I was surprised and saddened to learn from a friend that author, art connoisseur, financier manque and class traitor Michael M. Thomas died earlier this month. Even though Thomas was getting on in years, and getting around with a cane, he was such a force of nature that he seemed the type who would keep soldiering on, fueled by his sociability, his keen powers of observation, and his unending curiosity.
The New York Times gave him a deservedly lengthy obituary: Michael Thomas, Writer and Bête Noire of the Moneyed Class, Dies at 85 (pro tip: Google the headline to get access). Thomas’ extensive and wide range of achievements attests to his considerable energy. The high points from the New York Times:
Mr. Thomas, who was the scion of an old-line family and who inhabited the upper echelons of Manhattan society, had three distinct careers: assistant curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, investment banker at Lehman Brothers and, finally, writer. While he loved art history and immersed himself for a time in the world of high finance, it was with his pen — dipped, some said, in an inkwell of acid — that he found his groove.
Over nearly four decades, he turned out nine novels, most of them financial thrillers, as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine columns and articles. His overarching theme was the pursuit of wealth, and his subplots included the enduring clash between old money and new…
Many of Mr. Thomas’s characters, like Trollope’s, were obsessed with power and prestige, subjects that Mr. Thomas examined with anthropological zeal against the backdrop of a corrupt Wall Street, where the bad guys weren’t just bad but pathologically venal.
I had long been a fan of Thomas due to his Midas Watch column at the New York Observer, which I read religiously, staring in the 1990s. It was so refreshing, after the timid, deferential to power and lucre attitudes so deeply instilled at Goldman and McKinsey, to see a former insider who still has an excellent view into how the sausage was made, call out the chicanery, colorfully and accurately. This period when neoliberalism was going from strength to strength, and the few naysayers, no matter how accurate and withering their critique, still seemed like Blakean prophets, calling out their visions from a wilderness.
So I was completely stoked when a Michael M. Thomas showed up in the comments section and made astute additions, and I determined that it was indeed the Michael M. Thomas I admired. It served as an important validation in the early days of the site that it was on the right track and providing useful commentary to sophisticated readers.
I was even more pleased when Thomas invited me out to lunch at one of his clubs. It was in a grand midtown building, suitably a tad undermaintained, with lovely food. And in what you’d expect of a club, a few members came over to say hello to Thomas and exchanged pleasantries.
Thomas was jovial, a lively and entertaining storyteller, with impeccable manners and the old WASP priority of putting his guest at ease. After our first repast, he took to inviting me out once or twice a year when he was going up to the Met, and we always met at a small Italian restaurant near my apartment. We’d have the place nearly or totally to ourselves and always had a leisurely chat. Although Thomas never put it this way, one of the things that seemed to deeply offend him was the way Wall Street had become a “heads I win, tails you lose” trade. His father, also a Lehman partner, made more money in World War II as an enlisted soldier than he had at the firm.
Thomas had a keen eye for turning points for individuals and institutions. For instance, he put the beginning of the end of the New York Times as a journalistic enterprise when Punch Sulzberger joined the board of the Met in 1968. “He was dining with people he should have been dining on.”
Thomas was also a good friend to the site. He was a regular donor, provided us once with a fundraising post, and gave advice in some tricky spots, most important when ECONNED had the bad luck to have a publication date within a week of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, and our bone-headed publisher refused to change it. More important, we felt that Lewis got the most important part of the story wrong: his subprime short heroes has actually poured gas all over the subprime fire. Thomas supplied this para that was critical to framing the post:
Lewis’ tale is neat, plausible to a mass market audience fed a steady diet of subprime markets stupidity and greed, and incomplete in critical ways that render his account fundamentally misleading. It’s almost too bad the book’s so readable, because a lot of people will mistake readability for accuracy, and it’s a pity that Lewis, being a brand name author, has been given a free pass by big-name media like 60 Minutes (old people) and The Daily Show (young people) to sell to an audience of tens of millions a version of the financial crisis that just won’t stand up – not if we’re really trying to get to the heart of the matter, rather than simply wishing to be entertained by breezy well-told stories that provide a bit of easy-to-digest instruction without challenging conventional wisdom.
