John LeFevre never worked at Goldman Sachs. It says so on the carefully argued jacket flap of his memoir, Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals. He almost worked at Goldman but was derailed by a “contractual issue.” Yet he had the bright idea of using the Twitter handle @GSElevator to broadcast comments supposedly overheard in the bank’s elevators. Most were snobby, racist, sexist, or otherwise unpleasant: “If my wife offers me a blow job, I know it’s time to check my Amex statement,” or “Hermès ties are like Air Jordans for white people.” Cool, cool.
I used to work at Goldman. I never heard anything like this in the elevators. My colleagues were nice people, but also, an elevator is a dumb place to say vile things. These comments came from LeFevre or fans who submitted them; Gawker reported last year that some of the jokes suspiciously resembled ones from another comedic Twitter feed. Whatever their source, the tweets became wildly popular, and it’s obvious why: Since the financial crisis, people have been searching investment banks, and especially Goldman, for villains. LeFevre and his elevator made great villains.
Now there’s a book. It’s not as relentlessly villainous as @GSElevator, though each chapter starts with a selection of tweets to remind the reader of its provenance. Mostly, it’s a memoir of LeFevre’s seven years at Citigroup in New York, London, and Hong Kong. It owes a lot to Liar’s Poker, the Michael Lewis classic that spawned so many Wall Street careers and memoirs. LeFevre himself confesses that he wanted to work on Wall Street after reading Liar’s Poker in boarding school (Choate), and he proudly went to work for Lewis’s old firm, Salomon Brothers. By the time LeFevre got there in 2001 it was called Citigroup, but that doesn’t stop him from referring to it as Salomon. There’s a carefully argued footnote about that, too.
LeFevre alternates stories about the bond markets with self-contained vignettes of trader deviance. The writing is strenuously bro-y, and there’s a certain amount of jargon (“jumbo US$ benchmark”) and vacant corporate-speak (“proactively throw my competitors under the bus”). Still, he is a considerably more engaging memoirist than he is a pseudonymous embodiment of banker evil.
The bond market stories are pretty good. LeFevre was “one of the most prolific syndicate managers in Asia,” the book says. He worked on the bond-syndicate desk, the part of the bank that coordinates deals between corporate issuers and investors who lend money. The desks in Asia are where banks cooperate with and undermine their competitors on joint deals and adjust their ethics to foreign-market demands. These issues are the parts of Wall Street culture that affect clients and the economy, and LeFevre’s stories are eye-opening. Also I’m pretty sure he confesses to several felonies, and there’s a price-fixing conference in a Hong Kong hotel room that I hope he ran by his lawyer.
But you don’t want to read about bond deals. You want drugs and hookers. LeFevre delivers them with overwhelming force. He and his buddies are drunk seemingly every night and most afternoons. They blow a year’s bonus on a week in Saint Tropez. They make PowerPoint presentations to rank the hotness of their female colleagues. They have hotel staff kick prostitutes—sorry, “love monkeys”—out of bed for them. They scream at maids for throwing out cocaine. Genitals touch things genitals shouldn’t touch. LeFevre pays a hooker in hotel minibar bottles, crashes a Maserati, and poops on a small plane. It gets a little tedious.
In his book and on Twitter, LeFevre paints this experience as representative of a broader culture. He’s not the racist misogynist; he’s just writing down what he heard. “These are a few of my stories,” he says at the end of his book. “All bankers have stories just like them.” I don’t! Good Lord.
But the ones who do are the loudest, and they replicate themselves. LeFevre feeds the public’s hunger for proof that Wall Street is full of degenerate sociopaths, while also glamorizing that degeneracy. Those inclined to hate bankers will have their suspicions confirmed. Those inclined to whoring and cocaine will see a career opportunity. The rest of us—including many bankers—might worry that the worst bits of Wall Street’s culture are being passed down to the next generation. Teenage boys at Choate will want to be investment bankers after reading Straight to Hell. Which is probably the point.