Michael Lewis is no stranger to impressive numbers. In 1987 he was a 27-year-old whiz-kid bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, generating $9 million in annual profits and bringing home more than $225,000 a year. In 1989 he became a million-selling author when Liar's Poker, his rollicking memoir of Wall Street before the 1987 crash, shot onto bestseller lists around the world. By 1993, he had inked a low-seven-figure, one-book contract and established himself as one of the wittiest journalists of the day.
Now, with The New New Thing out this month from Norton, Lewis follows the money to Silicon Valley, where a million is often just a second-string set of zeros on a third-string player's paycheck. The book, for which Norton paid a reported $1.2 million advance, is an attempt to sketch the soul of the Internet age as embodied by a Texas-born engineer named Jim Clark, founder of Netscape, a man Lewis calls "a billion-dollar company perpetually waiting to happen."
It's also an acute psychological portrait masquerading as an adventure story, with Lewis tracking Clark as he pulls off his latest IPO and pursues perhaps his most ambitious project yet: the construction of Hyperion, the world's tallest single-masted sailboat, a state-of-the-art $37 million floating metaphor outfitted with $30 million of Impressionist art, 60 miles of wires, 15 refrigerators, and more than 3000 alarms -- and entirely controlled, down to every last detail, by 25 on-board computers.
Again, impressive numbers. But as Lewis explains, the book's true subject isn't money but values. "In our society there's a tendency for the values of the people who make a lot of money to trickle down," he told PW on a recent afternoon at the modest rustic bungalow he rents in Berkeley with his wife, former MTV news anchor Tabitha Soren, and their four-month-old daughter. "In the 80s, everyone wanted to be an investment banker. Now everyone wants to be like people in Silicon Valley. I think it's really important to try to explain what the value system of the place is."
First of all, he says, there's the "almost absurd" value placed on novelty. And then there's the utter lack of interest in the past -- whether one's own, the Valley's, the world's. "Out here, the presumption is that if it's old, it must be bad. People almost become irritated if you start talking about the past. It's considered irrelevant."
Lewis, down-to-earth and boyishly enthusiastic at 38, with a floppy blond bowl cut and vowels that evoke his uppercrust New Orleans origins, seems himself poised between worlds. He and Soren are looking to buy a permanent home in Berkeley, but the tennis whites he wears this afternoon are more country club than People's Park. Not that this alum of such East Coast bastions as Princeton, Salomon Brothers and the New Republic d sn't relish the peculiar status inversions of this latest revolution in American capitalism. "It's wonderful to watch Clark, a guy who in any other age wouldn't have been taken seriously, walk in and dominate these investment bankers," he says. "All these type-A American males realize that for the moment, they serve him."
Lewis, who's wrapping up a fellowship at Berkeley's journalism and business schools, where he teaches a course on subcultures of business, met Clark in 1997. When he arrived in the Bay Area, venture capitalist and Forbes columnist Andy Kessler put the top down on his convertible and took Lewis on a tour of Silicon Valley. "It was a casting search," he says. "I interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs, but none of them had the dimensions of a person who could carry the book. I was looking for the Valley's Gatsby, someone who really represented the values of the place."
Lewis found him in a cluttered room in a strip mall, above a Jenny Craig weight loss center. "I already knew he was a billionaire who had founded Netscape and was working on another company. But here he was in this crummy office surrounded by all these geeks programming his boat. He was big, he was uncomfortable, he made me uncomfortable. But it was an interesting uncomfortableness. He was like the oyster with the grain of sand stuck in him. The more time I spent with him, the more it became clear that the whole world was in that grain of sand."
Lewis spent the next year, as he puts it, hitching a ride on the back of Clark's life. He made a half-dozen trips to an Amsterdam shipyard to check on the progress of the boat, and accompanied Clark on the pre-IPO roadshow for his latest company, not to mention on Hyperion's white-knuckle maiden voyage across the Atlantic, the dramatic centerpiece of the book.
He also spent a week at Clark's house, looking for the proverbial Rosebud in the boxes of memorabilia saved from the trash heap by his former secretary. Clark, in true Valley fashion, was completely uninterested in his past. "There were times when I thought he was a terrible character," Lewis says. "He had no taste for his own story, no ability to tell it. Absolutely none. But I think that turned out to be an advantage. Since he wouldn't just tell me the story, I had to get it in other ways."
A Charmed Life
Lewis's own story, as he's more than happy to tell it, comes off as an unlikely high-speed roadtrip from postcollegiate cluelessness to journalistic insiderdom. After earning a B.A. in art history in 1982, he moved to New York City and got a job shuffling Old Master paintings at the prestigious Wildenstein Gallery. He also bought a copy of Writer's Market and started mailing pieces blind to magazines.
After a year of collecting rejection letters from American Airlines's in-flight magazine and other "weird places," he left to pursue a masters at the London School of Economics. On a lark, he entered a science writing contest sponsored by the Economist -- and made it to the final round. "When they hauled me into their office, they were shocked that I was this American who didn't know anything. The other two finalists had doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge," Lewis says. He didn't win, but the magazine took him on as a freelancer.
