NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — The man behind the @gselevator has moved beyond 140 characters to pen a book about the culture of investment banking and its many sins.
John LeFevre’s once-anonymous Twitter account, which purported to post snippets of outrageous conversation amongst those who work in finance, rose to popularity in 2011 among Wall Streeters and Main Streeters who liked to mock them. He’s attracted more than 700,000 followers by tweeting things like, “Time for children to learn a valuable life lesson. Santa loves rich kids more,” and “On Valentine’s Day, I send my wife flowers with a card that says ‘Congratulations.'” Many followers assumed his tweets were actually overheard in the elevator of Goldman Sachs, as his handle suggests.
If you thought the Wall Street culture portrayed in his tweets was bad, the one in LeFevre’s new book “Straight to Hell” is worse.
The book is a steady stream of stories from his time working in Hong Kong on Citigroup’s’ fixed-income desk in the 2000s, mostly all centered around a few central themes: deal-making, prostitutes, cocaine, conspicuous consumption, sexism and general ridiculousness.
The book almost didn’t live to see the light of day. LeFevre lost his six-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster after The New York Times revealed that he was not, in fact, a Goldman Sachs employee.
But LeFevre replaced one six-figure book deal with another, this time with Atlantic Monthly Press, and explains in the author’s note that he “made it clear that it was never literally about conversations overheard in elevators at Goldman Sachs.”
“The premise was simple — to illuminate Wall Street culture in an entertaining and insightful way,” LeFevre explained.
LeFevre agreed to answer a few questions via email in advance of the book’s publication on July 14. The responses are lightly edited.
Q: The book is definitely true to the often outrageous anonymous comments your Twitter followers have come to know. But this time, you’re offering up years of your own incriminating antics to the masses. What’s that like?
A: The process of potentially incriminating myself didn’t really bother me at all; I’ve been sharing these stories among banker friends for years. I had a lot of fun writing the book, and I’ve always understood that in order to accurately and candidly illuminate banking culture, I had to be brutally honest.
How did you settle on the title, “Straight to Hell”?
I was with a big group of colleagues, clients and competitors at the wedding of a highly regarded banker. We were at this picturesque, quaint, hilltop church on the bluest of blue sky days — it was magical. One of the groomsman had converted an office in the church into a banker green room, a.k.a. a communal cocaine room. After the ceremony, we were evicted by some of the bridesmaids, so we relocated outside to the children’s playground. Imagine four or five bankers and fund managers in tuxedos huddled around a miniature picnic table, ripping through lines of cocaine, and making wagers on how long the marriage would last. That is the exact moment I came up with the title.
So do you think you’re going straight there?
Of course not. It’s all clean living and a pure heart from here on out. I’ve got plenty of time for good deeds and bonus points for raising and shaping my kids into upstanding and contributing members of society; although, that’s often how our society views bankers.
Speaking of your kids, you’re coming out with a book that details drug use, blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars, lying to and exploiting clients and plenty of other outrageous behavior. Are you terrified for them to read it?
My kids don’t know how to read yet, so they’ll have to wait a few years. My wife thought it was hilarious, and is just thankful that she met me after I left banking. I think the rest of my family will see that the book is more a reflection of a culture than it is about my character. Except for my mom, she won’t be reading it.
You also recount stories involving specific people and deals. You’ve changed names and some identifying characteristics in the book, but what do you think the reaction will be from them and from people who are able to recognize who they are?
I’m sure that they’ll love it. I’m not out to ruin careers or marriages, so I have been careful to protect the identities of people I care about. Besides, I’m still quite close with many of the people in the book.
The point of this book was to tell the truth, and since a lot of this is very sensitive information, I had to change minor details to include the most telling stories.
Some of the lightest parts of the book were about the pranks you pulled on the trading floor. Tell me more.
On a trading floor, the pranks are endless and tend to be fairly juvenile, like putting porn and chewing gum in someone’s bag before a flight to Singapore, ordering twenty pizzas to a competitor’s office, or canceling a colleague’s hotel reservations before a long weekend vacation.
The best prank I ever orchestrated was when we told a first year analyst that he was finally ready to lead a call with a Chinese CEO. For three days, we had him lead calls with an angry, aggressive, abusive CEO who vacillated between yelling at him for being stupid or asking random deeply personal questions. Finally when the analyst couldn’t answer an obscure question, the CEO told him he was going to do the deal with Deutsche Bank instead, leaving the analyst thinking he had just lost a mandate worth $4 million in fees. I had the entire thing scripted out and had recruited the head of our bond execution team to play the role of CEO. Somewhere, the recordings of those calls still exist.
One of the things that shocked me most was how women were treated in the workplace — many were left out of events because male colleagues and clients didn’t want to to be “judged,” they were considered “not fun,” and heavily scrutinized for the way they looked. Was this as common as you made it seem in the book?
It’s probably even more common, particularly in an environment where the locker room culture is not only embraced, it’s celebrated. I experienced a culture that is subtly exclusionary, and to a woman’s detriment, personally and professionally. This is felt not just in terms of social invitations and camaraderie, but also with regard to legitimate client-facing opportunities. Over time, given the disparate number of opportunities that sprout from this basic connectivity, the dynamic of inherent disadvantage snowballs. After a few years, the kid who can binge drink with clients and is good at golf gets more deal experience. That’s a “meritocracy”.
You made a big splash when news broke last year that you had never worked at Goldman Sachs. Your original publisher dropped the book. What would you say to people who have a hard time believing the stories in your book to be true?
People within the close-knit banking and expatriate community have heard all of these stories many times. And in most cases, they were either right there with me, or leading the way. So I’m not worried about validation.
Regarding my credibility, I cover it in the author’s note. I genuinely don’t think people care about what was said when I was trying to conceal my identity over a silly Twitter account. The literal premise of @GSElevator is not what made it so popular; it was the content and the fact that the voice rang so true.
You left finance several years ago. What was the last straw that made you walk away?
As I see it, Hong Kong is a tropical island masquerading as a legitimate city. I was growing concerned that each year I was there was taking five years off my life. Also, working in the industry had become tedious, and I always told myself: Everybody has bad days, but when you start having more bad days than good, it’s time to go do something else.
I’m still involved in the fintech space as an investor and adviser, but otherwise, I’m not terribly focused on what’s happening in the world of capital markets these days.
So what do you do with all your time now?
I generally spend most of my time in Houston, with my kids, playing golf and drinking beer. Being in a leafy suburb surrounded by retired people keeps me out of trouble.
And how does someone who had a finance-size paycheck adjust?
To have a great life in New York, London, or Hong Kong, you really need to make at least a million bucks a year. It’s not just that the cost of living is so much higher, it’s the cost of your hobbies and keeping up with your peers that is so expensive. Drinking beer and grilling steaks by a swimming pool with my kids is much cheaper than having dinner at Mastro’s and bottles at The Standard just because it’s a Tuesday. And at this point in my life, it’s far more satisfying.
By Emily Jane Fox