Jeff Beck began his Wall Street career in 1972 at the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin, and Jenrette. It was there that he earned the nickname Mad Dog, in tribute to his manic energy and a habit of howling like a dog baying at the moon. Beck did not fit the stereotypical image of the buttoned-down banker; at any moment he might say or do anything. Watching Dan Lufkin in action convinced Beck to switch from bond sales to mergers and acquisitions (M & A) dealmaking.
After one ill-fated year with Lehman Brothers—Beck’s flamboyant style was completely out of step with the traditional tone of he firm—he accepted the position of head of the new M & A department at Oppenheimer and Company, which would finally establish his reputation as a major deal man. By mid-1983 he’d assisted at his first billion-dollar deal, Esmark’s acquisition of Norton Simon.
After joining Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1985 Beck went on to even larger deals, including the $8.2 billion leveraged buyout of Beatrice and the RJR Nabisco buyout, the largest in history. But he had lost his emotional bearings, and increasingly directed his attention away from Wall Street into activities such as a book and movie script based on his life. He became friendly with the actor Michael Douglas, and had a cameo role in the movie WALL STREET. By now Drexel was in trouble (Beck was not implicated in any of its illegal activities), but before the company folded, Beck’s investment banking career was terminated by a 1990 expose in the WALL STREET JOURNAL.
The article uncovered a pattern of outright fabrication in Beck’s accounts of his past, including a nonexistent family fortune and invented military service in Vietnam. Beck’s credibility was ruined, although he was never accused of anything illegal. Why should a man able to bring himself to the height of Wall Street success through sheer force of will feel the need to lie? This is a question Bianco pursues throughout RAINMAKER, and one that sheds light both on Beck’s character and on the period—a time that valued image over substance, and greed above all else.
Beck’s story is worth telling, not only for the exploits of a larger-than-life personality, but also for those he did business with (Henry Kravis, Peter Grace, Michael Milken, and many others), and an inside perspective on dealmaking. Bianco draws his character so sympathetically that the lack of resolution at the book’s close is genuinely disappointing.