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Say Bess to the Mess

John Carney says goodbye to Bess Levin.

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.

– TM

People were always asking me, do I know Bess Levin?

You’re having a drink on Stone Street with young guys in blue shirts. You’re up a Campagnola with guys in expensive pin-striped suits. You’re on a Tribeca rooftop drinking martini’s before noon. Everywhere you went people wanted to ask about Bess. Young women on Wall Street wanted to be Bess Levin. Young men on Wall Street wanted to belong to Bess Levin. Older guys on Wall Street…well, let’s just leave them out of it. Their wives might be reading this.

There were always lots of other questions. What was she doing? Where had this potty-mouthed vixen come from? What was her motivation?

“The good news is that she wants to destroy the pretentious assholes who make Wall Street such an awful place to work,” you tell them. “The bad news is that she thinks you are all pretentious assholes.”

Bess arrived at DealBreaker’s offices fresh out of college. Her second college. I think she was kicked out of her first college for some sort of cybercrime. Maybe she just told us that because she thought it would impress us. She would have been right.

At first, she was an intern. She confessed that she didn’t know anything about finance. I gave her terrible advice. I told her that she should just think of finance like Shakespeare’s plays. Everything is either a history, a tragedy or a comedy. Just pick which characters and events are in which genre and roll with it.

Bess was smarter than that. She knew that it was all comedy. The hedge fund collapsing was funny. The hedge fund manager angrily denouncing her for reporting that the hedge fund was collapsing was hilarious. The more seriously people took themselves—the more they saw themselves as tragic heroes brought down by the savage injustice of markets—the more absurd they became.

One of the very first assignments Bess got as an intern was to write our Planespotting column. This was where we tracked corporate jets and speculated why an executive, a banker or a hedge fund managers might be flying to a certain location. It was irresponsible, invasive and meant to be taken lightly.

It was a tough assignment. Often there was no rhyme or reason discernable in the movements. Bess was saddled with making sense of the journeys of Matthew Pritzker to such locales as Boca Raton, Georgia and White Plaines.

Bess ignored all our instructions. She ignore the point of the column. She just savagely mocked Pritzker for flying to boring places.

“Come on, Pritzker! Go to Fiji tonight and wake up in a hotel in Greece tomorrow! Hide the evidence that you were ever in a hotel room with a dead hooker in Madrid; chill in Nambia and adopt a child with Angelina Jolie; for Christ sake, skin your knees, get dirty, have some fun! 

Next time we stalk your whereabouts, there’d better be some evidence that you’re spending your $500 million unwisely– and that’s an order.”

Her title made it clear that this was an attack on her editors for assigning her such a pedestrian topic. She called it: “Planespotting: The Revenge.”

Some would say that the mystery about Wall Street isn't how it really works, it's how to make it stop. Bess knew that these people are wrong. Wall Street can't be stopped. There's no cure. All we can do is laugh, raise a glass and mock the ambitions of the merely wealthy to be even slightly worthy of admiration.

We knew immediately that any dreams we had of creating a new monster to unleash on Wall Street were not going to happen. Bess was a new monster but she was entirely self-created. We were just going along for the journey.

So was Wall Street. Within an incredibly short period of time, she became an obsession for many in finance. Some people thought she was too perfect to be real. They accused me of making her up. I took this as a compliment: I could only wish I were as funny and as fearless as Bess.

At one point during that first summer, I brought Bess to a party of young traders. One young man in loafers without socks introduced himself and started to talk about his accomplishments. Bess cut him off. “Loafers without socks should be taken off in the evening and left off for the rest of your life. You look like a homeless clown,” Bess said.

The trader swooned.

When that first summer ended, we never even considered not hiring her full-time. I think we knew that someday Bess Levin would become DealBreaker. We were just the early caretakers of what would become entirely hers.

Thank you for your work, Bess. Best of luck in all your endeavors.

...And please have mercy on the rest of us.

John Carney is the editor of WSJ Markets and the founding editor of Dealbreaker. 



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