Meanwhile, a friend at LSE started talking about a cheeky, contrarian political magazine called the New Republic. "I had never heard of it," he admits. "So I went to the library and read three years of back issues. I couldn't believe this thing existed!" So naturally, he wrote to then-editor Michael Kinsley, pitching a piece on Salomon Brothers' recent hiring of Reagan economic advisor David Stockman. And naturally, Kinsley (now the godfather of Lewis's daughter) gave him the green light. But before he could write the piece, he himself was hired at Salomon -- after happening into an interview, as Liar's Poker tells it, between courses at a dinner for the Queen Mother a distant cousin had gotten him invited to.
"Working at Salomon Brothers was just part of my continuing education," he says. "I had always thought that writers were at a tremendous disadvantage if they were only writers, and I thought this would be a great experience. It was less clear that I would write about it."
But the New Republic came knocking again. Lewis's first article -- "it was basically just making fun of British bankers" -- attracted a lot of attention, and soon he was public relations issue #1 in the London office where he was stationed. At the firm's insistence he began writing under his mother's name, Diana Bleeker, often needling Salomon Brothers in print in the bargain. Then, all of a sudden, Diana Bleeker had a lucrative contract with Business Magazine, a CondÃ© Nast startup. "It became clear I could make a living -- if not as fancy a living -- as a writer," Lewis says, "and so I quit."
Lewis left Salomon in January 1988. Later that year, he sold Liar's Poker to Norton's Starling Lawrence for $100,000 on the strength of his clips and a detailed journal. Transformed over the course of the memoir from a naive trainee to a full-fledged "Big Swinging Dick," Lewis wrote in an epilogue that he had just walked away from the clearest shot he'd ever have at being a millionaire. But given the sales figures, it turned out to be a good gamble. "So far," Lewis says, knocking on a wooden end table, "Liar's Poker has set us up."
The book was quickly followed by two more, both published by Norton: The Money Culture, a collection of journalism, and Pacific Rift, a double portrait of two businessmen, one Japanese and the other American. In 1993, Lewis's agent, Al Zuckerman at Writers House, sold a proposed book about George Soros to Knopf's Sonny Mehta for more than a million dollars.
That same year, Lewis signed on as a senior editor and staff writer at the New Republic, where he became known in-house for late-night hallway putting practice, white linen suits and other genteel innovations to the debating-society atmosphere. He penned sometimes recklessly witty pieces on subjects ranging from the art market to politics to Soros, who, displeased, declined to cooperate further on a book (Lewis returned the advance). Then there was a highly memorable take-down of the Columbia Journalism School called "J-School Ate My Brain" ("I think the point of the article was that it's idiotic to go to a journalism school, not that it's idiotic to teach at one," he says with a laugh), not to mention the infamous back-page "Diary" detailing the exceptional endowments of his then-wife, sometime lingerie model and future Donald Trump ghostwriter Kate Bohner, that set the chattering classes madly whispering. "I knew that I was courting ridicule," Lewis says. "I regret the effects, but I still think the piece was kind of funny."
The couple later divorced. In 1997, Lewis married Soren, whom he met while both were covering the 1996 presidential race. Politically, Lewis's hilariously irreverent "Campaign Diary" for the New Republic showed him looking for love in the most unlikely places. He was particularly smitten with tire magnate turned populist scourge Morry "the Grizz" Taylor, even going so far as to stand in for him on a speaker's platform. But for all the juicy fly-on-the-wall details and fly-in-the-ointment antics, Lewis had a serious point to make about the deliberately empty campaigns of the front-runners and the passionate outsiders who rise up in response.
Knopf published the revised dispatches in 1997 as Trail Fever: Spin Doctors, Rented Strangers, Thumb Wrestlers, T Suckers, Grizzly Bears and Other Creatures on the Road to the White House. The book was reviewed widely and well, but the disappointing sales -- not to mention the warthog of a title -- still rankle. "I thought that a larger place might push a book better, which was exactly wrong. It could've had the right title on it" -- Lewis wanted Losers -- "first of all. I can't even say the title of my own book." As for his renewed relationship with Norton's editor-in-chief Starling Lawrence, Lewis says, "It's a little miracle. Star actually makes things better without making me feel foolish."
The campaign book, he admits, would have been a hard sell for anyone. "People didn't even want to vote in this election, so why would they read about it? There is this curious inversion. You can get all sorts of publicity for a political subject, but nobody's interested in it. People are riveted by moneymaking on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, but it's hard to get respect in the media for the subject. This seems ridiculous to me."
For all their fun, Lewis's previous books have been damning indictments of the institutions they described. But Lewis is more close-mouthed about the implications of America's latest, greatest millennial gold rush. "I've learned that when you write a story, the most important parts are the things you leave out. Jim Clark's kind of life is an interesting life. It's certainly a wealth-creating life. But is it a good life? I wanted to build a hole large enough for the reader to walk into the story and decide for himself."