“I yearn for obscurity,” he says, “just having to worry about the problems of a single huge corporation going bankrupt. Little things—and without the newspapers calling all the time.” The speaker is Felix Rohatyn, 47, the rumpled fiscal wizard who is attempting to save New York City from bankruptcy.
Until Last June, when Gov. Hugh Carey and Mayor Abraham Beame drafted him to be financial director of the city’s rescue operation, Big MAC (the Municipal Assistance Corporation), Rohatyn had enjoyed the obscurity he cherishes. As a senior partner of Lazard Frères & Co., the huge investment banking firm, he was unknown beyond corporate boardrooms. Now, as a highly visible power broker struggling to save a foundering New York City, his face and words have made the front pages. “Some people speak in small print,” he acknowledges, “and some”—referring to himself—”in quotations.” Still, hardly anyone knows how to pronounce his name (ROE-ah-tin). A Democrat in the Albany legislature cracked, “Oh, you mean Felix Rotten.” Some Wall Streeters, familiar with his wheelings and dealings, call him, simply, “Felix the Fixer.”
An international man, Rohatyn speaks four other languages—flawless German and French, passable Spanish and Italian. The great-grandson of a grand rabbi of Poland, he was born in Vienna in 1928 and spent most of his boyhood in Paris. When World War II began, he and his mother fled to Orleans, Marseilles, Casablanca, Rio and finally New York. (“One thing I could count on when fleeing the Nazis was my mind,” says Rohatyn. “The only power worth having is ideas sought after by other people.”) His father, director of a precious metals factory, stayed behind and died in Paris eight years ago. Felix graduated from Middlebury College, went directly to Lazard Frères and stayed, except for an Army hitch in Germany during the Korean war.
In recent years Rohatyn made his mark in financial circles by reorganizing the Avis Rent-a-Car Company and by engineering the multibillion-dollar merger of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company with International Telephone and Telegraph. Wall Street was impressed, and Rohatyn was elected to the board of governors of the New York Stock Exchange. The Securities & Exchange Commission brought him to hearings on possible antitrust violations, and the Watergate investigators and SEC both asked him to explain ITT’s $400,000 pledge to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection fund. In both instances Rohatyn, a lifelong Democrat, emerged with his integrity intact, although the SEC is still looking into the ITT matter.
Rohatyn does not have the look of power about him. Slight of build (5’10”, 150 lbs.) and balding, he wears baggy suits, thin black neckties and loafers. His midtown Manhattan office is Spartan—photos of his three sons, two pictures of ski scenes, a plaque from Abe Beame (but no nameplate on the door) and a withered plant. He has lived in a small, impersonal East Side apartment since he and his wife, Janet Streit, were separated in 1972. “I thought I’d only be here a month,” he says. “But now it’s been three years. The kitchen has Coke and ginger ale bottles on the floor, and the living room is littered with books. He’s an inveterate browser (and buyer) at Doubleday’s. A devoted father, Rohatyn either sees or talks to his three sons, who range in age from 12 to 17, every day. He skis, plays savage tennis and maintains a rented weekend house at Wainscott, L.I., a beach town of subdued chic. His friends are from the Manhattan power structure—publishers Dolly Schiff and Clay Felker, Howard Stein of the Dreyfuss Fund—and he is recognized when he dines at Elaine’s and “21.” His social life is lively, the current favorite being a French-born photographer. Though usually a serious and self-absorbed man, he will indulge himself with daydreams: “I think I’ll go to Venice next week and have a room on the canal and eat prosciutto and fresh figs, and read Nero Wolfe mysteries.”
New York is, however, his real obsession. Rohatyn says, “People will accept the fact that a man does crazy things like fall in love with a woman. But they can’t understand falling in love with a city.” It will likely be an extended affair, for the city’s problems are long-range, and Rohatyn’s salvage plans have of necessity been stopgaps.
Still, if anyone can rescue New York, the consensus is that Felix Rohatyn is the man. “I only argue things I know are right,” he says, coolly. “And I don’t believe they are right until they are logical and make sense to me.”
Behind that clinical approach is a fascination with power and its uses. “The ultimate power is the absence of desire,” he muses. “I believe the most powerful man is a monk, because he is not corrupted by power.” Rohatyn got a more pithy lesson in clout the other night. “I raced home to see myself on the 6 o’clock news and left my car double-parked outside my apartment,” he says. “A cop came along. He said he knew I was trying to save the city, but he gave me a ticket anyway.”