Despite his radar for complex rationalizations, manipulation, and moral decay, Thomas seemed to steer clear of becoming jaded, bitter, or merely world weary. Laying it out so the world could see these lapses as clearly as he did provided satisfaction and it seems even relief. Thomas also remained an enthusiastic reader, and in particular was a Dickens fan. Stupidity and greed are ever-present in history and literature, and that perspective may have helped reconcile him to our current cycle of rising corruption. In fact, his last two books managed both to have happy endings despite depicting different types of betrayal, in the spirit of Measure for Measure or Cosi fan tutte. That’s not what you’d expect from a diehard cynic.
I feel guilty at not having been a better correspondent after moving to Alabama. It’s too easy to assume that someone as energetic as Thomas will aways be around. I at least did highlight his role in steering me toward the Hospital for Special Surgery; I had correctly assumed that Thomas being of an age where lots of his family and friends would need orthopedic work, and Thomas being fabulously connected, that he would give me good guidance. As I wrote on June 25:
I wound up at the Hospital for Special Surgery via Michael M. Thomas, who was a second generation Lehman partner at the time of his exodus in the early 1970s. Thomas has a resume that it would take most accomplished individuals several lifetimes to accumulate, such as having written nine novels. I first learned about Thomas through his acerbic and astute New York Observer column, Midas Watch. From the start of an archival piece:
One reason I love the Yale alumni magazine is that each new issue provides another compelling reason for any alumna or alumnus with a particle of common sense not to give a dime to Dear Old Eli.
I was chuffed in the early days of the site to learn Thomas was a reader and even more so when he invited me to lunch. We continued to lunch about once a year. Thomas is a great raconteur and knows where far too many elite bodies are buried.
Thomas referred me to Dr. Vijay Vad, who specializes in non and minimally invasive procedures and had helped Thomas a great deal many years ago when he’d had severe back pain that had stymied other specialists. Dr. Vad was willing to treat my hip and likely slowed its decay.
This was his last e-mail to me, on June 27:
just imagine my bosom-bursting pride when, in the course of my regular dose of Naked Capitalism, I stumbled upon myself in your paean to HSS. I’m glad Vad served you well; the way that place runs is something Jack Welch could have learned from. I had my knees done there in 2005; went back 4-5 years ago for a followup and my surgeon told me they’d see me to my grave. I must say, I am simply dazzled by modern medicine. Apart from two overnights at HSS in connection with the knee job, the last time I’d overnighted in a hospital was in 1944 when I had my tonsils out! But a month ago, yielding to the incursions of age (turned 85 in April) I had a TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement) procedure at NY-Presbyterian and frankly found the entire experience amazing! And it seems to have worked.
But how are you? I gather your mother’s had a bit of a bad go, medically speaking, and I pray that you’ve been able to sort it out. Funny: those of us in the “don’t know” tend to think of Birmingham as a great city for medicine.
What a world! It has confirmed the great truth of capitalism: for all its virtues, it’s a system that best profits those types conspicuous for emotional and intellectual deficiencies of a pretty repellent kind. I realize that when I say that, I’m letting my Schwarzman-fixation shine through, so take it with a grain of gold. What I think is interesting, and frankly somewhat comforting, is that InfoTech has permitted the development of niche markets (crypto, SPAC, NFT) that the worst players can rush into without screwing up traditional investment vehicles. Obviously there’s some overlap, and certainly some sectoral overheating, but the “meme actors” seem generally free to play their games without ruining life for the rest of us. But my God is there ever a lot of money around! Craziness abounds!
I miss our lunches, and I miss seeing a few – very few! – other friends, but I have a big family and, to be honest, think that the pandemic has, net net net, been good for/to me. I’m reading a ton, and pondering a lot, mostly trying in my dotage to figure out why this country has ended up as it has (the conclusion seems to be that it is as was in the beginning, and the allowing for certain interruptions prompted by war and the like, ever will be).
You’re well out of NYC, in my view. “Landlord capitalism” – as I think of it – has had a terrible effect. The cure, if ever there is one, has to be bottom-up: apply remedies beginning with the bodega that pays rent to a one-building landlord, let’s say, and let Vornado and the rest of the bribery-artists go f*** themselves. But things could be worse: my eldest son lives in Portland OR and his bulletins are dire.
Anyway, I send my love and hugs. Onward! ?
I wish I had gotten to know Thomas better. I very much appreciate and will remember fondly the too brief times we had together. And his death is a loss on many levels. They don’t make men like him any more.