I have no love for Wall Street firms. And I have no doubt that the blue-shirted, shiny-tied, steak-wolfing, Cristal-swilling, unscrupulous, book-cooking, condo-buying, debt-incurring, don't-regulate-me-I'm-fine, masters-of-the-universe, greedhead, asshole economy-screwer-uppers at Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch got exactly what was coming to them when their age-old companies went poof in the night. And I have even less doubt that their fast-and-loose, bonus-getting shell games will result in a horrific economic chain reaction that will result in either me, my wife, my friends or someone I know losing their job or pension or 401-K or home due to no fault of their/our own.
But this blog is about old New York, and the parts of it that are going, albeit not quietly, into that good night. And Wall Street investment firms, whatever else they may be, are old business in New York. Many are historic. And they deserve their due when they die. Sort of. And when you think of, they disappeared for the same reasons small old companies like Gertel's Bakery, McHale's and Gotham Book Mart did: unchecked, unexamined, fuck-everyone-but-me greed.
Henry Lehman, the founder of Lehman Brothers, died of yellow fever in 1855, only five years after he created the famous firm—in Montgomery, Alabama, of all places. Fortunately, he had his two Bavarian immigrant brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, to carry on. Carry on they did, doing a lot of cotton trading, which was big stuff at the time. Lehman Brothers moved to New York in 1958, and helped to found the New York Cotton Exchange in 1870. Emanuel's son Philip took over from 1901 to 1925, and collected a lot of art in his spare time. Philip's son Robert succeeded him, guiding the firm through The Depression, inheriting his father's art, and adding to the collection. He had a solo exhibition at the Louvre in 1957, and donated 3,000 works to the Met when he died in 1969. After that, no Lehman ran the company, and things were never the same. Lots of infighting and nastiness.
Compared to Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch was a mere baby. The firm was founded in 1914 by Charles E. Merrill, who was joined a little while later by his friend (awww, friends!) Edmund C. Lynch. In 1916, Winthrop H. Smith, who had a much less interesting last name, joined the firm. The firm bought Pathé Exchange, which became RKO Pictures. They later sold it to Joseph P. Kennedy and Cecil B. DeMille.
Lynch died in 1938. He was only 52. After that the firm bore no common or additional names. It was only Merrill Lynch & Co., out of respect to the late founder. Merrill survived until 1956. According to sources, he was one of the few who predicted the Stock market crash of 1929, and had tried to convince President Coolidge (good luck!) that trouble was a-comin'. In preparation, he divested many of the firm's holdings before the Depression hit. The company also became the first on Wall Street to publish an annual fiscal report in 1941, in an attempt to demonstrate to the public that it was above board. Merrill also published a "Declaration of Policy," which included the nine precepts. Among them: "The interests of our customers must come first" and "Investigate—then Invest." Hmmm. Guess the recent execs misplaced those precepts.
In his personal life, Merrill was known as "Good Time Charlie Merrill," a man-about-town who married three times. One thing for certain that he did right: he gave birth to poet James Ingram Merrill (1926-1995).