Goodbye to Bess, from Matt

Matt Levine returns to say farewell to The Queen.
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This is Bess Levin's last week at The House that Bess Built, so we are turning it into a tribute site for the next few days with some "Best Of Bess" and a few guest posts from Dealbreaker friends and family. First up is Matt Levine. - TM

There is basically one kind of joke about Wall Street: You talk about a situation in everyday life, but you use words that you have cleverly appropriated from financial jargon. “I’m a size buyer of that,” you say to your buddies, as the attractive intern walks by. “Spending more time deciding which movie to stream than actually watching the movie is due diligence,” says the Morgan Stanley BuzzFeed quiz. “I know you've been looking for some real satisfaction / It could be a mutually beneficial transaction / Why don't we solidify our animal attraction? / Come on baby, let's do this trade,” sings a hedge fund manager about (maybe) Ken Griffin’s dating life. The joke is that you are not talking about finance, but you are using the language of finance.

That is the joke. It gets old.

It is depressing to imagine that the only source of comedy in the lives of thousands of people who work in finance might be finance words. They are people, after all. Surely all of the sources of comedy in the rest of human life must be available to them too?[1]

Bess Levin is the funniest person ever to write about Wall Street in part because she has all of the talents of any comedy writing – surprise, timing, verbal invention – and in part because her steel-trap memory allows her to instantly recall everything that has ever happened in a hedge fund manager’s life for later comical use. But her biggest advantage is deceptively simple: She writes about funny Wall Street things as funny human things, rather than trying to force the human things onto a framework of finance. She ignores the strenuous insistence that everything about Wall Street is Serious and Complicated, a world apart that can only be addressed in its own terms, and that its big names are Masters of the Universe who are removed from normal human concerns. She brings humanity back into Wall Street humor; her characters are always deeply, exaggeratedly, hilariously human, even when they are actually pigs.

So when the New York Post reported that Steve Cohen paid $100,000 to hang out with Guy Fieri, Bess wrote 2,000 words imagining their friendship. There’s nothing especially finance-y about it. It’s a story of a crush, a fandom, an obsession, featuring an eccentric distracted boss, a harried staff, and a bemusedly tolerant wife. It imagines Cohen not as a remote inhuman Master of the Universe – the way he is often portrayed – but as somehow especially human, blowing off preparation for an SEC investigation to worry about what Fieri might think of him.

Or when W Magazine reported in passing that Lisa Maria Falcone has a pig named Wilbur who can play the piano, Bess wrote a long-running multi-part drama about Wilbur, who in Bess’s telling is a fading burlesque singer and, for some reason, female. The details of Phil Falcone’s LightSquared investment weren’t the focus; instead, what mattered were Wilbur’s past dancing at Bottom’s Up, her current luxurious life with the Falcones, and her fear that she might lose it all. It is an absurdist piece of Muppet noir that happens to overlap in some details with the life of an actual hedge fund manager who was going through a rough patch.

I started writing for Dealbreaker in July of 2011. That same month, Bloomberg published a profile of Gary Cohn that happened to mention that he “would sometimes hike up one leg, plant his foot on a trader’s desk, his thigh close to the employee’s face, and ask how markets were doing.” That is weird. Bess noticed, and wrote a post consisting mainly of the headline “Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn Likes To Speak To Employees On A Grundle-To-Face Basis.” It stayed at the top of the site for pretty much all of August. (To be fair: August.) Every day, I would walk into the office, open up Dealbreaker, and giggle at that headline. Every month or so since, for more than five years, I have found myself remembering that headline and giggling. No one else could have written it.

Personally, I will forever be grateful to Bess for giving me a chance to write on the internet, and more importantly for letting me be a part of her art project for a little while. That project has for 10 years been the funniest, most creative, most original commentary about finance that has ever existed, and I look forward to whatever she comes up with next.

Matt Levine is a columnist at Bloomberg View. He wrote for Dealbreaker from 2011 through 2013. Subscribe to his newsletter!

[1] In another context, Nicholson Baker writes:

Something different from this really happens to the metaphorically minded who are immersed in a particular specialized vocation. It is not that they resort to professional imagery when they want to describe something in daily life, such as their child or a field of flowers; it is rather that the specific equipment they use begins to absorb the rest of the world into itself—that in defending the advertising profession at a party, say, they will reach for an analogy to the bee-luring bloom, or when standing in the darkroom, with the film in their hands, they will think with surprise of how similar film is to their baby’s skin. Their profession doesn’t blanket the world; the world feeds its specifics into their profession.

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