Michael M. Thomas, R.I.P

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.

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28 comments

  1. ChrisRUEcon

    Sincerest condolences Yves, and thanks so much for sharing the letter. A true comrade. Love (and concur with) his send off! Sending ((hugs)) as well.

  2. saywhat?

    Sounds like a swell guy. And when a swell guy/gal says “pray” that’s hard to dismiss, isn’t it?

    Sorry for your/our immediate loss but it may easily be his promotion and our future gain.

  3. hemeantwell

    A nice good-bye, Yves, and I’m sorry for your loss. As I read his obit this morning I regretted not having had access to his work over the years. Witty and knowledgeable class traitors are all too rare, and when they’re capable of charming their targets into publishing them, wow.

  4. FriarTuck

    Thank you, Yves, for sharing this wonderful tribute.

    Michael sounds like the kind of person you would want to befriend: a man of character and social sang-froid. Not too many of those around these days.

  5. Watt4Bob

    So sorry to hear of the loss of your friend.

    I’ve been struggling lately with the issues you highlight;

    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.

    It has become clear to me that I haven’t been sufficiently grateful for my many blessings, and have instead been focusing, to my detriment, on the world through the prism of what passes for ‘*journalism‘.

    I’m so glad to read your description of a man who had a deep understanding of the reality of our times, and yet managed to maintain a bright outlook.

    * this site excepted

  6. Arizona Slim

    What a guy! In addition to getting Yves on the road to better health, Mr. Thomas was whip smart and could really turn a phrase.

    My condolences, Yves.

  7. Greg S

    Thank you for writing this tribute. It is clear that Michael Thomas leaves shoes that will be hard to fill. Of the few people I read today you may be one who can accomplish this. Onward!

    Reply ↓

  8. ex-PFC Chuck

    A beautiful eulogy, Yves. You make clear what a blessing it was to have known the man, and makes me wish I’d known him too. Thank you.

  9. AE90

    Sorry for your, and everyone’s loss, and thank you for sharing so beautifully. Can’t wait to read his writings. I’m grateful that he was so generous in sharing his feelings and knowledge.

  10. bassmule

    “He was dining with people he should have been dining on.” And there is the state if contemporary journalism, in just one sentence.

    You are absolutely right to be proud of catching the eye and ear of such an astute gentleman.

  11. SD

    My condolences for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful man. I just ordered three of his novels from alibris.com.

  12. juno mas

    Yves, that was a heartfelt and heart warming remembrance. Mr. Thomas and you are real talents.

  13. Michael Hudson

    I’m awfully sorry to hear about Michael Thomas, Yves.
    When he joined the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly, he leaned across the table from me and said, “I would have worn my Naked Capitalism T-shirt if I knew you’d be here.” We became friendly after that. (I gather he was a classmate of the Quarterly’s editor, Lewis Lapham.)
    He certainly enjoyed life, and was always in a cheery mood.

  14. Michael

    I had no idea who Michael M. Thomas was until today. He sounds like he was a lovely human being.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and memories of him Yves.

  15. Felix_47

    Like Gore Vidal, who never went to college, he went to Exeter. It was a far different world back then with run down buildings, crappy heat, and not coed. Too young to pass.

    1. Guy Hooper

      Ah, Exeter. I went there as a first generation Immigrant from England where parents were expected to send their kids away. THE formative experience of my life. Learned to think critically, and to express myself clearly. So fast paced, I barely hung on in most subjects. Just going co-Ed when I got there in 1974; so most of us were socially deficient. If someone had told me what doors it was opening, would have been a banker. Because no one did, I joined the Air Force, flew 20 years in fast jets, did a tour with the USN on carrier during Desert Storm. At an Exeter reunion someone said, “You’re the only one who has interesting stories that don’t involve money” ( not totally true). I can imagine that Michael Thomas got all he needed going there 30 years ahead of me. Truly one of the great institutions. Unfortunately, that depth of education is not accessible to so many who would use it well. Sorry for Yves to have lost a friend. Take solace that you could call him one.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        For what is it worth, our Richard Smith, Oxford grad (read math and German) very much wanted to be a pilot. Instead he wound up in IT because in the early days of IT, there were so few programmers that they recruited humanities grads with strong enough mathematical/logic skills. He did become a glider.

        A long winded way of say there are probably more among your colleagues who would have loved a career of flying fast planes but were indoctrinated not even to think about that seriously as a career.

        I went to Harvard in 1975, so a similar era to yours, and the class consisted about 40% of private school kids, with about 40 each from Andover and Exeter. We public school kids were pretty intimidated by them. The ones from Andover and Exeter in particular were natively smart and had been sharpened up to a very impressive degree on top of that. Very confident and articulate.

        You probably know that Harvard could have admitted twice as many from each school based on their grades and scores but didn’t want the class to be overweight one type.

        The one compensating characteristic we public school kids had, according to my freshman expository writing section leader (everyone had to take “expos”) was that the private school kids put out much more polished papers, but the public school kids grappled with the material in a more fundamental manner and often had more interesting observations. So the honed skill in communicating may have come for some (not necessarily the Andover/Exeter lot) at the expense of deeper inspection.

  16. Basil Pesto

    thanks for this and the NYT obit, and sorry for your loss. His novels sound interesting if not what I usually go in for. I wonder if he read The Lehman Trilogy

    I noticed the NYT obit mentioned he did some golf writing so I searched and I saw this (long!) piece on one of my go-to websites: A golfer’s five-foot shelf.

    He sounds like he was fine company

  17. orlbucfan

    Thank you for this tribute, Yves. Human beings like your friend Michael keep me from succumbing to misanthropy.

  18. Anders K

    Thanks for the tribute, and for sharing another author to look up – it’s unfortunate, but common for most authors I get recommended to be dead. I try to take heart in that their works live on, and that digitalisation might allow their words to be read for many more years than might otherwise be the case.

    I’ll try to put your regret into practice, and meet up with old friends more often – covid provides a good excuse to enter virtual hermitage, though.

    I hope you all have a great day and a good week.

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