Exposing The Tycoons

This summer’s page-turner may be “The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co.” It reads like a Harold Robbins paperback. But it’s – allegedly – all true. And if you’re an investor, banker, New York City resident or have anything to do with the financial services industry, your life has probably been affected by the real-life characters in William D. Cohan’s biography of the Wall Street institution.

Cohan, who toiled at the company, now known as Lazard, for six years, spoke with "Squawk Box's" Carl Quintanilla about the controversy whipped up by account of the firm in the post WWII period.

Working at the powerhouse bank was the “thrill of a lifetime,” says the author. “Imagine Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays all playing on the same team. Playing at their peak for 40, 50 years.”

Fittingly, a couple of those Hall-of Fame baseballers gained some notoriety for their off-color shenanigans off the field – much like some of the financial demigods named in “The Last Tycoons.”

Felix Rohatyn rose to become partner and managing director in the firm, and is credited with pulling NYC back from the brink of 1970s bankruptcy by creatively restructuring its debt. He’s also depicted in very flesh-and-blood terms, as Cohan tells of Rohatyn’s supposed amorous liaisons and a very public feud with Lazard Deputy CEO Steve Rattner, now Managing Principal of private-equity fund Quadrangle Group.

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“Felix created the M&A business as we know it,” declares Cohan. “He had affairs, he was tough on people.” And to honestly depict the human nature of the dynamic figures who built Lazard, it’s “really important to present ‘men in full’,” in all their flaws and greatness.

The author calls Chairman and CEO Bruce Wasserstein “once a very strong banker,” and now the “biggest opportunist on Wall Street.” That may not be a character flaw, given the enormity of Lazard’s client list: one advisee was power company TXU, which recently agreed to be bought out by a KKR-led investor group -- a $45 billion deal.

Lazard Freres issued a statement about the book -- the latest in a long tine of Wall Street exposes -- calling it a “substantially inaccurate account” by a “junior banker", but Cohan points to his 42 pages of source notes and “over a 100” interviews – sanctioned by the bank itself.

He says Lazard’s essentially denial of his tale is simply a matter of “Bruce being Bruce.”