Lifestyle

The Last of the Imperious Rich

Book review: Peter Chapman explores the impact of Lehman Bros. on American life and how it all unraveled.

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(Photo: Natalie Castellino)

THE LAST OF THE IMPERIOUS RICH: Lehman Brothers, 1844-2008
(Portfolio/Penguin)
Peter Chapman

This April, some of the very last holdings of Lehman Bros.—the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua hotel in Hawaii, a luxury ski resort in Montana, and a Manhattan boutique hotel, among others—are expected to be sold off, bringing the storied investment house out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and a step closer to its grave.

The US$639-billion Lehman Bros. bankruptcy remains the largest in U.S. history and a key instigator of the recent financial crisis. But lost in the headlines of what Lehman Bros. wrought in the fall of 2008 (and subsequent years) is what the firm built over its 164-year history. As Financial Times journalist Peter Chapman explains in his introduction to The Last of the Imperious Rich, Lehman helped create much of what is considered quintessentially American: financing iconic movies such as King Kong and Gone with the Wind; underwriting retail giants Sears, Woolworth’s and Macy’s; and helping to launch Pan American Airways. Sadly, somewhere along the way (and Chapman pegs it at the mid-1980s), Lehman became more interested in short-term profit-taking, losing track of real people, real businesses and the original intent of “the bank’s old partners who worked over many years to make a giant contribution to the success of America.”