By Gary Weiss
The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire
By Michael T. Kaufman
Knopf -- 344pp $27.50
George Soros is one of the few characters from the world of finance who deserves to be called larger-than-life. Born in Hungary of Jewish parents, he and his family narrowly escaped the Holocaust. After the war, he landed penniless in London, but by hard work and sheer genius, he rose to become one of the planet's most successful investors and richest men. Along the way, he became a world-class philanthropist, philosopher, confidant of world leaders, and bankroller of world freedom. A mover of markets, he was the man whose currency plays "broke the Bank of England" in 1992.
From a writer's perspective, the life of this astonishing renaissance man has all the makings of a dynamite book. The key would always be obtaining Soros' cooperation. And in Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, Michael T. Kaufman, a former deputy foreign editor at The New York Times (and ex-editor of a Soros-financed publication), was able to pull off that coup. According to Kaufman, Soros provided generous cooperation. He "patiently presented me with the details of his life" and "did not attempt to influence or alter what I wrote about him." Nevertheless, and despite interviews with 130 people, the result is an unevenly reported, intermittently revealing, but ultimately disappointing book.
Kaufman begins with a careful examination of Soros' early life and family. His father, Tivadar, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army, and wound up as a World War I prisoner of war. Soros grew up in a family that was so detached from its Jewish roots that they even vacationed in Nazi Germany, with Tivadar shrugging off "No Jews Allowed" signs by telling his wife, "You are a foreigner, it's not for you."
Nearly a half-million Hungarian Jews were killed by the Nazis, but the Soroses managed to escape. Tivadar saw to it that young George Soros (the original family name, Schwartz, was changed in 1936) evaded deportation to the death camps in 1944 by posing as the godson of a government official. Years later, this masquerade became the basis for unfair press charges that George had somehow collaborated with the Nazis. Perhaps that is why his dramatic escape from death gets an antiseptic and brief treatment.
In contrast, there is a heartfelt account of Soros' time in postwar England, which dwells at length on perceived slights at the hands of Jewish social welfare agencies. The difference between these two sections is jarring, and the whining that pervades the latter is one of the book's least appealing aspects. Once Soros moves to the U.S., the storytelling improves--especially the portions describing how he became an ace analyst and, later, a hedge-fund manager, all the while pursuing an avocation as a kind of amateur philosopher.
Soros has long maintained that an elaborate creed, drawing on the works of Karl Popper, lies behind both his investing and his philanthropy. This philosophy of the benefits of "open societies" has been variously described as masterful and incoherent. It receives extensive treatment here, as rightly it should. The author sheds new light on some of Soros' better-known investing exploits, such as his 1992 bet against the British pound. And Kaufman describes how, over the years, Soros has spent billions on programs encouraging democracy in places such as Serbia and China. But here, too, the author seems to lack judgment: Soros' work in world trouble spots gets far too much ink.
Meanwhile, there are troubling reporting gaps. Kaufman was not able to obtain access to two people who would have provided crucial perspectives: Soros' first wife, Annaliese, and his partner for many years, Jim Rogers. We also learn little about the environment in which Soros lived. He was the No. 1 hedge-fund manager in the world, but other fund managers don't exist in this biography--not even John Meriwether, whose massive leverage led to the widely publicized Long-Term Capital Management meltdown in 1998. Nor are many insights offered on Soros' own organization. His top portfolio manager, Stanley Druckenmiller, gets short shrift even though he essentially ran Soros' Quantum Fund for years. Indeed, there's little new information on the Quantum Fund's reorganization, which came after Druckenmiller and Soros sustained huge losses during the high-tech bubble.
The fundamental problem, even to a casual reader of the financial press, is that Soros is already overexposed. Few financiers have generated more press coverage or said more about themselves. Soros has written several books outlining his world view, including the autobiographical 1995 work, Soros on Soros.
A study of Soros requires a writer who is not intimidated by his subject, and one with the financial savvy and writing skill to explore the life of this multifaceted and difficult man. Before Kaufman arrived on the scene, Soros had agreed to tell his story to just such a writer, Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling Liar's Poker. Lewis is not mentioned by name in the book. But the publisher confirms that it's Lewis that Kaufman is referring to when he recounts how, after "he began to feel uncomfortable," Soros stopped cooperating with an unnamed scribe.
Kaufman wrote the book instead--and the result isn't likely to make Soros feel uncomfortable. That's great for Soros. Not so great for the rest of us.
Weiss has followed Soros' career for many years.