The Recessionistas


By Alexandra Lebenthal

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It’s the day after Labor Day, 2008, and the elite universe of New York’s Upper East Side is about to unravel along with the economy. Socialite Grigsby Somerset is barely aware of her changing world, and has no idea her investment banker husband Blake is about to enter into a devil’s bargain with hedge fund owner John Cutter. As autumn unfolds, Grigsby’s fairytale life starts to unwind. Street-smart Renee Parker has been hired as John’s executive assistant and is convinced that something is amiss with her new boss. Renee enlists her friend Sasha Silver, CEO of Silver Partners, to help her decipher what is happening. They soon discover that John is nearly ruined, except for the assets he is hiding in the Cayman Islands from his wife Mimi, and has concocted with Blake a scheme to redeem himself. This tale of expulsion from a modern-day Garden of Eden captures what happens when economic decline spells ruin for Manhattan’s pampered elite.


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A Perfect Life

The Tuesday after Labor Day in New York City is the definitive sign that summer is over. In certain neighborhoods, and frankly nowhere more so than the Upper East Side of Manhattan, streets that only the week before had been veritable ghost towns suddenly are full of life with Razor scooters, towheaded children, shrieking teenagers who haven't seen one another all summer… and above all, the mothers. These are women of a certain social and economic status who somehow manage to take up most of the already narrow walking area on Madison Avenue. As they get caught up in conversation, good luck to anyone on the street needing to get around them, for in some bizarre showing of animal behavior, these women manage to take up the entire width of the block with dogs on expandable leashes, shopping bags, and long, toned legs, usually outfitted in workout garb, as they mark their territory.

Grigsby Somerset was one of those mothers. On most days from September until early June, she could be found between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. on the corner of 92nd Street and Madison Avenue at Yura, the gourmet coffee, muffin, and meeting place at the epicenter of Carnegie Hill, a stone's throw from a handful of the top schools in the city. Grigsby was a queen bee and was almost always surrounded by others who aspired to be like her. She had been the alpha girl even as a child in Darien and had a certain level of confidence that made others deferential toward her. Often, one of her friends getting a second cup of coffee as they sat in the window seats would say, "Latte, extra foam—right, Grigsby?" Knowing Grigsby's coffee order signified their status in her inner circle.

When Grigsby left Yura, it usually involved another ten minutes on the street outside, further cementing her dominance of the neighborhood. But not this morning. Today she was situated firmly in her apartment on Park Avenue with important work to do. The long and luxurious Southampton summer was clearly over, and as she pulled her blond locks into a messy bun and then grabbed her list and bottle of water, she was not looking forward to the task that loomed ahead. For the Tuesday after Labor Day is the dreaded application day for ongoing and nursery schools. Grigsby, however, was ready. She had the list of schools that needed to be called for her four-year-old daughter, Bitten: Spence, Chapin, Brearley, Nightingale, and Sacred Heart, with Hewitt and Marymount as "safeties" already loaded into her speed dial.

Spencer, eight, and William, six, were at Buckley, and while she was a firm believer in single-sex education, at least until boarding school, Grigsby did wish for a moment that she had sent them to coed Trinity, Dalton, or Horace Mann so Bitten would have sibling preference, thereby making today not quite as crucial. The process was so competitive, however, that there were even some horror stories of younger brothers or sisters having to go to P.S. 6 because they hadn't gotten into their sibling's school. More than one family had been known to suddenly announce they were moving to Greenwich, which coincidentally came right after school notification dates in mid-February. But Grigsby knew that once you moved to Greenwich, even though the public schools were terrific, everyone ended up wanting to be at Greenwich Academy or Brunswick, which meant ultimately encountering the same application nightmare there. The fact is that some people would gladly pay $30,000 a year to have their kids at the right schools with the right people rather than get an equally good free education at a public school.

Grigsby really would be happy with any of the schools, although she had her heart set on Spence. She pictured Bitten on her first day of school next fall in her green plaid tunic outside 93rd Street and Madison, where Spence's lower school was located in the former Smithers Mansion, renovated with the proceeds of a successful capital campaign. Chapin was her second choice, although there would be logistical issues getting from their apartment on 92nd and Park to Buckley on 73rd and "Lex," to East End Avenue and 84th Street. Even with Sheldon driving them in the Range Rover, it would be tough going every morning and barely give her time to get to Yura to meet her friends. The congestion of limos on Oscar night had nothing on drop-off at private schools in New York City.

