Thomas Russo, the chief legal officer at Lehman Brothers when the Wall Street colossus filed for bankruptcy and threatened to melt down the global financial system, was recalling that frenzied final weekend in September 2008.
“I remember that Sunday like it was yesterday,” he said. “In the morning we were told we were going to be saved.” They weren’t.
He had just come from “The Lehman Trilogy,” a three-hour-plus theatrical recreation of the real-world drama in which he had taken part. I had invited him to see the performance, and now he was digesting it over a vodka martini.
When a black screen at the Park Avenue Armory rose to reveal a stark glass box, a stripped-down version of Lehman’s emptied offices hours before the bankruptcy filing, Mr. Russo let out a gasp: “Oh, my God.”
“It was the feeling,” he said later, explaining his visceral reaction to the scene. Mr. Russo said he had ended up quarterbacking that fateful Sunday board meeting at the suggestion of Lehman’s chief executive, Richard S. Fuld Jr., “because he, and pretty much everybody in the room, was in total disbelief.”
As it turns out, the firm’s actual disbandment occupies just a few minutes of the script. The central story focuses on the original Lehman brothers — three immigrants from Bavaria who came to this “magical music box called America” in the mid-19th century — and their offspring.
After opening a tiny fabric store in Montgomery, Ala., the men turned to brokering cotton between the slave-producing plantations in the South and industrial manufacturers in the North. After the Civil War, they expanded to other commodities before concentrating on financial services and later metamorphosing into the nation’s fourth-largest investment bank. Along the way the firm invested in tobacco and the Panama Canal, Hollywood’s original “King Kong” and Intel microprocessors.
The play follows the ferocious and glittering financial locomotive they rode through American capitalism for more than a century and a half before being roughly dumped off. But that momentous collapse serves as the story’s frame, bracketing its start and its finish.
Echoes of 1929
The play’s narrative arc makes Lehman Brothers’ hubristic fall seem inevitable. Mr. Russo, though, emphasizes that he always thought the investment firm’s bankruptcy was avoidable and that the Federal Reserve erred in not saving the bank.
So for him, a goose-bump moment came during a scene depicting a previous crisis, the 1929 crash, which Lehman Brothers managed to survive.
“The state will let the first banks fail, won’t lift a finger,” Bobbie, a Lehman grandson, explains in the play, standing in the same glass cube of an office that serves as a stage for the 21st-century action. “They need to look like they aren’t helping.”
He continues: “That’s why we shouldn’t help the other banks in crisis: If they ask for loans, we should say no. The state will do the same. After that first moment, the state will need strong banks and they’ll help us. If we can survive the first month, they won’t let us fail.”
Afterward, Mr. Russo talked about that calamitous 2008 weekend. “It was exactly what happened in the play,” he said. “Everyone was more interested in protecting themselves than honoring commitments.”
When Fed officials asked the heads of competing major banks if they could survive a Lehman bankruptcy, they replied yes, Mr. Russo said. “That probably had a significant impact on the decision to let Lehman go,” he maintained. Soon, those institutions, which had similar problems, were receiving the same kind of government assistance denied to Lehman.
There were other echoes. Regulation and forced diversification would be the response to Wall Street’s excesses, Bobbie Lehman says. And “the economy will stop growing, unemployment will rise and the whole system will go into paralysis.”
“Bobbie’s talk was very much 2008 as it was 1929,” Mr. Russo said.
A Family Pilgrimage
The “Trilogy” will head to London’s West End after it finishes its four-week run on Saturday. This production, directed by Sam Mendes, was adapted from the original, which was written in Italian by Stefano Massini and ran five hours.
Partly reflecting the high-altitude ticket prices ($425 for premium seats), New York audiences have included outsize numbers of financiers, as well as Lehman progeny who went to see the replay of a catastrophic downfall.
Wendy Lehman Lash, great-granddaughter of Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the three brothers, served as a conduit for tickets. “I would say over 100 Lehman offspring have seen it,” she said.
Ms. Lash’s paternal grandfather, Herbert Lehman, spent most of his career in politics, and served as New York’s governor and as a senator. Despite her Lehman roots, “I didn’t know this story, how they reinvented themselves,” Ms. Lash said of the founding patriarchs after seeing the play. “How Lehman had to go from cotton to banking.”
John L. Loeb Jr., an 88-year-old family scion who researched the family history for a self-published memoir, has seen the show three times. “It’s wonderful theater, but it’s largely the imagination of the author,” Mr. Loeb said. “It doesn’t quite tell the truth.”
Ever since 2008, Mr. Loeb has chafed against the public’s equating the Lehman family itself with the financial crisis. Bobbie Lehman, who died in 1969, was the last family member to lead the firm. And as Mr. Loeb pointed out, American Express bought the company in 1984. A decade later, it spun off Lehman Brothers’ financial service operations through a public stock offering, and Mr. Fuld became chairman and chief executive.
“I’m affected by the fact that our name is identified with one of the greatest crashes in history, and the Lehmans weren’t really like that,” Mr. Loeb said. “Mr. Fuld was a person I don’t think would have ever become a partner of the Lehman Brothers I knew.” Mr. Fuld started as a summer intern at Lehman in 1966 and was named a partner in 1978.
‘Accurate, but It Is One Side’
Mr. Loeb’s comments reflect the hostile divide depicted in “Trilogy’s” third act between the bone-crunching aggressiveness of the traders who brought in unimagined earnings and the old-style bankers, with their “velvet and cuff links,” who loved the profits but disdained the ways it was acquired.
For Mr. Russo, the third act gave him an opportunity to contrast his own impressions of characters he knew, like Mr. Fuld, with their depiction onstage.
“I’ve spent more time with Dick probably than anybody else,” said Mr. Russo, who for years had an office next door to Mr. Fuld’s, and recently had lunch with his friend. After the bankruptcy, Mr. Fuld, who presided over Lehman’s demise, was cast as an archvillain. In “Trilogy,” he is referred to by his nickname, the Gorilla, a man who “carved his way through Wall Street,” but Mr. Russo insisted, “Basically he’s an extraordinarily moral person.”
Mr. Russo also recalled Lewis Glucksman, a legendary trader who was later chief executive. Described in the play as a tough guy with a big belly who “looks like he wants to kick the world’s ass with an ax,” Mr. Glucksman was the person who hired Mr. Russo in the early 1990s.
“The side that is portrayed was accurate, but it is one side,” Mr. Russo said of his former boss, who died in 2006. “He was also very generous and giving.”
After “Trilogy” ended, Mr. Russo made his way down the audience bleachers. He especially appreciated the play’s recounting of the company’s sweeping legacy and its role in America’s transformation into an economic powerhouse.
Now, what Lehman Brothers is best known for is its collapse.