Jay Newman, a semi-retired sovereign-debt investor, was in the European Paintings galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day, hunting for a specific picture. “Excuse me,” he said to a ponytailed security guard. “Do you know where the Bastien-Lepage ‘Joan of Arc’ is?” The guard pointed toward the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr., Gallery; Newman traversed it and made a left at a Rodin bronze. “There she is!” he said, spotting a large canvas. The painting shows the teen-age martyr in a garden, a trio of ghostly saints hovering behind her. “Oh, my God,” he said. “This is one of my absolute favorite paintings.”
Newman had silvery hair and a Florida tan (he’d flown in from Vero Beach that morning), and wore a pair of practical moccasins. He made his fortune as a hedge-fund investor, buying defaulted bonds issued by near-bankrupt countries and then suing the governments to repay the bonds in full. He may be best known for a fifteen-year legal fight with the government of Argentina, during which time the Argentinean President called him and his fellow-investors “vultures” engaging in “economic and financial terrorism.” After nearly forty years in finance, Newman has published a novel, a political thriller called “Undermoney”—a word, he explained, that means “money that’s unknown to the public that influences people and events,” such as corrupt or ill-gotten gains used to manipulate politicians. Newman sees undermoney flowing everywhere.
The book combines espionage, financial intrigue, and geopolitics with a cynicism developed through years of observing politicians and Wall Street titans up close. Helicopters, mega-yachts, and parties full of bankers, lawmakers, and “scantily clad” Eastern European beauty queens feature prominently, along with oligarchs and a scheming Vladimir Putin, making the book unexpectedly timely. The critical response has been mixed: Publishers Weekly called the book an “overstuffed debut,” while the Journal described it as “ ‘Mission: Impossible’ meets ‘Wolf of Wall Street.’ ”
Newman said that his protagonist, a sexy C.I.A. operative named Greta Webb, was partly inspired by Bastien-Lepage’s painting. With knives strapped to her forearms, Webb helps a group of Americans who join with Russian mercenaries to secure billions to fund a U.S. Presidential candidate. “Here was this visionary, mystic woman, reaching out, haunted by angels and ghosts,” he said, gesturing at the picture. “What is she thinking? I think about Greta having that kind of intensity.”
Newman regards the kind of art that most hedge-fund types buy—Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons—as “complete nonsense.” He judges the art world as he judges most everything else, as entirely corrupt: “We got this museum and all the works in it because ruthless people made a lot of money, and then decided their legacy involved making these beautiful objects available in perpetuity. What does this say about social equity?”
He headed toward the Temple of Dendur, the setting for a scene at the Met Gala in “Undermoney.” “O.K., so museums, art, whether it’s old or new, it embodies all the complexities of money and power,” he said. A chime came from the phone in his pocket, a signal that a security camera was picking up wildlife at his farm in Dutchess County, where he and his wife grow black truffles.
Newman, who grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, said that he always wanted to write fiction but never got around to it. He went to Yale, where he studied art and economics; of the latter he now says, “It’s just voodoo.” His parents, he said, “would have been horrified” if he’d been a writer, so he went to law school. By 1983, he’d ended up at Lehman Brothers, and, in 1995, he joined Elliott Management, headed by the G.O.P. donor Paul Singer.
It’s easy to see connections between Singer and Newman’s fictional hedge-fund character Elias Vicker (described by one reviewer as “Wall Street’s most psychopathic billionaire”). Newman denies any link. He spent two years on a first draft, inspired by Tom Wolfe, Marisha Pessl, and such spy writers as John le Carré and Jason Matthews. Through friends, he secured an agent, who sold the book to Scribner and told him he’d have to add more sex.
The manuscript “was all cerebral,” Newman said, but had plenty of violence. He added some racy lesbian scenes between Greta and a Latvian central banker, and turned the book in to his editor, Colin Harrison. “You need more sex,” Harrison told him. Newman discussed the matter with his family, and one of his sons was aghast. “ ‘Dad, forget it!’ ” Newman recalled his son saying. Nevertheless, Newman added a threesome. Then Harrison asked him to cut the manuscript by twenty-five per cent. “That was hard,” Newman said of the ruthless culling process. Finally, they got the book down to four hundred and eighty-five pages. Next, Harrison said, “Maybe there’s too much sex.”
Newman said, “Too bad, it’s there.” ♦