Vanities on The Bonfire: Peter Cohen

Wall Street's quintessential empire builder falls from power

No one embodied Wall Street's gold-rush spirit of the 1980s more than Peter Cohen, the high-strung chairman of the investment firm Shearson Lehman Hutton. A short, cigar-smoking firebrand, Cohen transformed Shearson from a stolid retail brokerage into an investment-banking giant. Backed by American Express, which bought the firm for $360 million in 1981, Shearson grew from 11,000 employees to 47,000 by the mid-'80s. But Cohen's expansion drive proved unstable. Hurt by several missteps and the slowing pace of Wall Street dealmaking, Shearson's investment-banking revenue declined 27% last year, to $963 million.

As the stress on Cohen increased, his composure frayed. Colleagues...

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