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Tom Wolfe remembers his greatest humiliation—that thing that happens in New York City when you try and flag a cab but some assh*le steals it right from under your finger. This happened to Tom Wolfe. In the 60’s. And it still haunts him.
[This ran with the super longreads piece Tom Wolfe wrote for Newsweek on Wall Street “eunuchs.”]
Up until 2006 a spirit of manly daring had pervaded Wall Street’s investment bankers. Trading stocks and bonds was the next thing to armed combat. The warriors, i.e., traders and salesmen, told of how fighting in combat—confronting not an armed enemy but a fan-shaped array of computer screens—created a euphoria more exhilarating than any other conceivable state of mind. It was the highest of all highs—and thanks not only to the earth-orbiting ecstasy of the battle. There was also the not inconspicuous fact that these Boomtime Boys—many of them in their 20s, still young enough to blush—were knocking back a million dollars or more a year in bonuses, year after year …
Victory as recorded on those screens made them feel like Masters of the Universe. The phrase came from a 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, whose main character, Sherman McCoy, is a 38-year-old trading-floor salesman for an investment bank averaging a million dollars a year in bonuses and living on the top-nob part of Park Avenue. One day his trading-floor telephone rings, and he picks it up and takes a buy order for so many zero-coupon bonds his commission will be $50,000. Took 20 seconds, maybe 30, and—just like that—he’s $50,000 richer! The words suddenly flash into the Broca’s area of his brain: “I’m a Master of the Universe!” Jesus Christ!—came straight from his 6-year-old daughter’s toy set of plastic figurines, the “Masters of the Universe,” who had names like Ahor, Blutong, and Thonk and look like Norse gods who pump iron and drink creatine and human-growth-hormone smoothies.
In real life, young men on trading floors all over Wall Street read that book and got a kick out of that name, Masters of the Universe. They said it aloud only in a jocular way—they weren’t fools, after all—and never mentioned the wave of exaltation that swept through their very souls: I’m a Master of the Universe …
The market crash in November 1987 didn’t diminish that sublime bliss for longer than a few gulps. Likewise the “dotcom” crash of 2000—02. Even after 2002 the Masters of the Universe cast such a spell that an estimated 40 percent of the top 10 percent of the graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton headed for jobs on Wall Street.
In 2004 a well-known trader for Deutsche Bank, John Coates, a Canadian, absolutely baffled his mates, his fellow warriors of the battle screens, by quitting Wall Street and heading off to England to re-up at his alma mater, Cambridge University, as a first-year graduate student in neuroscience. Neuroscience?! In a Second World country, England?!
The truth was, Coates never got Wall Street off of his mind for a moment. He was intrigued by the fact that a bunch of impulsive, juiced-up, howling, heedless young men had their hands on billions of dollars every day. He was turning to neuroscience in hopes of finding out what on earth could possibly account for… the Masters of the Universe.