She Quit Wall Street to Pen Comic Novel on Outing Sexist Bossesby
Maureen Sherry's `Opening Belle' calls on both sexes to reform
Bear Stearns executive's book draws Reese Witherspoon interest
Maureen Sherry spent the first half of her adult life climbing rungs in some of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks and the next half among other affluent moms, many married to leaders in finance.
This month she published “Opening Belle,” a novel that comically and bitingly chronicles male antics of those worlds, from a boy snapping a thong in a preschool to the entrenched misogyny of men on the trading floor -- as well as the dynamics of women who surround them. As the title suggests, they’re the characters who are front and center. A movie already is being developed by Warner Bros. and Reese Witherspoon’s production company.
“Opening Belle” follows Isabelle, initially the most reluctant member of the secret “Glass Ceiling Club” formed by her female colleagues. When anonymous memos start going around calling out men on their sexist behavior, Isabelle gets angry. It’s only when her boss insists she split her profits 60/40 with a lazy, junior male colleague that her feminist fervor kicks up. The book’s jacket boils down that side of the story like so: “Getting rich on Wall Street would be a lot more fun if the men would keep their hands off her assets.”
But while it spotlights the male-dominated work culture the author came up in, Sherry’s portrayal of the women’s relationships shows men aren’t the only ones who need to change. Isabelle watches other women with shades of respect, amusement and contempt: “They have jewelry usually bought from each other” and angle for play dates with the billionaires’ kids. Yet even the woman who stole her fiance earns her admiration for running the man’s life so smoothly.
“I had the advantage of having been on both sides, with the women who didn’t work outside of the home and the women who did,” Sherry, 51, says in an interview. “I was very sensitive to when one group would be unkind about the other.”
The effect of Wall Street’s culture on the next generation culminates in the back of a preschool assembly. Isabelle is sitting there with other oddballs when her son springs forward and tugs hard on the underwear peeking from the jeans of the woman who stole her fiance. Snap!
In the novel, Isabelle is a managing director at an investment bank. In reality, Sherry held that same title at Bear Stearns Cos., where she worked in institutional equities. (Her husband, Steve Klinsky, founded and runs private equity firm New Mountain Capital.)
While there was no thong-snapping incident in real life, Sherry says there was a time when she sat with a child who noticed another mom’s thong peeking up. “He was fascinated.” As for the preschool scene, she says, it’s “pretty accurate.”
Sherry also witnessed frictions between women on and off Wall Street. She recalls working women’s “snide remarks” about the way a year-end teacher’s gift was handled by the moms without jobs. “That sort of stuff really hurt me,” she says. “I always come back to the fact that one group needs the other.”
Such attitudes compound the challenges women face and shape how the next generation behaves, she says.
“Men do not judge each other through such a harsh scope, and women really need to just stop,” Sherry says. “We’re telling our kids to be nice and more attuned to bullying, and sometimes I think they are learning from us this tendency, out of insecurity or whatever it is, to tap into a mean-girls thing.”
Sherry left Bear Stearns and soon enrolled in a masters of fine arts program at Columbia University. “I wanted to have something that was mine and wasn’t nearly as time consuming,” she says. That shifted her focus from dealing with men to dealing with women.
On Wall Street, “I wanted to be so part of the team and be accepted. There were so few women, of course your alliances were with men,” she says. After leaving, “it was really the first time since college that I made friends with women again.”
The former rower fit in, mostly. “I was seen as quirky,” she says. “I had this crazy bicycle I would take to school, with a kid in the front and one in the back. There were a lot more black sedans.”
The other night she and her husband hosted a cocktail party for the parents of kids in her eighth-grader’s class (they have four children -- two from before she left Bear Stearns and two after). She enjoys such gatherings. “Just being in the flow of e-mail and comments: It sounds really mundane and maybe the former me would have pooh-poohed it, but it’s just nice to have that connection with other people. Before you didn’t have time for it.”
“Opening Belle” is being published by CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster. Some of the most gratifying responses Sherry has received so far are from women and men who have worked on Wall Street, reacting to how Belle describes her love of markets.
Everyone, at every pay scale, wants to feel productive, she says. It’s progress that there are more stay-at-home dads, and women her age are going back to work, and younger women are finding more work on their terms.
“Ambition is a hard thing to turn off,” she says.