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Former Bear Stearns CEO Alan ‘Ace’ Greenberg: ‘Everybody Knows I’m a Jew’

An excerpt from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish

Abigail Pogrebin
July 28, 2014

In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Alan “Ace” Greenberg, the former CEO of Bear Stearns who died Monday at 86 in Manhattan.

John H. Gutfreund, the former CEO of Solomon Brothers, once described Alan (“Ace”) Greenberg, the former CEO of Bear Stearns, this way: “Ace is by the numbers, very black and white . . . He sees prices, he’s not clouded by emotionalism.”

You can say that again. My interview with him is a dramatic confirmation of that characterization. This highly respected titan of Wall Street, who made $16.2 million in 1994 and who built Bear Stearns from 1,200 employees (and $46 million in capital) into the fifth-largest investment bank— with 10,300 employees and $1.4 billion—talks in bullet points instead of paragraphs, without a wasted word or a trace of sentiment.

From his seat on the bustling trading floor (he prefers sitting amid the din to staying in his office), his strong bald head stares straight ahead—military style. He doesn’t even glance at me sitting next to him when he answers my questions. Jacketless, in a monogrammed blue shirt that strains against his former football player’s frame, Greenberg holds a lit cigar in his meaty grip. Its smoke fills the air and probably violates company policy. Greenberg isn’t rude; just abrupt. It’s difficult to describe the staccato exchange, so perhaps an excerpt is the best illustration:

Q. Did you go to synagogue and Hebrew school growing up?

A. The whole works.

Q. Was that important to your parents?

A. If I had my choice, I wouldn’t have done it. I would rather have played football.

Q. The fact that you excelled at football—was that something other Jewish boys were doing?

A. No. I was the only one. For years, in fact. Obviously it helped me a lot socially. In high school. There was anti-Semitism, no question about it, in Oklahoma City.

Q. Can you describe that a little more specifically?

A. Well, the high school fraternities didn’t allow Jews in them. That wasn’t easy for me. But I played football, so that kind of made up for it.

Q. Was there some sense that people gave you special treatment despite your religion because you were an athlete?

A. Yeah, I think the girls did.

Greenberg attended the University of Oklahoma on a football scholarship, and after a back injury transferred to the University of Missouri, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business in 1949. When he was applying for entry-level jobs on Wall Street, he was shut out of the white-shoe firms because he was Jewish. Only Bear Stearns would take him. “In those days, it was pretty tough,” Greenberg says. “But that’s changed.” Was the prejudice explicit? “Well, there was a certain amount of anti-Semitism even among Jews then. Some of the investment banks in New York that were prominent were Jewish—they were basically run by German Jews. But they weren’t exactly looking for me either.”

Over the 50 years that Greenberg has spent advising prominent investors such as Henry Kravis and Donald Trump, he’s garnered respect for his prudent, unvarnished counsel and his quirky pursuits. He is a nationally ranked bridge player and an ardent devotee of archery, pool, whittling, dog-training, and the yo-yo. Not to mention magic tricks. He’s spent many Saturday mornings in Reuben’s Delicatessen honing his sleight-of-hand before other “expert” amateurs. “That has nothing to do with being Jewish,” he says with a chuckle. “The rabbi didn’t encourage it.”

Greenberg has for decades required that his top managers donate a portion of their income to charity. “Four percent,” Greenberg says. “All senior managing directors. There are about six hundred of them.” Has any employee ever balked at that?

“One person. In the whole time we’ve done it.” What happened to him? Greenberg grins. “Well, he’s not a senior managing director anymore.”

Greenberg believes there’s an obligation to give back. “I think it’s called a Jewish tax,” he says. He has contributed generously to many college scholarships and charities such as the United Jewish Appeal-Federation. He’s also established a school and a health center in Israel. “I used to joke, ‘When I grow up I want to be a philanthropist because it seems to me they always have a lot of money.’ So that was my goal: to be a philanthropist.” Some of his causes are not exactly mainstream: for instance, his support of a dwarfism program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, or his one-million-dollar donation to New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery to offer Viagra to the poor. Greenberg laughs when I inquire about that one. “At that time, Viagra wasn’t covered by any of the insurance companies, and I felt it was just something that I could do for people who couldn’t afford it.”

The phone rings and the boss seizes it. “Hello? Hi, Gail . . . So what can I do?” Greenberg is famous for cutting to the chase: What’s the bottom line? He discourages small talk, and doesn’t seem to engage in it himself. He’s even alert to distractions: When I try to rummage unobtrusively in my bag for my last page of questions (he’s running through them like water), Greenberg notices and barks, “What do you need?”

Q. Once you had your own family, I wonder to what extent you maintained the childhood traditions with which you were raised—?

A. Maintained them.

Q. How important was it to you that your two children feel Jewish?

A. Very.

Q. How did you pass that on?

A. Oh, just in conversations with them, trying to explain the culture and how important I felt it was.

Q. Was it important to you to marry a Jewish woman?

A. My first wife was, my second wife is not.

Q. And your children—?

A. My daughter married a Jew; my son did not and they got a divorce. I don’t think religion played any part in it whatsoever.

Q. Did you care if they married outside their religion?

A. No. I wanted them to just be happy. Sometimes Jews marry Jews and they’re unhappy, right?

A former bachelor-about-town, escorting the likes of Barbara Walters or Lyn Revson, Greenberg has been married since 1987 to Kathryn A. Olson, 19 years his junior, who was until recently a supervising attorney at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, specializing in the legal rights of the elderly poor. Press accounts say Olson has softened Greenberg.

I see that my sliver of Greenberg’s attention span is thinning, but I want to finish by asking one mushy question: Where does being Jewish fit into his sense of self? I’m surprised by his instantaneous response: “Well, it’s first and foremost. Everybody knows I’m a Jew—there isn’t anybody I do business with who doesn’t know it. If my name was O’Reilly, I might be embarrassed by somebody saying something against Jews, but it doesn’t happen with a name like Greenberg. They may think it, but they don’t say it.”

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.