While she had her preferences, each school had its own reputation that had stood the test of decades, though the city itself had changed enormously during that time. The school a child went to could end up defining both the child and his or her family. Spence had the right mix of parents with whom Grigsby wanted to be associated. The education, of course, would be top-notch there, as it would at all the schools to which she was applying. Chapin still retained the old money feel that it had for generations, going back to when a young Jacqueline Bouvier had been a student. Everyone said Nightingale was "wonderfully nurturing" and had produced its own set of notable alumnae, from designer Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss, to Democratic strategist Mandy Grunwald, to Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl books. And while she and Blake were not Catholic, she knew several families that were quite pleased with Sacred Heart and Marymount—and what's wrong with a little religion class to instill moral values in children? Of course, that Sacred Heart uniform with its red gingham pinafore was just too adorable. Brearley was located down the street from Chapin and was excellent, but she always felt the more "bohemian" families ended up there. She also remembered with dismay that the Brearley girls she went to college with were often serial Grateful Dead followers and quoted Camille Paglia a bit too often. It was a little much for her. And because it was close to Chapin, she would have the same location issues. Then there was Hewitt, which unlike the others had changed a great deal. Years before, it tended to be the school for girls who were not as strong academically (at least according to their ERB scores), but in the last decade, with the private school competition as intense as it was, Hewitt's boat had risen along with the tide of fortunes in the city. All in all, she had many wonderful choices—but first she needed to get the application process completed!

Before Blake left for work that morning, Grigsby made sure that he had the list of schools to call and instructions that he and his assistant needed to follow. It was critical that all calls be made that morning, not just for her daughter's future academic career, but because Grigsby had an incredibly busy first day back ahead of her and she didn't have time to chase Blake down to make sure he had completed everything. She had a 12:30 lunch at Bergdorf, followed by a fitting in the couture department on four for the gown she was planning to wear to the New Yorkers for Children Gala in two weeks. Then (desperately needed) highlights at Blandi at 3:00 and hopefully some downtime to get herself back on her city schedule before she met Blake, his half brother, Chip, and his new wife, Chessy, for dinner at Swifty's at 7:00.

After spending the whole summer away, Grigsby knew things would be a complete madhouse. Thankfully, Donita had agreed to come back to work on Labor Day, so with any luck, by later today most of the laundry would be done and put away. But there was still so much to organize before she could even allow herself one second to relax. The boys had their first day of school on Wednesday, and Bitten would start nursery school gradually that week, starting with an hour on Thursday and two hours on Friday. Schools were concerned that after summer vacation four-year-olds might encounter the same separation anxiety they had in their first year of nursery school, so they started with a gradual schedule over the course of several days, asking that a parent start out in the classroom, then move just outside, and then be in the neighborhood, with the ultimate goal of separating entirely. Most children entered the room and barely glanced at their mother. It usually wasn't the children who needed the proximity, however, and once in a while an overly protective and attentive mother had to be told gently that her child would be fine and asked to leave.

This was not the case with Grigsby, who found that getting back to normal, seeing all her friends, and gearing up for her social calendar made for a hectic first week back. Having to be tied to school made that more difficult. It was really too much for her. It would be terrific to have her own assistant, and she had started mentioning casually to Blake what a time-saver it would be. She knew eventually she would get it, because eventually she got everything she wanted.

Grigsby was also irritated that Blake seemed distracted when he left at 7:15 that morning, just as she came in from her four-mile run in Central Park with her trainer. She repeated the instructions she had given him and was astonished that he did not remember the same drill they'd gone through for nursery school two years before or for the boys when they'd applied to ongoing schools. She couldn't be expected to take care of all these things herself. It was hard enough to keep their home as chicly appointed as it was, manage their Southampton house, take care of their social schedule, plan vacations, do her charity work, keep the children well dressed, and of course always look as good (not to mention toned) as she did without having another project thrown on top of it. Each school to which they applied would require three visits: the tour, the parent interview, and then the child interview. Multiply that by six schools and it was on the order of eighteen different appointments. Of course, applications would have to be filled out, and more important, lists of all the boards of trustees would have to be studied to determine whom they might approach for recommendations, because as everyone knew, anything that you needed in the city could be made possible by connections with the right people.

