Warren Buffett Up Close
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Old Greenwich resident Alice Schroeder spent years chronicling the life of Warren Buffett. Here, we take a look at the man and his extraordinary career and history. For the full article on Alice’s experience with Buffett, see the “The Adventures of Alice” in the February issue of Greenwich magazine.
Greenwich and Warren Buffett
When Warren Buffett speaks, Greenwich listens. It was not always that way, however.
According to The Snowball, one of Warren Buffett's ancestors, the son of John Buffett who was the first to travel to the New World, stopped one day in a Connecticut town to preach the Gospel. "But it is doubtful that the outcasts, scofflaws, and unbelievers of Greenwich repented on hearing his words, since history records that lightning promptly struck him down."
Warren Buffett would become a preacher of a different kind, one who eventually could count many Greenwichites among his flock. But not all, of course. There was Charley Ellis, an early champion of indexing whose noteworthy tome Winning The Loser's Game is mentioned in The Snowball at length as a prevailing font of financial philosophy Buffett would buck.
More at variance with Buffett's ideals was another, more reckless Greenwich-based investing operation, Long-Term Capital Management. The Snowball biographer Alice Schroeder spotlights LTCM's attempt in 1998 at getting Buffett to buy it when its dice-rolling derivatives trading put the company billions in debt. Buffett passed.
"Derivatives are like sex," Buffett is quoted in The Snowball as saying. "It's not who we're sleeping with, it's who they're sleeping with that's the problem."
But Buffett's strongest Greenwich connection may well be Schroeder, who has lived here since 1996 and stayed through the dissolution of her first marriage in 2004.
"The question is, when I got divorced, why didn't I leave?" she says. "The easiest thing to do from a cost-of-living standpoint is to move someplace else. But I'd grown to be very fond of Greenwich, albeit it's become a little crowded and different, because of the proximity to New York City and the country atmosphere."
Her husband, David Moyer, sees a strong connection between Greenwich and The Snowball. "Alice told me she bought the house to write this book," he says. "She is someone inspired by nature, who loves to be around it. The Snowball is a better book for where she wrote it."
A Woman's Touch?
One aspect of Warren Buffett's life that gets plenty of notice in The Snowball is his relationship with women.
Early on, the book recounts, he was told by his father-in-law that he could do no wrong surrounding himself with women, because they were loyal and hard workers. "I think women understand men better than men understand women," Buffett is quoted as saying. "I'll eat asparagus before I give up women."
Buffett's first wife, Susie, forms a kind of emotional touchstone through the pages of the book, influencing him to give up more of his wealth to charity. She even found him another woman when she left him to live in San Francisco.
There are many women in the pages of The Snowball, some of them rumored to have been lovers of Buffett, like Katherine Graham, but many more of them of the loyal platonic helpmate variety. Author Alice Schroeder dubs them "Daisy Maes", after the Li'l Abner cartoon character Buffett was fond of as a boy.
These Daisy Maes could get pretty territorial. Alice writes of one who attended a shareholders' meeting at Berkshire Hathaway wearing a necklace that clinked as she walked — because it was laden with charms representing each annual Berkshire Hathaway report she helped Buffett put together.
As with many hypotheticals, its utterly worthless but somewhat tempting to wonder if The Snowball could have been as probing a book if written by a man. "Warren has always had a rapport with women," Alice says. "I think he gravitated toward me because he felt more comfortable with me because I'm female. He has a lot of men friends, too, but he has a different dynamic with them."
Alice even sees a gender dynamic at work when it comes to The Snowball's reception: "Every woman reviewer has liked the book."
At least one woman involved in The Snowball sees it differently. Ann Harris, the book's editor, thinks the whole matter "a non-issue. It never occurred to me," she says. "Alice is about as tough-minded a writer I ever encountered in terms of dealing with material, bringing it out whatever the cost, freeing herself of whatever biases she may have. She's both tough-minded and extra intuitive."