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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Leon Black: Carl Icahn is 'the brilliant investor of our age'

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It was a good day for Carl Icahn.

First, it emerged on Tuesday that the 79-year-old corporate activist made roughly $3.4 billion in paper profits on his Apple bet, arguably one of the greatest trades of all time. At lunchtime, he talked up his investments on CNBC with his son, Brett, laughing about how much he wanted an Apple Watch. Then, in the evening, Icahn was feted by friend and fellow billionaire Leon Black at a charity event in Manhattan.

"Carl is the smartest single investor I have ever met," the Apollo Global Management CEO said Tuesday night at the Leveraged Finance Fights Melanoma event, which raised $1.6 million for the Melanoma Research Alliance.

"He has been the brilliant investor of our age," Black added, speaking below the gleaming golden statue of Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center skating rink. "Not only has he enriched himself, but more importantly, he has enriched countless other shareholders and creditors in terms of the fights he has taken on and waged successfully again and again and again."

Black speech tweet

Read MoreWow! Here's how much Icahn made on Apple trade

Black said he met Icahn in 1984 when he worked at investment bank Drexel Burnham Lampert and no other partner there would take the account for Icahn. He was already a formidable corporate activist investor, but had a reputation for being "extremely difficult" and "very unpredictable," Black joked.

The pair collaborated on Icahn's letter to Phillips Petroleum, offering to buy the business for $8 billion, and famously said he was ''highly confident'' Drexel could raise the $4 billion he needed for the offer. Drexel used the letter as a model for many other deals, essentially allowing for bold takeover maneuvers based on "confidence" of raising money without technically having the financing in place.

Icahn tweet

Drexel grew to fame over the decade under junk-bond pioneer Michael Milken, but collapsed in scandal in February 1990. Twenty-five years later, Drexel alumni are now in some of Wall Street's most powerful posts.

Read MoreWhere are they now? The Drexel alumni 25 years later

Sponsors at the event included several firms led by Drexel alums, including Apollo (Black), Crescent (co-founded by Mark Attanasio), Jefferies (run by CEO Richard Handler), and Ares (led by CEO Antony Ressler). Sponsorships cost between $5,000 and $50,000, according to the event website. More than 950 people came, organizers said.

Black and his wife, Debra, co-founded Melanoma Research Alliance with Milken after Debra Black was diagnosed with the disease in 2007.

The event—full of mostly male lawyers, bankers and others in leveraged finance—was hosted by Brendan Dillon of investment bank UBS; Lee Grinberg of hedge fund firm Elliott Management; Leland Hart of mega asset manager BlackRock; George Mueller, Jeff Rowbottom and Cade Thompson of private equity firm KKR; Alan Schrager of investment firm Oak Hill Advisors and Trevor Watt of PE shop Hellman & Friedman.

The Leveraged Finance Fights Melanoma charity event at Rockefeller Center, May 19, 2015.
Lawrence Delevingne | CNBC