Ben Stein's Diary

Alan Abelson, RIP

My fearless editor at Barron's died yesterday.

By 5.10.13

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Thursday
A horrible day. I was up all night with nightmares of crashing cars and maimed passengers. I slept late and awakened feeling deathly ill.

There was a bad feeling in the air. I learned why at about 3.30 when I got an e-mail from Phil DeMuth. It told me that Alan Abelson, pre-eminent financial columnist of the postwar era, decades long editor and columnist for Barron’s, had just died.

I have worked with Alan since about 1985, when I came to him with a long story about the scam of John Kluge's leveraged looting of his stockholders when he took Metromedia private and paid the stockholders (for whom he was a fiduciary) about five percent or less of what the company was worth. Alan took it, published it, and urged me to go down that path of breaches of fiduciary duty by managers in leveraged buyouts.

He was fearless. I would interview executives at the companies I was writing about. Their lawyers would call Alan Abelson and threaten to sue. "Go right ahead," he would tell them. "Go right ahead." They never even came close.

When a young woman who worked for me started to date a young executive at Drexel, and came to her and me with stories about cooking the books and paying off the buyers of the bonds in the Drexel "Daisy Chain," I started pursuing that story. At the time, Drexel was everybody's darling. It proved to be a fraud. But it had made many powerful people, especially here in Los Angeles, extremely rich. Drexel was especially loved by certain people at the Wall Street Journal. They did not like Barron’s dismantling the fraud. But Alan stuck behind me like a stone wall. He and his colleague, the rock solid Jim Meagher, never wavered.

I finally summarized everything I knew about Drexel in one very long story. Would Alan run it? He did, with the banner headline all across the cover, "Drexel-Milken--the Biggest Scam in History." He advised me not to start my own car that morning.

We worked on many other projects, including an outline of how the Federal agencies that insured S&L’s had been looted by Drexel. The Feds recovered billions from that outline, which I brought to Bill Seidman at the FDIC and which they put into a lawsuit. We did a story after the ’87 crash about how the idiotic "idea" of "portfolio insurance" had caused the crash, that it was not a forecast of a recession. That turned out to be right, as far as I know.

But the point here is that all the while, the people we were analyzing had high powered friends, extremely high powered friends. Alan was not afraid of any of them. As far as I can recall, he was afraid of nothing.

In about 1991 (very roughly) Barron’s had a fête at the top of the World Trade Center. I was invited. My wife was working and, with her full permission, I took a beautiful woman I knew in New York named Wendy to the event. Alan took one look at her and said, "From now on, we invite Wendy, not you.”

His columns were dour, hilarious, insightful. He never bought into the prevailing “wisdom” of Wall Street. It was all about hucksterism and self-promotion. He realized that from the first day until the last. He could and would deflate any balloon, from the dirigibles of the Fed to the smaller ones of hedge funds.

There is no one like him now. The rest of us are just ordinary people. He was Superman.

What a blow.

Tonight I lay in bed in Malibu with Julie Goodgirl and thought of how many have died recently. Too much dying. The waves crashed outside. They don't care.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.