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Trading Secrets: Seduction and Scandal at the Wall Street Journal by R. Foster Winans (St. Martin's: $17.95; 312 pp.)

October 19, 1986| Alexandra Reed Lajoux | Lajoux was editor of Mergers & Acquisitions for four years. and

"I had whored myself, but not my writing." R. Foster Winans' proof is in this pudding: "Trading Secrets," the would-be honest memoirs of an admittedly self-deceived soul.

Although Winans originally announced his book as a dissuasion from "unethical or immoral behavior" like his insider trading scam, "Trading" is no mere confessional tract but an ambitiously crafted narrative. Within this tale of the journalist-turned-tipper is the suspenseful case behind the case of a landmark conviction, the discomforting autobiography of yet another lost generation and a broad-brush tableau of its Wall Street.

The 56-count verdict against Winans boils down to this: He regularly tipped a trader, Kidder Peabody's Peter Brant, on what was to appear in his "Heard on the Street" column the next day. Since thumbs up or down on a stock could move it in the same direction, column contents were a closely guarded newsroom secret. By violating his employer's confidentiality policy, Winans in 1985 became the first felon convicted of insider trading under the "misappropriation" doctrine, first advanced (but overturned) in 1980 in the case of a financial printer.

As recounted in "Trading," the Winans case has multiple culprits, beginning with Brant, who uses his "conspiratorial and seductive" half-smile to propose the scheme as the book opens, and ending with the SEC swat team that descends on Winans and his long-term lover David, the financial fence for the operation, forcing the two to confess all now, or else.

Between the seduction and the scandal are flashbacks to Winans' aimless youth and to Brant-ne-Bornstein's arduous social climb, eased by his college friendship with the popular Ken Felis, an eventual beneficiary of the Brant-Winans racket.

These bios are followed by the slow unhatching of the plot under the body heat of Wall Street, where clues incriminating nearly every one of the book's 57 other characters are dropped one by one, like shoes in a Shinto pilgrimage, with always one more to fall.

Winans' firsthand elaboration of his case has a generational as well as legal meaning. Today we are seeing more and stiffer insider trading convictions--40 for treble damages in Manhattan this year, up from 10 in the previous five--partly in response to increased crimes by high-rolling baby-boomers. Witness the $12.6-million heister Levine, whose ring members were all in their 30s; or the Yuppie Five, all under 30!

A common explanation for this new Brooks Brothers breed of criminals, according to Shearson-Lehman's Steve Waters, is "low self-esteem." "Trading" confirms this. On a scale of 1 to 10, Winans' self-esteem is a 2, Brant's a 3 and Felis' a 5. What Winans' heavy-handed admissions of "isolation and alienation" tell, his metaphors show. He is a "fly on the wall of the biggest crap game in history," a "tourist" in an investment banking "castle," the "Nerd on the Phone."

Generating this sometimes disarming self-effacement, one senses that there is a likable Winans. How else could he have gotten close enough to Brant and Felis to report (in somewhat improbable authorial omniscience) their innermost doubts and fears? Whether by projecting his own insecurities onto his co-conspirators or by having gotten to know them, Winans does achieve a group portrait of his vintage. Peter goes for Money, Winans for Work, Ken for a little of both. All of them experience what New York Times writer Daniel Goldman has called this generation's "Strange Agony of Success."

A Bruegelian panorama of Fear, Power and Greed on Wall Street (Winans' original title) forms the backdrop to the hapless three. Winans, like the Flemish painter (whom he undoubtedly missed in a brief college career spent oversleeping and hanging out with a "clutch of West Indian kids who played Ping-Pong and Snooker"), has the ability to combine physionomic and attitudinal oddities with questionable behavior to bring a sketch to life. Eddie the Weasel, with his graying pompadour, spreads rumors in Brooklynese about companies whose stock he has sold short. A sputtering entrepreneur touting his stock reminds Winans of Dr. Frankenstein shouting of his monster, "It's alive! It's alive!"

With such tours de force, can we say that Winans' art avoided paying for his crime? Not entirely, for as if racing against a slamming jail door, "Trading" constantly robs Peter's adjective to describe Paul. "Dopey" works the first time to describe Peter's wife (a surprising misogyny, as Winans seems natural and stable in his gayness), but not when it is used later to portray Winans' journalistic errors, or again to capture the ennui of network television. "Fussy" does double duty to characterize both the bone china in Salomon Brothers' dining room and the picture frames at Peter's house. And how many times need Winans tell us that the Quotron "winks," or that Peter's chauffeur is paid $30,000?

No, Winans did not whore his writing, but by whoring himself, he strained it. Like Bruegel's Icarus , this striver brings his well-wrought wings too close to the heat, and so, in a landscape doted with honest toilers, he must fall. But unlike the painter's oblivious peasants, we can heed our Icarus' cry.

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