Few of us lead lives of such unrelieved excitement that we can resist an occasional peek into the affairs of the very rich and very powerful. For those weary of the ersatz glamour and intrigue served up by ''Dallas'' or Harold Robbins, Cary Reich has furnished a welcome alternative. Andre Meyer, the subject of this entertaining and well-written biography, was real, all right, and he was very rich and very powerful, indeed.
From the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, Andre Meyer was the senior partner and animating force at Lazard Freres & Co., a prominent investment banking company in New York, Paris, and London. Meyer masterminded some of the largest and most complex business transactions ever undertaken up to his time, became an internationally sought out counselor to finance ministers and heads of state, was a trusted friend and adviser to some of the world's wealthiest men and women , and amassed a fortune estimated by Mr. Reich to be more than $500 million.
Born in Paris in 1898, Meyer was a rising young star in French banking circles until World War II forced him and his family to flee to safety in the United States. Finding a niche in Lazard's New York office, the hard-driving emigre took charge of the firm before the war ended.
Investment banks are a breed apart from more widely understood commercial banks, which accept deposits and in turn lend the funds to businesses, consumers , and home buyers. In general, investment banks serve the financial needs of corporations in two ways: First, they help companies raise large amounts of money in the capital markets by underwriting the sale of stocks and bonds issued by the companies (a function commercial banks are prohibited by law from performing); second, they advise corporate clients on such transactions as acquisitions of, or mergers with, other companies.
While Meyer saw to it that Lazard got its share of the lucrative underwriting business, his personal passion was for ''financial engineering,'' devising imaginative solutions to corporations' most knotty financial and structural problems. Meyer was by all accounts a brilliant grandmaster in the chess game that is played on the board of international finance. David Rockefeller called him ''the most creative financial genius of our time in the investment-banking field.''
Beginning in the '50s and then especially in the go-go '60s, Meyer applied his wizardry to a dizzying succession of business deals involving hundreds of millions of dollars. This period saw the building of gigantic corporate conglomerates, and no investment bankers were more active or innovative in the merger mania than Meyer and his partners. Mr. Reich reports that over a three-year period in the '60s, Lazard client International Telephone & Telegraph Company alone acquired 48 companies.
Like other people whose talents and success seem to transcend the ordinary human scale, Meyer had an outsized personality. Mr. Reich notes, in what turns out to be a bit of wry understatement, that in many ways Meyer ''was not a nice man.'' He was arrogant, ruthless, and overbearing. He could be astonishingly cruel to his partners (whom he called, and treated as, his clerks) and even members of his family. The depth of his ''greed'' (Mr. Reich's word) is startling.
Yet Meyer could be disarmingly sympathetic and solicitous for his many friends. Among those who came to rely on his wide knowledge and sound judgment were Robert Kennedy, David Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson, Katharine Graham, and Jacqueline Onassis. He gave generously to worthy institutions and causes.
Notwithstanding these donations to charity, Meyer seems to have been little given to good works, unlike many other business leaders. With the notable exception of his work on behalf of New York's large Bedford-Stuyvesant urban-redevelopment project, Meyer's record is remarkably barren of involvement in civic and community affairs. Characteristically, Meyer opposed the decison of one of his partners, Felix Rohatyn, to head up the Municipal Assistance Corporation, the agency that staved off New York City's impending bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. Referring to his involvement with MAC, Rohatyn said that Meyer ''equated it with some sort of mid-life madness, not unlike falling in love with a stripteaser.''
Even in the case of the Bedford-Stuyvesant project, Meyer declined a request to head the effort, preferring to excercise his ''engineering'' skills out of the public eye. He was extraordinarily adept at solving practical problems, but he was unable or unwilling to inspire, to lift people's sights, to infuse a cooperative undertaking with a high and disinterested purpose.
Relying principally on exhaustive interviews with Meyer's friends, business associates, and acquaintances (the secretive banker left behind him almost no letters or other papers shedding light on his private life), Cary Reich has produced a saucy, readable account of Meyer's business and personal affairs. Mr. Reich suspects that Meyer would have abhorred the publicity, but surely Meyer, who believed that competence should always be accompanied by style, would have admired his biographer's skill and flair.
The executive editor of Institutional Investor magazine and an experienced financial journalist, Mr. Reich is well qualified to unravel and explain the often-Byzantine complexity of Meyer's wheelings and dealings. Especially praiseworthy is his careful and engrossing account of the nearly impenetrably disguised maneuverings related to ITT's attempted acquisition of the Hartford Insurance Company beginning in 1968. These maneuverings, in which Meyer's financial legerdemain reached its zenith, led to federal investigations that raised the only serious public questioning of his business probity and cast a shadow over the years before his 1979 death.
We are left, finally, with a portrait of a man who, for all his legendary achievements in finance, had a certain narrowness of spirit. In Andre Meyer's ethos, the bottom line invariably had a dollar sign in front of it. Meyer was a strong man, a man who through brilliance and force of character carved out a secure place in a world he always regarded as treacherous and uncertain. But if true greatness derives not only from a person's accomplishments but also from the spaciousness of their moral and social vision, then greatness eluded Andre Meyer.