Woman Around Town: Vicky Ward—The Devil’s Casino

Vicky Ward’s, The Devil’s Casino, an inside story of the collapse of Lehman, teems with tell-all anecdotes about the players-that-be who presided over the largest corporate bankruptcy on record. Why this juicy project for her first book?

Whisked up to the second story of a charming Greenwich Village townhouse, a book-lined room, flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows and a baby grand piano, a proper cup of hot tea awaited, offering ample opportunity to search for clues.

Cautioned by her publicist that Vicky would not be “camera ready” for our interview, when the blonde beauty appeared, svelte, vivacious and clad in blue, she could do any photographer proud. Recognizing a fellow history aficionado in several books by Conrad Black, a natural segue began with a comment about him, the former head of Hollinger International, once the third-largest newspaper publisher on the planet, now doing time in a Florida penitentiary for diverting corporate funds for personal use.

Vicky shyly looked away, and then pensively admitted in that ever-so-British manner, that she knew him, “quite well, actually.” Conrad’s brother, Mont, married Vicky’s husband Matthew’s mother June, and lovingly raised Matthew as his own. But being related by marriage is only the beginning.

Back in better days, Conrad also employed Vicky at The Daily Telegraph, a Hollinger-owned entity in London. He happened also to employ Matthew, and the two met, fell in love, married at age 25, and moved to New York, where, she admits, she initially “came kicking and screaming.”

This transplanted Londoner has an enviable life. Friends with George and Frances Osborne (he soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer), and David and Samantha Cameron (David leads Britain’s Conservative Party and probably will be the next prime minister), Vicky’s roster of friends reads like a Who’s Who of the glitterati. And along with her beauty come brains, determination and that special blend of New York audacity.

Raised in Sussex in relative comfort, she attended boarding school, Trinity Hall, and earned a degree in English Literature. While she toyed with attending law school, her wise father, a prominent money manager to Britain’s elite, counseled her otherwise. Said he, “If you were to be a lawyer, you would have gone to Trinity and studied law. Go do what you’re meant to do.” Granting each of his three daughters a good grounding and a sterling education, he gently nudged them from the nest. Satisfied that her younger twin sisters would carry on the family’s professional tradition (one is an attorney; the other has the “financial gene,” and works for Cazenove Capital Management), Vicky set her cap on publishing.

The stint at the Daily Telegraph sharpened her journalism skills as she covered posh events including book launches, events at the House of Commons and opening nights at the theatre. Soon she was writing a column at the rival Independent. When Matthew’s career in venture capital commanded a move to New York, she became the Daily Mail’s U.S. correspondent, developing perspective while jaunting across North America, visiting Iowa’s cornfields and rooming with Alaska’s Inuits. Readers took notice, and one in particular, Rupert Murdoch, wanting wider women’s readership, offered her a job at the New York Post, where Vicky first wrote features, and then became features editor.

When Tina Brown came to lunch to talk about launching Talk, Vicky leapt at the chance to work with the former Vanity Fair editor. Under Tina’s tutelage, she learned the rudiments of publishing, particularly how to put a magazine together. Tina moved on, and Vicky had job offers from both Disney and Marie Claire. But knowing she wanted children, she decided her career needed a different direction.

“What kind of job will I want to get out of bed for?” summed up her soul-searching. Never one to tarry, she picked up the phone and called Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. “I have two job offers, but I want to work for you,” she said. Undaunted by his lack of interest, she called again, and again, and again, every day for two months. Finally, Graydon grudgingly took her call. “I can take the barrage of bombardment, but my secretary can’t! How much are you making?” She told him the truth, and he offered her half. But, she was in! (Matthew’s partnership in Pluribus Capital, a media venture firm, helped compensate for her foregone higher salary).

Wanting to blend in with what she assumed was the magazine’s “hip” staff, she showed up for work wearing low-rise jeans and a tight top. Graydon’s comment: “Don’t ever wear that again!” But, impressed by her connections, including Peter Bergen, whose piece on Osama Bin Laden was excerpted in Vanity Fair shortly after 911, Graydon gave her a contract and an assistant, and Vicky soon was doing feature pieces for the magazine she’d loved since her first job out of school when, as a Conde Nast secretary, reading Vanity Fair was a precious perk..