Frankly, though, Blake had seemed detached for the last several weeks. For the first time since they had been going to Southampton, he hadn't even made it out for all of the final two weeks of the summer. He had finally come out on the Jitney on Wednesday night of the last week, but for most of Thursday and Friday he was pacing the long lawn in front of their house leading down to the bay while on his cell phone. More than once he had approached her wide-eyed and angry, pantomiming at her to take the kids away from him so he could finish his call. Welcome to life with children. It wasn't as if she hadn't spent all summer trying to deal with them.

Grigsby knew she probably should pay more attention to what was going on in the financial world, but in general it was all too complicated and boring. She had to admit that even for her, this year had certainly had its share of drama. Her friend Winter "Winnie" Smith's husband ran one of the derivatives desks at Bear Stearns. In March, when Bear Stearns was "acquired" by JPMorgan at a fire sale price, she and her husband had lost almost everything, although he did end up getting hired by JPMorgan. Grigsby hadn't seen her much over the summer, and when she had, Winnie had seemed harried and drawn. She even thought she'd noticed Winnie look away on the beach a few times and was sure she had crossed the street when Grigsby saw her on Jobs Lane. What was even more shocking, the Smiths hadn't come to the Somersets' annual clambake on the beach, an event people usually rearranged schedules to attend.

But thankfully Blake worked at Lehman Brothers, not Bear Stearns, so Grigsby really wasn't all that concerned about their situation. Anyway, everyone said that Bear always skated too close to the edge. Lehman Brothers had much more stability. At least that was what Blake told her and what she had picked up from conversations between him and his friends from business school, most of whom also worked on Wall Street.

"The Spence School admissions department, may I help you?"

Grigsby snapped back to attention from her thoughts as the voice answered on the other end.

She went through the list of questions, giving her and Blake's name and their address, along with Bitten's date of birth and nursery school. She set the date for their tour, Monday, September 15, at 9:30 a.m. Fantastic. One down, six to go!

Thankfully, by 10:00 that morning she had reached all but two of the schools and e-mailed Blake for the third time to check on his progress. With still no answer, she finally called his office and reached his assistant, Andrea.

"It's Mrs. Somerset calling. Please put my husband on." She always said the same thing and never bothered to ask Andrea how she was or even said hello. Andrea had long ago stopped trying to say or do anything other than to get Blake on the phone, since it was clear Grigsby didn't really care, let alone even know who was answering the phone on the other end.

"Yes. Hello, Mrs. Somerset. I'm sorry, but Bla… er, Mr. Somerset has been out of the office all morning, and I'm afraid I can't reach him."

"What??" Grigsby shouted, making no effort to conceal her anger. "Hasn't he been making calls for schools? I made it absolutely clear that was project numero uno today! Out of the office??!! I cannot believe him. I simply cannot believe him. Doesn't he get what is going on today?!"

Andrea rolled her eyes at the phone and wondered if Grigsby had managed to read any papers in the last several months. Wall Street and the economy were melting down, and it wasn't just in The Wall Street Journal, but in the mainstream media. Somehow Marie Antoinette, as Andrea liked to refer to her, hadn't gotten the memo.

Before Andrea could respond, however, Grigsby said brusquely, "Ugh… never mind. I'll do everything myself—as I always do. Just tell him to call me as soon as he gets out… and that the only schools we still need to speak to are Hewitt and Marymount… but I'm not going to be here past eleven because I have lunch and a lot of other appointments… so call my cell or send me an e-mail or text… but I don't know if I will be able to respond then… so if not, I'll see him at dinner… which he better not have forgotten about either… It's at seven p.m. at Swifty's with Chip and Chessy." Grigsby slammed the phone down, as usual without bothering even to say good-bye to Andrea.

Andrea could hardly contain a snort as she listened to Grigsby's account of her "busy day." Try getting up at 5:00 to take the bus in from East Brunswick to Port Authority and then get up to Seventh and 49th Street and be lucky to get back home by 8:00 p.m., with no time for errands except on weekends. Shaking her head, she dutifully wrote Grigsby's message on Blake's memo pad of calls, which was already quite long.

But the truth was that while Blake had left that morning with his list of schools to call, he had no intention of making any calls. He had a meeting that he couldn't miss, couldn't be interrupted from, and had been instructed under no uncertain terms was highly confidential.


