In case you missed it, The Wall Street Journal’s Kate Kelly last week produced an exceptional page-one story, known in house at the Journal as a “leder,” that reconstructs the tense days during the collapse of two hedge funds sponsored by Bear Stearns & Co. over the summer. The story reports that Bear’s chairman and chief executive, James Cayne, spent much of the time unreachable on a golf course in New Jersey, playing bridge in Memphis and—get this—smoking marijuana, in one case sneaking a woman into a Memphis men’s room to do so.

Attendees say Mr. Cayne has sometimes smoked marijuana at the end of the day during bridge tournaments. He also has used pot in more private settings, according to people who say they witnessed him doing so or participated with him.

After a day of bridge at a Doubletree hotel in Memphis, in 2004, Mr. Cayne invited a fellow player and a woman to smoke pot with him, according to someone who was there, and led the two to a lobby men’s room where he intended to light up. The other player declined, says the person who was there, but the woman followed Mr. Cayne inside and shared a joint, to the amusement of a passerby.

Dude, where’s my hedge fund value?

Cayne’s denial, in an interview with Kelly, is strangely worded.

Mr. Cayne denied emphatically that such an incident occurred. ‘There is no chance that it happened,’ he said. ‘Zero chance.’

Asked more generally whether he smoked pot during bridge tournaments or on other occasions, Mr. Cayne said he would respond only ‘to a specific allegation,’ not to general questions.

I’m not a linguist, but am I the only one to detect something almost adolescent in the wording of this denial? There is “no chance,” I mean, “zero chance,” that I blew a doobie in the can with some lady, okay?

Right now, of course, our main concern must be with James Cayne and his welfare. Marijuana is a gateway drug, after all. It can lead to LSD, X, CDOs, SIVs, and stuff even further off the balance sheet.

So, The Audit would like a private word with Mr. Cayne. Other readers can skip to the paragraph that begins, “As you can tell”:

Jimmy. It’s us. The Audit. The first thing you need to know is, we love you, man. Elinore (1) loves you. Anna (1) loves you. And I, I love you, man.

The second thing is, we’re going to get through this.

But, Jimmy, we will not stand by and let you throw your life away. Look at you. Playing bridge all day. Golf. No cell phone. Hedge funds melting down. You’re only seventy-three. You’ve got to think about the future. Sure, you’re chairman and chief executive of a first-tier investment bank, but the bottom of the first tier.

As you can tell, I don’t care if someone smokes weed. We’re Columbia, after all. We have no values whatsoever.

And this would be funny, of course, if not for the fact that the subprime mess that Cayne helped create, profited from, then partied through, represents a personal financial crisis for millions of the market’s most vulnerable borrowers, many of whom are, as we speak, in the process of losing the only equity they’ve ever had. We are learning that the subprime phenomenon—touted as a means of increasing the number of home owners—may serve to decrease it as a tidal wave of people default on those loans sold through boiler-room operations like Countrywide Financial and repackaged by Wall Street pillars like Bear and Citigroup Inc. (or in Citigroup’s case, it did both) .

As The New York Times put it last April:

Now that prices have started to fall, these products look instead like a transfer of wealth to mortgage lenders from those who can least afford it: subprime borrowers.

(The Times’s Gretchen Morgenson has another great story today on the ugly aftermath of the debacle that paid for Cayne’s weed. Don’t click unless you’re prepared to be infuriated.)

The power of Kelly’s story can be found in the responses it provokes.

Jack Flack, a pseudonymous blogger on the business press, for Conde Nast Portfolio’s Web site, and a competitor of mine, finds in the story an “unsettling” harbinger of what the Journal will become after News Corp. completes the purchase of the newspaper’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co.

But it’s just unsettling to see the world’s preeminent business newspaper give such prominent and extensive focus to the weighty accusations that Cayne is obsessed with bridge, might enjoy occasional weed and chides youngsters for weak handshakes. Also, he doesn’t carry a cell phone, obey no-smoking ordinances or talk shop on the golf course. In other words, he acts like a 73-year-old rich guy who owns a big chunk of the joint he runs.

He also implies, I think, that Barney Kilgore, the post-war creator of the modern Journal, would strongly disapprove of the Kelly story.

The value of the Kelly story isn’t just that it catches a Wall Street CEO using illegal drugs—although that reporting feat is hard enough to pull off, would stand alone as a story, and is also something, believe me, Portfolio’s editor in chief, Joanne Lipman, would cut off a limb to publish.

Kilgore, by the way, devoted his career to making such stories possible I never met the man, but judging by his creation, particularly in the seventies and eighties, the man would have loved that story. Murdoch, on the hand, has made a life’s work of killing investigative stories, books, and even entire news networks that might interfere with some corporate interest, such as, for instance, angering the executive of a potential lender, like Bear Stearns. So, not to worry; if he can, Murdoch will surely protect readers from so public an undressing of a fellow titan.

No, the value of Kelly story is in the details themselves. Great journalism so often boils down to that, doesn’t it? Either the reporter gets the detail or she doesn’t. In this case, it is the detail that peels away the carefully and expensively cultivated PR image to reveal the banality beneath.

Cayne smokes cigars that cost $140 each, and he keeps them not on his desk, but under it.

At a July 12 meeting, Cayne seemed to those in attendance to care less about markets than, Kelly says, “in talking about a breakfast-cereal allergy,” and, of course, those cigars.

The seventeen-minute chopper ride to his country club costs $1,700.

Etc.

These images offer a reality check on how far performance, competency, and even behavioral standards among the leadership class have been allowed to slip during the Bush era.

In the Gilded Age, Sherry’s Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club, while violent strikes and riots wracked the nation and an economist noted “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution.”

And who remembers this detail about Leona “We don’t pay taxes; the little people pay taxes” Helmsley, convicted of tax fraud at the end of the great bank bust not so very long ago?

She would have servants kneel at poolside with a platter of freshly cooked shrimp, rewarding her with one each time she completed a lap. (2)

I do.

Details like those dug out by Kelly capture clues to the character of a man, but also to the essence of an age, and, with any luck, signal its end.

Congrats, Kate. Somewhere, Kilgore is smiling.

1. Elinore Longobardi and Anna Bahney are
Audit Fellows.

2. “Abuzz About the Hotel Queen; Ex-Employee’s Stinging Testimony in the Trial of Leona Helmsley,”
The Washington Post
18 July 1989

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.