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Wall Street Suicide


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The Wall Street journal today tells the story of one financial executive who lost his job, went home and took some pills, and later jumped to his death. His "long-time companion" tells most of the story, and what struck me is his rather cavalier attitude towards his partner's death. See what you think:

 

The meltdown of Bear Stearns Cos. in March marked the collapse of the modern securities industry, and the careers of some on Wall Street.

 

Barry Fox, a research supervisor who worked for nine years at the brokerage firm, took a drug overdose and then jumped from his 29th-floor apartment the evening in May after he learned he wouldn't be hired by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which was about to buy his firm. A coroner recently confirmed in an autopsy report that the death was a suicide.

 

'Broke His Spirit'

Mr. Fox was devastated by the implosion of Bear Stearns and the financial hit he was likely to face, says Fred Philippi, his longtime companion. After several personal setbacks, "this Bear Stearns thing happened to be the last straw that broke his spirit," Mr. Philippi said in an interview.

 

J.P. Morgan, which hired nearly half the firm's 14,000 employees, has taken pains to help Bear Stearns workers displaced by the merger. The bank paid severance packages to those who weren't hired and set up an outplacement service to help them pursue job opportunities. James Dimon, J.P. Morgan's chief executive, also asked some of his bank's key clients to consider hiring Bear alums.

 

The stock-market hit has cost investors a total of $15 trillion so far this year, according to Standard & Poor's. And the recession on Wall Street already has led to a growing series of cutbacks in the securities industry, with nearly 17,000 jobs lost -- or 2% of the sector's work force in the U.S. -- since June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when the hiring boom of recent years hit its zenith. Unemployment on Wall Street is expected to ripple to the rest of corporate America as the dry-up in lending affects the companies that tend to borrow from financial firms.

 

The meltdown has also taken a more hidden toll, helping to push Mr. Fox and a handful of Wall Streeters over the edge. For instance, in early October, an unemployed financial manager in Los Angeles murdered his family before taking his own life, saying in a note to police that economic hardship drove him to despair. And about two weeks later, a Chicago futures trader fatally shot himself after reportedly sustaining big losses in his personal portfolio.

 

Mr. Fox, who was 51 years old when he died and had for years struggled with physical and mental disabilities, joined Bear Stearns in 1999 after stints at several other firms. He excelled in Bear Stearns's close-knit culture, associates say. Shortly after arriving, he began working as a "supervisory analyst," vetting and approving research reports before they were disseminated to the public.

 

In 2002, Mr. Fox was named managing director, a senior position. Mr. Fox's pay soon swelled to as much as $250,000 per year, says the 66-year-old Mr. Philippi.

 

The Daily Routine

Mr. Fox hewed to a routine. He'd arrive at his 34th-floor office in Bear's New York headquarters by 8:45 a.m., say associates, and rarely took more than 15 minutes for lunch, usually running down to the firm's cafeteria and bringing food back to his office. He would notify colleagues before he stepped out to the water cooler. If he received a personal call during a busy time, he could be curt.

 

"I can't speak now, I'm working," he would say -- even to his father, according to one former colleague -- before hanging up.

 

Only if things were particularly slow would he switch on the radio, always to a classical-music station, this person recalls. A longtime pianist and painter who dabbled in writing music, Mr. Fox was flattered when the head of Bear Stearns's research division, Kay Booth, played a recording of his compositions at a firm gathering.

What Mr. Fox's co-workers didn't know was that he battled schizophrenia, a brain disorder that can cause anxiety and paranoia. Mr. Fox's condition was manageable through medication for many years, says Mr. Philippi, but after his arrival at Bear Stearns, new issues began to emerge. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with a muscular condition characterized by involuntary jerking of parts of the face. Botox injections to help relax Mr. Fox's face provided scant relief, Mr. Philippi recalls, and long days at work began worsening the spasms.

 

In 2007, Bear Stearns stumbled, as two internal hedge funds that invested in risky mortgage securities failed. The funds' collapse, which cost investors $1.6 billion, was the one of the first public signs on Wall Street of the looming credit crunch.

 

Fretful Feelings

Mr. Fox soon began to panic about his financial future, Mr. Philippi says. The two were on vacation in Rome this past March when word of Bear Stearns's own cash crisis broke. In the evenings, Mr. Fox logged in to CNN.com from their hotel room for updates, recalls Mr. Philippi. They were still in Italy on March 16, when Bear Stearns announced its sale to J.P. Morgan. The bank began screening Bear Stearns employees for hire.