Back to Work

As Grigsby was starting her stressful day, several other "back to regular life" stories were unfolding across the city. A few blocks away on 88th and Fifth, Sasha Silver was waking up to her own living hell. When the alarm went off for the first time at 6:30 a.m., she covered her head with the pillow, as if it were a helmet that would protect her from the perils of the morning—at least for the next nine minutes, until the snooze button went off. She knew from experience she could give it one additional push until she would have to face the day.

Sasha always took off the last two weeks of the summer, and she looked forward to it all year long. It was a time when most of the city was away, so she missed little—and there was less of a chance for things to run amuck at work. She was ecstatic when her vacation finally arrived, though it also signaled the end of the summer. For Sasha, nothing on earth compared with being at her beach house in Quogue, from the minute she woke up in the morning and took a leisurely walk down the driveway to get the papers that she actually had time to read, as opposed to the rest of the year when she rushed through, barely reading them. From walking by the ocean with her children collecting shells, to running every day, to consuming bottles of Chardonnay at dinner parties nearly every evening with close friends, this was one of the periods of time when she allowed herself the unusual luxury of contentment. Unfortunately, the joy and elation of the Friday night that started those two weeks were equally matched by desperate agony as they ended. Her depression usually set in on Friday of Labor Day weekend, when even the September light seemed to taunt her that summer was over. By Monday she was usually close to tears, truly despondent that the next day she would have to go back to work and deal with her horrible situation.

And today she was even more upset and uneasy than in past years.

This situation was, to a certain extent, of her own making. In 2005, when she and her partners were approached to sell Silver Asset Management Partners Inc. (SAMCO, as it was known), she was the one who had pushed for the deal, and as majority shareholder she had the final decision. At the time, she knew deep down, frankly even not so deep down, that BridgeVest Financial was not the right company to sell to, but Sasha had made an art form of assuming that once she got to the other side, she would be able to take care of any problems that arose. That was the way she had always dealt with things. She was a caretaker and unfortunately gave little thought to how much she might need or want to be taken care of herself.

Ultimately her partners had agreed to the deal, but they all retired within a year when it became clear that their new friends in Springfield, Massachusetts, were not going to leave them alone. Feeling that she had made her bed so now she'd better sleep in it, Sasha stayed on, and while she told all her friends and family that she would leave when her contract was up at the end of 2010, she didn't know how she could desert all the employees who had been loyal to the company and to her for all those years.

To be fair, there was one great benefit: the money. It was hard to turn that down. After a career of working as long and hard as she had, finally having enough money to spend was intoxicating. She and her husband, Adam, upgraded their apartment to one overlooking Central Park, bought a boat, started taking more expensive vacations, increased their charitable giving, and still managed to put away a sizable amount. For Sasha, the fun part was being able to make some venture investments. She loved hearing about a new business idea and plans for expansion. Some worked out and some didn't, but these investments allowed Sasha to feel she was still an entrepreneur instead of stuck in a corporate box with no room to move or stretch.

The universal thing about having money, however, is that no matter how much you have, it isn't enough. Credit cards still have a balance due—only larger; someone else next door always seems to have more; the dinner party at someone's apartment or beach house is always that much larger and nicer; the jewelry is always that much more opulent. Someone else always seems to have the perfect life in terms of the material possessions they have and others covet. Sasha was no different. She wondered at times if she might have been able to get more if she hadn't sold when she did. She was irritated at the number of people who had ten times what she had but certainly weren't ten times smarter (if at all).

SAMCO oversaw the assets of high-net-worth investors and focused on fixed income. Their goal was to preserve their clients' wealth, not make huge gains. That was a hard strategy to maintain when other, riskier investments were in vogue. People were always willing to bet it all on red, or Internet stocks, or subprime mortgages, in a bull market. She'd seen it all over twenty years of working.

BridgeVest particularly liked SAMCO because it complemented their own business. SAMCO had a terrific reputation of being honest and ethical and was a pristine name, something few companies could boast of, particularly as time went on. BridgeVest itself had been owned for several years by Empire Bank, a New York–based commercial bank.

Sasha was good at what she did. She had a great perspective on strategy, a unique ability to execute any plan, and she was liked by both clients and many of her colleagues, especially other women. There weren't a lot of prominent women in her firm on Wall Street, for that matter. As a result, she was their champion. She also had four children in three different schools on the Upper East Side and an active philanthropic social life in New York. It might appear that Sasha burned the candle at both ends, but in reality she was the type of person who was most fulfilled when she was busy and found that everything she did was connected to everything else. She'd been given great opportunities by being involved in so many different things, so it drove her to do more.

