Friday, September 5, 2008

Alexandra Lebenthal

Alexandra in her bedroom.
Alex Lebenthal, who appears frequently in New York Social Diary party pics, is the former Chief Executive of Lebenthal & Co, and more recently, the founder of Alexandra and James, Inc., a wealth management company that she runs together with her father, Jim Lebenthal, who made his name selling municipal bonds (‘The workhorse of investments’). Now she caters to a group she calls, in a trademarked phrase, ‘the lost affluent’, a section of the population that it would seem hard to feel sorry for even if they are wandering aimlessly among us, but they would do well to seek her out. She’s direct, intelligent and sensible. She likes glamour but retains a sense of irony about it. Her three kids, a 14-year-old son, and daughters 12- and four years old, are gorgeous and her home is a home, not a stage set.

Your firm originally dealt mainly in municipal bonds – the very phrase ‘municipal bond’ makes me want to doze off. What are they?

Well, how did you get up here? What mode of transportation did you use?

By subway.

Okay, so that’s the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and municipal bonds were issued to build the subways, to make improvements. When Grand Central added all of those floors and restaurants, municipal bonds were issued, and the interest that municipal bonds pay is tax-free.

Are they are a source of endless fascination to you?

At times it’s hard [laughs], at times, you know the conservative, sort of staid aspect of them makes them less fascinating. My dad could sit here for hours and talk to you about them.
Views across the foyer. The hanging fixtures and the round, mirrored table were purchased from Niermann Weeks.
Alex’s often-used office.
The workout room was converted from a former maid’s room.
The office was once the kitchen of the second apartment.
Yes, I read a very interesting thing that your father said: ‘My wife thinks I’m an egoist and out of control, and I indulge beyond imagining in my pursuit of the bitch goddess of fame … me I think I’m out to build affection for municipal bonds.’

[Deadpans] It’s all true.

What bit of the job do you like the best?

The thing I actually like dealing with people, helping figure out what their financial needs are, that we can help determine what the best way to finance their lifestyle is.
The large corner master bedroom was originally two bedrooms. A mirrored console on the far corner is from the Horchow collection.

A pair of mirrors was created from an old Balinese door Alex and her husband James found during a trip to Indonesia.
Family photos.
A 1960’s dress that belonged to Alex’s mom. The hat was worn to The Central Park Conservancy luncheon.
Alex’s collection of shoes and vast collection of vintage costume jewelry.
The dressing room.
Do you think Americans are more open about money than other nationalities?

I don’t know because I haven’t had enough experience with other nationalities but I will say that I’m used to dealing with people from different backgrounds and every culture does have its own personal issue with money. German people are actually very, very secretive for some reason … over the years [we have seen] they took two different approaches: one was a group of people who said we have seen everything horrible that humanity and life in the world has, so I’m only going to look forward and be optimistic and happy and therefore I’m going to take a little bit more risk in my life.

The other people said I’ve seen everything horrible and awful in humanity and life in the world, therefore who is to say what will happen and I want to be absolutely conservative.
Looking west and north.
Charlotte and Ben with Tiger in the family room.
The dining room. The table and chairs were purchased at ABC Carpet & Home; the sideboard and silver coffee and tea set were inherited from Alex’s grandmother.
The family kitchen.
Do you think it is vulgar to ask somebody how much they earn?

Um, in the context of what I do, I have to ask but if you just randomly ask that, then yes, I do, definitely.

There seems to be a strange dichotomy whereby people want to advertise their wealth yet don’t want to talk about actual money.

There are definitely two camps these days. There is an ostentatious aspect of people who like to show it. When you go to the events that have these live auctions, it’s very strange.
The kids rooms.
What’s your own attitude towards money?

Um, I like having nice things, but I’m a saver … of money, of other things. Charlotte [her 11-year old daughter who is sitting with us] actually models and with the money she earns from her job, she can spend a third, she has to save a third and she has to give away a third.

You studied history – what does that bring to the [financial] world that you are in now?

One of my favorite subjects to read about is business history, business history books … you look at all of the bubbles that have been created, and we always have a new bubble in the market … the housing bubble now …

Did you see it coming?Yes. I think the next bubble, which people can still take advantage of, is green investing [and] clean technology. There will come a point where everybody is putting their money into it.
Different views of the double living room. A custom ottoman sits in front of sofa covered in purple silk velvet from Jim Thompson.
The rug is from Patterson, Flynn and Martin.
An eclectic group of objects sit atop a living room side table.
Charlotte searching for Tiger under the living room couch.
So now we have to get on to what I think is one of the boring questions, about women in business. It’s boring to me because I don’t know what needs to be said. I think women on Wall Street do fine.

Um, I was at this event the other night and I saw somebody that I had known about 20 years ago, and he knows what I do now and he said to me, So do you go to work every day? And I said, Do you? And he said, Well, yeah but … And I said, Well, why wouldn’t I go to work every day? And he said, Because you’re a woman, and a mom. And this was the point where I just lost patience and I said, You know what, you’ll never say that to another woman again because she won’t be as nice as I am about it. This is 2008.

But that proves my point. All the women I know, without exception, can handle themselves perfectly well with annoying men. Did you read that cover story in New York magazine, about how they got rid of Zoe Cruz from Morgan Stanley, what did you think of that, for example?

But here’s the secret that nobody’s really publicized yet –they did bring in another woman to run their whole global wealth management business, Ellyn McColgan, who came from Fidelity, staggeringly smart, I’m actually having a dinner for her. Zoe Cruz, she was not treated any differently than the guys [she proceeds to list example after example of male bosses firing men in high positions] … The other thing is that in general, because Wall Street is a man’s world, the women who are in senior positions, the vast majority of us actually all really like each other and we’re very nurturing towards one another and like being able to keep the door open a crack so that the rest of us can peek through … and I know the women who work in fashion, or who work at Condé Nast, that’s the not the same at all.
Tiger – a very small one.
I think women can learn a lot from men in terms of quickly putting things behind them and getting on with the next thing.

Yes! They’re much more ‘immediacy focused’.

Clothes – I read somewhere that you wear outfits to meetings (one example was an orange power suit and big gold jewelry) that, you claim, say: Here I am, deal with it! Is that true?

It’s funny I just gave that orange suit away because the shape of it wasn’t feeling right any longer. I love getting dressed up but I do feel, especially again being more in a man’s world, that I want to stand out. If I have a meeting where it’s going to be mostly with older men, and maybe there’s a little exclamation factor where I’m going to have to negotiate, I’ll wear a big choker, a bigger cuff, like Wonder Woman … I use my jewelry as armor.

— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch