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A hail and farewell for Bess Levin

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Bess Levin, for more than ten years the guiding genius behind the Wall Street gossip blog and humor rag Dealbreaker, is leaving that post.  This is a good time for a moment of silence.

On Friday, October 28, Bess broke the news to the world under the headline, “Housekeeping: This Is One of My Last Posts for Dealbreaker.” She’s moving to Vanity Fair’s The Hive.

Props to VF, but it won’t be the same.

Dealbreaker during Levin’s tenure has with some regularity turned its sharp and often sex-obsessed lens on the world of alpha seekers.  Recent efforts include the Thornton McEnery post about Pete Muller, manager of a $5 billion quant fund firm, and musician on the side, who has composed a little ditty about Ken Griffin’s post-divorce sex life.

Highland Hijinks       

Bess’ own recent writing includes an item this September about Joshua Terry’s lawsuit against Highland Capital. The story consisted of three equal parts. From bottom to top these were: a quote from a boring Bloomberg story on that lawsuit; a paragraph in which Bess re-aligned the issues at stake invoking such burning irrelevancies as Joshua Terry’s stature; and a long headline that says it all best.  I’ll quote only the headline here:  “Hedge fund employee who claims he was fired for getting in way of boss’ plans to use investor funds on South American condom factory will get his day in court.”

Now that’s a headline that gets you thinking. And perhaps even researching. There is of course no reason a priori why a hedge fund manager might not want to invest in a South American condom factory. Perhaps this qualifies as going long on the decline of traditional Roman Catholic mores on the matter of contraception. Or something.  

The legal point is Terry’s claim, filed initially in a state court in Dallas County, Texas, now set for arbitration, that certain outside investors were due repayment of loans, and that Highland’s president, James Dondero, had misdirected those funds to the condom factory: that is, that the condom deal was illegal self-dealing. Does this make Terry a whistle blower? Does it mean that the ostensible reasons he was fired are pretextual?

Bess wasn’t breaking any stories there (that wasn’t and isn’t part of Dealbreaker’s business model), she was riffing on a Bloomberg story. But doing it well. 

Remember Bear Stearns’ High-Grade Structured Credit Fund? 

But enough of the recent stuff. Let’s go for a deeper dive. Dealbreaker in general and Bess in particular seem to have divined earlier than most than the fall of Ralph Cioffi and Matt Tannin was going to be big. DB followed with great though bemused care the collapse in 2007 of the Bear Stearns hedge funds that C&T headed, the strained relations between those two managers and the rest of the ursine family thereafter, and the eventual trial of C&T (which, lest we forget, ended with acquittal for both).  In December 2007, Bess invoked Michael Corleone in this connection: “Ralph Cioffi: Just When He Was Out, They Drag Him Back In.” Her point in that post was that Cioffi, fresh off the failure of his two Bear- branded funds, was trying to put together another. What was the obstacle? That Bear Stearns was “using his millions of restricted stock to try to persuade him to stay on.” 

The failures themselves? Apparently not an obstacle at all. As Bess observed, “hedge fund failure might not quite mean never having to say you’re sorry but it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll never eat lunch at San Pietro again.”  

After the Cuff Shots

Obviously, alluding to a classic quote from only one movie was not sufficient to the occasion. 

Cioffi and Tannin were arrested the following summer.  During their trial, Bess found some humor in imagining their relationship to their one-time boss, Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne, who is also fondly remembered as a bridge player and a recreational marijuana smoker. 

As Bess put it while Cioffi was awaiting trial, “the offer to smoke a J [was] probably just the thing that could lift Cioffi’s spirits” yet – alas! There was “nary a peep from his stoner boss. Of course, there’s a logical explanation for the silence – Cayne [was] too busy running down the list of opponents ‘’ and telling reporters they’re all gay….”  Amazing, funny stuff. And Cayne was lucky enough to come back within Bess’ scope earlier this year. 

I don't really miss Cayne at all. But I'm gonna miss Bess.


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