Unfortunately, while Sasha was still seen by clients and employees as the CEO, the reality was that she worked for BridgeVest and was essentially a puppet who did what they wanted, when they wanted. She had no control.

Some of her male colleagues at BridgeVest went out of their way to derail her at work. She was a threat to them, so they dealt with it by a full court press of political warfare against her. She'd observed more than once that men, once they'd left school and couldn't hit one another with bats and balls, turned into the biggest bunch of backstabbing, cliquish, petty high school girls she'd ever seen. It was indeed their sport. From what she could tell, it wasn't having the talent that got you to the top of a company with these men, it was the political gamesmanship.

What made matters worse, ironically, was that several months prior, Kirk McNeal, CEO of Empire Bank, had sent word down that Sasha be given a meaningful leadership role in the firm. She was made vice chair, but rather than continue to oversee clients as she had in the past, she was given what she referred to jokingly as the girly staff stuff—overseeing HR and communications. Her co–vice chair was given all the "line" businesses, those that generated revenues, on top of the businesses he already oversaw.

Through 2008, as assets declined, revenues and profits became all the more critical. Sasha was frequently told she needed to present plans for downsizing staff and was then usually expected to execute them alone. Terminating person after person, some of whom reported to her male counterpart (without his being at the meetings to share the burden), was draining and dreadful. She often wept after, although she never let the guys see—caring was a sign of weakness to them. Unfortunately, while she was taking care of this, Harry Mullaugh, the CEO of BridgeVest, always seemed to schedule strategy and business development meetings, frequently with the senior executives at the bank. Frankly, it was Harry who caused her the most grief and allowed the other men to torture her as they did.

As much as Sasha was miserable, there was always a little spark inside that still made her excited about the possibilities ahead. And as much as she was tortured, she also had an innate sense that good people would win in the end and somehow she would be rescued. Every day was a battle Sasha could win, either as a damsel in distress expecting to see a white horse at any moment or as a fighter who could hit back when she needed to.

This morning, she clearly felt like the damsel as she dragged herself out of bed. At least she felt a tiny bit encouraged that she had a new red Dior suit—and that it was a size four. She was glad that dress-down or casual dress or whatever it was called had gone out of style after the last market crash a few years ago. To Sasha, dressing well translated into success and gave her a little extra confidence wherever she went. Slim and petite at five feet three, Sasha knew the right clothing made her stand out more.

Accessories were her armor. If she had a meeting with anyone she felt might intimidate her, she broke out chunky Chanel cuffs or a vintage Miriam Haskell pearl choker. She knew that how she dressed also irritated the guys at her parent company, and each time she had to schlep up to the home office, she made sure to pick something a little more fabulous than her last visit. She figured if they were going to talk about her, she might as well give them more fuel for their fire. Truth be told, it wasn't easy transferring from Metro-North in New Haven to the Amtrak connection to Springfield in five-inch Louboutins with minutes to spare, but damn, she looked good getting there!

Before she could start her workday, Sasha had to get her house up and running. Adam, who ran his own fund with two other partners, needed to be on the desk early. Adam was deeply involved in what was going on in the credit markets meltdown and had been on edge for some time, not just the summer. Last night before they went to bed, he said, "Sasha, it's going to be a shit show this week," a phrase that always filled her with a bit of excitement and a little fear. As if this year hadn't already been one long shit show. God, what was going to be next?

Most of the time, Adam was a phenomenal husband, but when it came to the kids, he unfortunately left her to take care of almost everything, which was one more thing to deal with in addition to her already tough schedule. This morning after two weeks of vacation the apartment would likely be a madhouse within minutes, and Sasha wasn't sure she had the strength to deal with it today.


On Sale
Aug 9, 2010
Page Count
320 pages

Alexandra Lebenthal

About the Author

Alexandra Lebenthal is the socially prominent President and CEO of Lebenthal & Co, and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Inc. Her father is Jim Lebenthal, who made his name in municipal bonds. She also serves as a board member of the School of American Ballet and is involved with several other leading New York cultural institutions including The Business Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Capital Campaign for the Museum of the City of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.

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