Illinois researcher Sol Roy Rosenthal, who studies athletes hooked on high-risk sports. Close brushes with death give skiers and other thrill-seekers a benign high (if they live).

The Need to be Special

Excellence and love of challenge are traits we can all admire. But in the lives of some who seek them, there’s a chilling undercurrent of pathology, according to psychologist Steven Berglas.

Berglas, author of The Success Syndrome, believes that many of the criminally rich suffer from extreme narcissism. “These people haven’t really developed an ego or a sense of self-esteem,” he says.

So they act out, attempting to gain attention through outrageous success and equally outrageous behavior. If everyone is making $10 million a year, what can you do to assert yourself? How can you make your next deal bigger, better, badder?

“The whole point is differentiation,” Berglas says. He cites the case of one patient whose practice of snorting cocaine and then roaring off to board meetings on a high-speed motorcycle was his way of standing out from the crowd.

The need to stand out, to tote up the highest numbers on the money scorecard, has helped to foster a thoroughgoing obsession with money in the tight little subculture of high finance. “Money came ahead of sleeping and eating,” Fortune

wrote of Ivan Boesky. “He seemed to have few interests outside of making money,” New York said of Harry Helmsley. “There is something about being a Hunt,” The New York Times Magazine quotes Dallas writer A.C. Greene, “you’re never rich enough.”

Boesky, the Hunts, the Helmsleys–each of them needed more money about as much as a junkie needs his next fix. Maybe exactly as much, according to Laurence Shames, author of The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed.

Rich Beyond Reason

“I really do think that people get hooked on money,” says Shames. “And one of the sad ironies is that the people who get hooked…tend to consider themselves very smart, cool-headed, and rational….These are people who are very well-educated in the ways of money, but beyond a certain point, they’re no longer behaving rationally at all.”

Greed as addiction puts the problem into a clinical rather than a moral framework, a perspective adopted by Wall Street psychiatrist Jay Rohrlich who, in a New York Times editorial, described the sort of compulsive behavior that was ruining the lives of from newsstands because it was quicker than waiting to pay. A stockbroker had to be restrained from injuring a bank officer when his loan application was deied. Rohrlich makes a plea for regarding such people as true addicts, with “a potentially desperate condition” that can be alleviated by treament.

The legendary penny-pinching of some of the rich also suggests a disorder of some kind. The Helmsleys, if one is to believe the reports, seem to have gone beyond the picturesque to a kind of Dickensian miserliness: After his stepson’s death, Harry forced the window out of her Florida home, saying he “needed the money,” and then sued the estate for the cost of shipping the body to New York for burial. Leona had her day in court, pressuring the widow to return a Buccellati ring reportedly presented as a gift.

Childhoods of the Rich and Greedy

This level of obsession with money is not criminal, to be sure, but it borders on irrational. Knowing how early experiences shape adult life, it’s hard not to speculate on the growing pains of a Boesky or a Helmsley (either Helmsley).

With the exception of the Hunt brothers, whose daddy parlayed a $5,000 inheritance into $2 billion, most of those mentioned here did have somewhat austere starts in life. Boesky’s father was an immigrant delicatessen owner. Martin Siegel’s family, according to The Wall Street Journal, was “marked by financial struggle.” Harry Helmsley went to work as an office boy at 16 to help support his family. And Leona, whose father manufactured army caps, worked as a cigarette girl in her late 20s after a divorce.

So for the most part, these are self-made people, and it’s tempting to surmise that an impoverished–or modest–childhood could lead to a pathological fear of never having enough. Yet it’s far more likely that emotional, not physical, improverishment is the true culprit. Berglas, whose practice includes many of the self-made, says he’s never seen a patient whose problems stemmed from material deprivation as a child.

The Source of Self-Destruction

To enjoy success, a person must feel a real sense of accomplishment. Those who self-destruct, or self-deny, in the midst of plenty may do so because they believe they haven’t earned their good fortune. Boesky, for instance, was handed a sizable chunk of cash by his in-laws to open an investment firm. And Leona Helmsley, though a successful realtor, nonetheless made her megamillions by marriage, not work.

“That’s a central feature in the people I treat,” says Berglas. “They don’t believe they’ve earned it, and they bite not only the hand that fed them, but virtually every other hand at the feast. They want to destroy that myth, that sense of ‘I’ve been given.”

Berglas also indicts the parents of some joyless overachievers for raising children who are incapable of savoring their achievements. In particular, he says, parents who are vicariously ambitious–i.e., study hard so you’ll get into Yale, and we can put a sticker on our car–may raise a child who, even as an adult, will feel driven to more and more audacious exploits because that was the only way he was ever able to feel approved and loved.

A Consideration of Context

Though upbringing and individual psychology can go a long way toward explaining behavior, finally one also has to look at the climate in which it takes place. The events we have been discussing did not occur in a vacuum.

“There are times when getting and spending are very important, and times when public purpose surpasses private interest as the accepted goal,” writes Adam Smith in The Roaring ’80s. “The Reagan years will be remembered as money-value years…It is not only okay to be rich; it is okay to flaunt it….”

Certainly, we have lost the sense of “enough.” Snobbish as it was, there was something to the model of the 18th-century gentleman, who made his money in trade and then retired to more worthwhile pursuits. Today, he has been superseded by a Donald-Trump-style ethos of incessant striving.

Michael Milken, the junk-bond genius, was much lauded for his 15-hour workdays that required the services of a rotating staff of three secretaries just to keep pace. If, as was rumored at press time, he is to be indicted on insider trading charges, will he be replaced by another model, or just another man?

As New York psychotherapist Leonora Tint remarks, “People tend to get either neurotic or crazy or obsessive in each generation, in each culture period, in the way that the culture allows it. The people who have the greatest success in our society are the people who can get the most….The society promulgates that. This is what makes you a big man.”

There are a few signs of change. In addition to the real-life spectacle of the grasping rich running afoul of the law and into jail, two works of fiction–the movie Wall Street and the novel Bonfire of the Vanities–have provided popular parables of the perils of greed. And if the fading ratings of Dynasty and Dallas are any index, the public seems to be tiring of the antics of our conspicuous consumers.

A new sobriety may, in fact, be setting in. The Yuppies are now raising children, trading in their BMWs for mortgages and IRAs, and maybe even growing up. As writer Laurence Shames points out, “the predilection to destructively high expectations has been in our national bloodstream for over 200 years,” but he notes that this may be the generation that will witness the curbing of the American appetite for more. “The baby boomers,” Shames believes, “are the generation who are presiding over this sad realization that it can’t go on.”

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps a climate in which you can’t have it all puts some zest back into ordinary striving. If the price of success is years of therapy–to say nothing of a jail term–the old notion of quietly socking it away, of being content with modest increments in one’s material status and retiring, like the 18th-century gentleman, to a life of pleasurable pursuits doesn’t seem at all unattractive.

PHOTO : Billionaire Harry Helmsley and his adoring wife Leona face reporters outside Manhattan Criminal Court after their arraignment for tax evasion. Their federal trial is scheduled to begin this month.

Table : Leaving the court that later convicted them of trying to corner the silver market, two of the notoriously stingy Hunts (Bunker, left, and Herbert) opted for the subway.

Table : A grim-faced Ivan Boesky pled guilty as charged to one count of violating federal securities laws. He got jail.

Table : Donald Trump, here with his two princesses (wife Ivana and yacht), epitomized the more-more-more mentality of the ’80s–hotels, casinos, a tower, a best-seller. His latest production, new this spring: “Trump the Game.” Appropriately, the player with the most money wins.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group