Financial History Issue 113 (Spring 2015) | Page 23

JOHN WHITEHEAD (1922–2015) Wall Street Titan, Cold Warrior, Friend to Thousands “America was fortunate that John Whitehead walked so many roads for us,” said Henry A. Kissinger at the funeral of his friend in mid-February. “In view of the vastness of John’s interests and the scope of his accomplishments, one is tempted to think of a flamboyant individual operating by eloquence and force of will. The opposite would be true. For John, the call to serve was paired with a reluctance to impose.” Whitehead was born in 1922 and grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. Despite being a mischievous lad, he earned the Eagle Scout award and entered Haverford College, a small Quaker liberal arts institution outside Philadelphia. He was working at the checkout desk of the school library when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was graduated under an accelerated program in January 1943 and joined the Navy. Having shown aptitude in small vessels, Whitehead was given command of a small squadron of five landing craft for the Normandy assault on June 6, 1944, and he made one of the first major judgment decisions of his life. “Our orders were to crash straight ahead to the beach,” he wrote in his autobiography, A Life in Leadership (Basic Books, 2005). In the rough waves and dim light, Whitehead saw ahead obstacles that would have torn the bottoms out of his boats. He ordered the squadron to turn and run parallel to the beach for a hundred yards before finding a clear path. He made many such cool decisions under duress in his life. With an MBA from Harvard in hand, Whitehead joined Goldman Sachs in 1947. Jammed with half a dozen others into an unventilated former squash court, he rose quickly on the strength of his diligent work, scrupulous ethics and dexterity with a slide rule. Concerned that the firm was almost entirely reliant on its legendary leader, Sidney Weinberg, for business, Whitehead circulated a plan for new Elsa Ruiz By Gregory DL Morris John Whitehead, pictured here at the 2009 Gala, was co-chair of the Museum’s Advisory Board. business development. The idea simmered until 1976 when Whitehead was made co-chairman, along with John Weinberg, Sidney’s son. The idea of soliciting business was almost radical in those days. Business executives had come to Sidney. It took a couple of years for the plan to gain traction, but it became a roaring success and was soon emulated by other firms. In time, Whitehead implemented a similar initiative for international business — his second invasion of Europe. There was no gunfire this time, but active resistance from other partners at Goldman and a chilly reception from London firms. But as in the domestic expansion, time and hard work won over the skeptics, and Whitehead proudly called Goldman the first truly international investment banking firm. After a full career at Goldman Sachs, he was asked by President Reagan to be Deputy Secretary of State. In that role, his effort to cultivate direct and individual relations with Eastern European countries was an important element in ending the Cold War. “It was one of the great honors of my life to be admitted to John’s friendship,” said Kissinger in his eulogy. “I met John when, in the last days of the Ford administration, he tried to convince me to join Goldman Sachs as a partner. I told him that I did not know enough about investment banking. Persuaded of my incapacity to value opportunity, John settled on friendship.” Kissinger said he agreed to teach Whitehead diplomacy, while Whitehead taught him economics. “This arrangement stood until John became Deputy Secretary of State under President Reagan — a job which he interpreted as an opportunity to fulfill his lifetime commitment to  |  Spring 2015  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  21