Bruce Wasserstein, 61

Bruce Wasserstein, 61

Bruce Wasserstein, Chairman and CEO of Lazard Ltd, shown in this Feb. 7, 2006, file photo.
Bruce Wasserstein, Chairman and CEO of Lazard Ltd, shown in this Feb. 7, 2006, file photo. (Shiho Fukada - AP)
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By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bruce Wasserstein, 61, an inventive and forceful banker whose frenetic-paced Wall Street career closely tracked the era of hostile takeovers and the tycoons who spawned them, has died.

Mr. Wasserstein, who was the chairman and chief executive of Lazard Ltd., died Oct. 14 after being hospitalized this week in New York for an irregular heartbeat. He had been listed in serious condition Tuesday, but no cause or location of death was disclosed.

Mr. Wasserstein's death could launch a scramble for control of 161-year-old Lazard, which is one of the most respected investment banks on Wall Street.

Mr. Wasserstein was known among the Wall Street crowd as "Bid 'Em Up Bruce" for a take-no-prisoners negotiating posture that kept him in deals to the very end and often produced outsized prices. The banker and Democrat was also well known for his philanthropy, his media properties and his four marriages, the latest this year to Angela Chao, sister of former U.S. labor secretary Elaine Chao.

The deals that Mr. Wasserstein helped negotiate are some of the most iconic in recent memory, including Philip Morris's $13 billion bid for Kraft in 1988, KKR's $31 billion buyout of RJR Nabisco in 1989 and the $15 billion merger of Time and Warner Bros. in 1990. He was also criticized for some deals, such as piling debt on Canadian Robert Campeau's retail empire.

"On Wall Street, where careers are flashing meteors, he stayed at the top of his game for almost three decades. At First Boston, then Wasserstein Perella and then engineering the revitalization of Lazard," said Ed Mathias, a managing director at the Carlyle Group who knew Mr. Wasserstein when they attended Harvard Business School together. "He was a brilliant strategist who was always the smartest person in the room."

Mr. Wasserstein was known for innovative tactics such as "lockups," which gave his clients the most valuable part of the acquisition.

A wunderkind who graduated with dual degrees with honors from Harvard University's law and business schools at 23, Mr. Wasserstein began as a lawyer at Cravath, Swaine and Moore in New York and then rose to fame as the co-head with Joseph Perella of the merger and acquisitions unit at First Boston.

In 1988, the portly, disheveled Wasserstein and the urbane Perella founded Wasserstein Perella, the boutique investment bank that became known as "Wasserella." Wasserstein sold it in 2001to Germany's Dresdner Bank for about $1.4 billion.

Forbes recently estimated Mr. Wasserstein's worth at $2.2 billion. His financial success enabled him to become a New York media tycoon of sorts, first buying New York magazine in 2003 for $55 million. He paid $63 million for American Lawyer and $200 million for National Law Publishing in 1997 and sold those publications to Incisive Media of the United Kingdom for $630 million in 2007. About the same time, he donated $25 million to Harvard Law School for construction of an academic center.

Bruce Jay Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn on Christmas day 1947 into a prolifically talented family that included his late sister Wendy Wasserstein, a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose works included "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig." She once told New York magazine that their mother believed Bruce's auspicious birth date signaled "Messiah potential."

Mr. Wasserstein showed promise early on, entering the University of Michigan at 16. While at Harvard, he spent one summer working for consumer advocate Ralph Nader as one of "Nader's Raiders." At that time he befriended Mark Green, who became a candidate for New York mayor and the city's public advocate. They were among the co-authors of "The Closed Enterprise System" (1972), which asserted that relaxed antitrust enforcement leads to higher prices.

During a research project into British business mergers at Cambridge University, where Mr. Wasserstein was a Knox fellow, he became interested in business. Upon returning to the United States, he joined Cravath, Swaine and Moore and later moved to First Boston. According to a Bloomberg News report from 2004, Mr. Wasserstein and Perella left First Boston after their colleagues became tired of Mr. Wasserstein's dominant role there.

Mr. Wasserstein took over Lazard after a well-publicized row with its then-chairman, Michel David-Weill, whose family had founded the bank in New Orleans in 1848. David-Weill had hired Mr. Wasserstein to run the investment house. Over David-Weill's objections, Mr. Wasserstein took the firm public in 2005 with an $855 million initial public offering.

Mr. Wasserstein forced David-Weill out of Lazard, and they had been bitter foes ever since. "He was afraid of sharing power and tried his very best -- and succeeded -- in expelling me," David-Weill told Vanity Fair.

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