 

It was a grueling time for Mr. Fox, say associates. On May 1, he emailed Joanna Barouch, a childhood friend. "I've been in my own world over the past month or so since Bear Stearns went under," he wrote. "I should know in a few days or a week or two whether I'll be going over to J.P. Morgan Chase. I have a chance but not a great chance -- there are many applicants and few openings."

 

On the morning of May 22, he was at his desk at Bear Stearns when a J.P. Morgan manager called to tell him that he wouldn't be hired. Mr. Fox called Mr. Philippi. "I've been severed," he told Mr. Philippi in a calm voice.

 

That evening, Mr. Fox left work at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than usual. In keeping with their custom, Mr. Philippi picked him up from the Weehawken, N.J., ferry and drove him home to their apartment in nearby Fort Lee, where they had an early dinner.

 

The Overdose

A short while later, recalls Mr. Philippi, he walked in to the master bathroom and discovered a dozen empty prescription-pill bottles on the countertop. Mr. Fox had overdosed on drugs.

 

State medical records indicate that large concentrations of the tranquilizer Valium and the sleep aid Restoril were in his system that night, among other prescription drugs.

 

Mr. Philippi says he wanted to call an ambulance but Mr. Fox insisted he not. He says Mr. Fox told him he wanted to die that night -- at home and not in a hospital. "How can you take me from my home?" Mr. Fox pleaded, Mr. Philippi says. He didn't make the call.

 

For the next several hours, Mr. Fox lapsed in and out of consciousness, Mr. Philippi says. At about 10:30 p.m., after purging his system, Mr. Fox said he didn't believe he was going to die after all, recalls Mr. Philippi. Exhausted, the two nodded off around midnight.

 

Four hours later, Mr. Philippi says he woke with a start. Mr. Fox wasn't in the bed. After searching the apartment, he walked out to the 29th-floor balcony and saw a ladder propped up against the railing. Down below, he spotted Mr. Fox's body, lying lifeless.

 

'Things Are Very Raw'

The Bergen County coroner ruled Mr. Fox's death a suicide. "Things are very raw right now," said Stanley Fox, Barry's father, in a brief phone conversation.

 

Mr. Philippi has left the Fort Lee apartment, which was sold last month, and is relocating to Mexico.

 

Despite years of hard work, he says, without adequate savings, Mr. Fox "still felt he had nothing to show for it as he went into his 50s."

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>His "long-time

>companion" tells most of the story, and what struck me is

>his rather cavalier attitude towards his partner's death.

 

I had that thought on first read. But then, thinking of WSJ stories in which I myself have been quoted ('scuse please the button-buffing!), I wondered if possibly the reporter just chose to play down Philippi's emotions as not central to the point she was trying to illustrate. WSJ reporters tend, in my amateur judgment, to be the most concise, controlled shapers, focusers & economizers of their articles of any of the big dailies.

 

Possibly the reporter also trusted that readers who wondered about Philippi's feelings could infer them from the line "Mr. Philippi has left the Fort Lee apartment, which was sold last month, and is relocating to Mexico", placed just after the line "'Things are very raw right now,' said Stanley Fox, Barry's father, in a brief phone conversation."

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Guest zipperzone

I don't think his partner's attitude was cavalier at all. The reporter chose to tone down his distress - and quite rightly so. We get far too much of weeping and wailing in the press these day as there seems to be a culture that thinks only emotional and hysterical news is worthy of reporting.

 

I feel that his partner has a right to privacy and if he and the dead man's family wish to say as little as possible, that is their right.

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Lots of unspoken questions here: Did Stanley approve of his son’s life style or partner? How familiar was he with Barry’s struggle with severe mental illness or with the partner’s efforts, if any, to mitigate its effects? To what extent do they blame the partner, Philippi, for failing to prevent the suicide? Who got the proceeds from the sale of the apartment and why?

 

But I don’t feel particularly entitled to answers to any of them and agree with Zip that both sides deserve whatever anonymity they can still enjoy.

 

As someone who’s battled a chronic form of low grade mental illness, I can tell you that medications are wonderful except when their effectiveness wanes or they have significant side effects that can more than offset their benefits. Getting the right combo is hit or miss and if you battle long enough, you begin to run out of combinations that work until the next major overpriced drug intro. Long before I began my battle, I came to the belief that life, if it is to be measured at all, had to be measured with more than the one vector of chronology and that quality was likely to be one of the many more vectors to be considered. Given that, in the midst of what I do not know nor want to know, lurks the faint possibility that Philippi’s failure to act may even be heroic rather than cavalier.

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How awful to hear your lover beg you to let him die, lie with him as it seems he will recover, then wake to find his body in the street below. I doubt Mr. Philippi will ever lose his pain, and I couldn't begin to judge him for the way he handles it.

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