We do deals. Bruce Wasserstein did deals, a lot of them, in a career that's already being called "legendary." But for the most part, we didn't see this "artist" of M&A at work; instead, the Bruce we knew was an enthusiast of the media and for journalism. It's been said often enough, but Bruce came up with the idea for a national newspaper to cover deals. This was in the late '90s, when you could still discuss starting newspapers and not get laughed at and M&A was setting record after record. After the great eruption of the '80s, the fall of Drexel Burnham Lambert and the recession of the early '90s, an M&A system had consolidated. It was a frothy era when the spirit to try new things and think new thoughts was in the ascendant. And this was Bruce Wasserstein. For anyone in financial journalism, the chance to work out the logic of a publication on dealmaking that sprang from the mind of Wasserstein was intriguing.
In person, he made it even more so. By then Wasserstein was a famous guy, with an image that bordered on the caricature. His office soared high over midtown; down there tiny ice skaters crisscrossed the rink at Rockefeller Center. There were plastic tombstones everywhere, and copies of his book on M&A, "Big Deal." He was a little rumpled. And when he talked he stared at the ceiling, swinging what appeared to be a stick. But what wasn't evident in the clippings was his enthusiasm not just for this project, which he was utterly convinced would be a huge success although it still lacked a name or a single employee, but in the play of his own mind. He was not only self-evidently smart, and often slyly funny, he clearly loved to think -- and to do it in public. And the former University of Michigan editor and Forbes intern liked to think about the media. Conversations with Bruce had to be absorbed and pondered. What was he getting at? What did he really mean? Sometimes, days later, you'd begin to put the pieces together. Sometimes, I'm not sure the pieces were meant for assembly. He would float ideas, and we learned to wait until they emerged again, and then a third time, before we knew he was serious.
He seemed to get a kick out of it. He suddenly appeared at one meeting, sat down and spent an hour batting around names for the project. Deal Daily. Deal. Daily Deal. The Daily Deal. And then there was the tag line, which deserves an entire history. At another meeting, Chinese food suddenly arrived (years later, at Lazard, a waiter brought in egg creams for everyone). In a number of those sessions, he would launch into what I later realized was our version of the "Dare to be Great" speech: He had a whole theory of media that was built on being bold, and he would offer it up while the money folks went pale.
He was never a meddler in editorial matters. He never slipped us scoops, gave us tips or leaks (sometimes I thought: too bad). In the early days, when we were desperately trying to get our feet beneath us, he would regularly call. My fear was that he would rip us for stories we had screwed up about the subject he knew best, M&A, and that we were still learning. But he didn't. Instead, he would say, "Now forget that I'm the chairman, and pretend I'm just a reader. Have you ever thought of ..." and he would rattle off often sensible ideas. Rarely did he criticize us for our ignorance or lack of sophistication (he certainly had opportunities); and never did he try to prospectively shape coverage, although he occasionally got pressure from colleagues and acquaintances. He was most concerned that we were fair, smart and credible, and he shrugged off the heat like an overcoat. Eventually, as he found other ways to spend his time (Lazard and New York magazine) and, I like to think, we improved, the calls from the ultimate reader petered out.
But he was always there. He was remarkably patient, which certainly runs against his image. The Deal has had its ups and downs, and more than once our world threatened to melt away, but he remained as we continued to work out the complex logic of his little idea. When news of his death broke, someone out there in that media jungle tweeted that Bruce was the last great admirer of magazines. I'm not sure that's really true -- although they are rarer than they used to be. But he did seem to love them, to revel in the mechanics of the media and to consume journalism. I'm convinced it was a continuation of his delight in chasing his thoughts wherever they wandered. We'll miss him.