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Lehman Brothers, 1844-2008

by Peter Chapman

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59184-309-2
Publisher: Portfolio

A meandering chronicle of a remarkable immigrant family that built a powerful Wall Street investment firm, then lost it.

Financial Times contributor Chapman finds the Lehman enterprise fascinating. The fascination, however, is not grounded in investigative reporting but rather in group biography. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, journalists and industry insiders have published countless exposés. Chapman, however, devotes less than ten percent of the book to the events leading to the Lehman demise. The author begins in 1844, when Henry Lehman arrived by ship in New York City from a German region rife with anti-Semitism and political oppression. Two younger siblings followed, and they joined in business at Lehman Brothers. They did not start in New York City, however; rather, they pursued a plan to make money in the pre–Civil War cotton economy of the South, specifically Montgomery, Ala. The shift to Wall Street came gradually. Chapman focuses as much on the political, economic and social forces across the United States and Europe as on the business of investment banking and on individual members of the extended Lehman clan. The author’s life-and-times technique means dizzying shifts in time. Other than the three founding Lehman brothers, the most deeply drawn characters are Herbert, who served as New York State governor and a U.S. senator; and Robert (better known as Bobbie), who ran the Wall Street operation with a certain flair but also enjoyed spending money on rare art, antiques and other expensive items. In his relatively brief account of the Lehman Brothers demise, Chapman contrasts the integrity of the founders with the loose business morals of successors. Referring back to Henry’s arrival in the United States, the author writes, “Lehman Brothers died when over 150 years later a once proud institution was caught peddling junk to the world.”

Contains numerous interesting tidbits, but lacks cohesion—an unpredictable change of pace from the typical contemporary Wall Street scandal tome.