Selected for a piece on Silicon Valley, about which she knew nearly nothing, she profiled Carly Fiorinia. In 2001, The World Economic Forum, normally held in Davos, convened in New York, and most of Silicon Valley’s techies came to town. While at a black tie wedding uptown, Vicky heard the geeks were gathering at a party downtown. Jumping into a cab in full formal regalia, she crashed the party. A prominent Silicon Valley CEO sidled over to query why she was there. Not missing a beat, she stated she was doing the definitive piece on his industry. Impressed with her nerve (and probably her beauty), he helped her access his fellow tech movers and shakers.

Soon she and Matthew were expecting twins, but nothing prepared her for their premature birth, each weighing a scant two pounds, three ounces, and needing a three-month stay in the neonatal intensive care. Vicky faithfully trekked to the hospital to spend three hours each day with each baby for those three months, and credits Graydon Carter’s kindness in continuing to give her assignments and pay her assistant, even when not always productive. Both baby boys made it home eventually, and the mere mention of Andrew and Lorcan makes her quiver at the memory of how they nearly didn’t.

Facing forty, that age when self-imposed deadlines loom,Vicky wanted to write a book, but Graydon cautioned her to take her time and to choose her subject carefully. Then, the largest financial disaster since the Great Depression signaled that her time had come.

Stories on the financial fiasco were legion, and Vanity Fair had already plumbed the depths of Fannie and Freddie, AIG, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and even Iceland. No one cared about Lehman. “Lehman is gone, who cares?” Fortunately, Vicky did, and she found people wanted to talk. “There’s a strange thing that happens when the mighty have fallen”, she explains. Citing examples of Jean-Marie Messier (formerly the CEO of Vivendi SA) and Kate Moss (whose drug problems need no explanatory note), she adds that no one would speak ill of either one, until they fell from grace. Once they did, the floodgates opened. It was just like that with Lehman.

Would her limited knowledge of high finance impede her ability to tell a complex financial story that had wide appeal? “Business is just people,” she quotes her friend, Stephen A. Schwartzman, the Blackstone CEO. “You succeed or fail, depending on whether or not you are a good judge of character.” Confident that she had the people angle down pat, Vicky found insiders with secret diaries, and The Devil’s Casino ensures that even a layman can understand the fall of Lehman.

The Devil’s Casino tells the story of Lehman, the country’s oldest partnership, from the vantage point of the four “Ponderosa” boys, friends from the same town on Long Island, who started at Lehman around the same time, without benefit of Harvard Business School degrees, but determined to rebuild the broken franchise into a powerhouse. Comparing their demise to Chaucer’s tales, Vicky traces the strengths that also brought them down, until, on September 15, 2008, they were no more. Replete with poignant quotes, anecdotes, and tragedy, her story-telling style is compelling.

Her next project? “Something in the area of real estate, because it’s the next big story.” Vicky Ward’s style, determination, skill and zeal, almost guarantee that her next book will be a winner, too.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Dine: The Monkey Bar
Favorite Place to Shop: Brunello Cucinelli (but it’s out of my price range!)
Favorite New York Moment: My 40th birthday party—all of my friends toasted me, and I know they were real.
Favorite New York Sight: Driving in from the airport and seeing the Manhattan skyline
What You Love About New York: Its infinite possibilities
What You Hate About New York: Because there are so many possibilities, I can never relax.

About Merry Sheils (65 Articles)
Merry Sheils won the New York Press Club’s Journalism Award for best business writing in 2011 and 2012. As a portfolio manager for private clients, she writes a financial column for WomenAroundTown.com as well as features and profiles. She frequently writes economic and capital markets commentary, including white papers, thought leadership pieces and investment reports, for companies and investment managers. Prior to becoming a writer, Merry worked as a senior portfolio manager and investment analyst at BNYMellon and Wilmington Trust Company (now M&T Bank). A SUNY graduate with a degree in finance, she is the author of “Debt-Based Securities” and has been published in The Financial Times, Forbes and Chief Executive Magazine, and has appeared as a guest on CNBC. She founded First New York Equity, Incorporated, an investment advisory firm, and sold it to Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). She divides her time between New York City and her 18th century house in Columbia County, NY, where she is active in the North Chatham Free Library, the Old Chatham Hunt Club and the Columbia County Historical Society.