After having just spent several days poring over the submissions to the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue, I am once again impressed by many of the short stories that transport me to a different place, time, or state of mind and do so in a reasonable and efficient way.
To me that’s the great challenge of writing fiction, when you have an unlimited horizon to consider. Writing a nonfiction piece — circumscribed by the facts uncovered by your reporting — ought to be that much easier. But even then nonfiction has its challenges. Last week I wrote a column on Princeton people mentioned in the NJ Biz list of 50 wealthiest New Jerseyans, and I blew it. I tried to cover too much territory, and I did not navigate it in an efficient way.
I began last week’s column blathering about the NJ Biz list — how it was constructed, celebrity references, and then our neighbors on the list. As I wrote, the most intriguing person was the man at No. 3, Andrew Shechtel, the 55-year-old principal in TGS Management at 33 Witherspoon Street, a fund manager who might be worth around $5 billion, according to NJ Biz, or much less than that, because of his vast amount of philanthropy in the last decade or so.
The story of Shechtel’s philanthropy — documented in a 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek article — was the grist for the second half of last week’s column. And that’s where I fell short as a story teller: I simply bit off more than I could chew. If I had been at my A game, I would have written that column up to the point where I introduced Shechtel, and then said simply, “to be continued.”
So that’s what I am doing now, except I hope to manage expectations better. Since Shechtel has gone to great lengths to keep himself out of the public eye, I am only going to present the obvious story lines here. Some other story teller will have to pursue the details.
The origins of the Shechtel fortune. TGS grew out of Princeton Newport Partners, a story in itself: It began with Edward Thorp, a math professor and recreational gambler who devised a system for counting cards at blackjack. In 1969, after becoming a persona non grata in Nevada, Thorp started Princeton Newport, the world’s first quantitative hedge fund. Thorp and his computer nerds ground out code at the firm’s Newport Beach office. In Princeton, meanwhile, James Regan, a Dartmouth alumnus and stockbroker, carried out the trades that made everyone (in their circle) rich.
After the dramatic raid of the firm’s Witherspoon Street headquarters in 1987, Regan and four others were convicted on racketeering and tax-fraud charges. In 1989 a federal judge sentenced Regan to a prison term of six months and the others to terms of three months. In 1991 a federal appeals court — by a two to one margin — overturned the racketeering convictions.
By that time Princeton Newport was defunct. Shechtel, who had entered Johns Hopkins at the age of 16, majored in math and politics, and later attended Harvard Business School before joining Princeton Newport, was not involved in the charges. He and two other partners picked up the pieces and founded TGS.
Regan and several of the other principals eventually regrouped and now work at Harbourton Enterprises at 47 Hulfish Street. Their phoenix-from-ashes story could be just as dramatic as Shechtel’s.
Does Shechtel deserve his anonymity? There’s no argument that the Shechtel story has a gossip-like appeal to it. But as columnist Rick Cohen asked in the trade journal, Nonprofit Quarterly, “should wealthy people be permitted to donate anonymously and, like Shechtel and his partners, through layers of companies and lawyers that frustrate notions of public disclosure and review? Doesn’t the public deserve to know who is controlling the distribution of hundreds of millions or perhaps even billions of tax-exempt dollars, setting their individual priorities, good or bad, over the use of funds that were it not for the tax exemption would have been in federal tax coffers?
“We are not talking about the donations of average Americans. These are charitable endowments controlled by people whose resources are so large that they can dictate — without much public review — priorities for or against specific issues.”
Why Huntington’s Disease? About 30,000 people in the U.S. have the disease (a fatal genetic disorder), with another 200,000 at risk of inheriting it (if one of your parents had it, you have a 50 percent chance of getting it). In my experience the people who embrace a single philanthropic goal with such tenacity usually have some personal stake in the outcome. I would not be surprised to discover that someone close to Shechtel has been affected by the disease. And if Shechtel acknowledged a personal interest but asked for privacy regarding the details, I would respect that request.
But what if Shechtel has another motive? What if he and his nerdy friends from the early days of Princeton Newport have a suspicion that the underlying cure for Huntington’s will also be the key to unlocking, say, a cure for cancer, using an approach being developed by a for-profit company backed by TGS?
That’s bizarre, of course, the stuff of fiction. It would be like someone parlaying a blackjack strategy into a billion dollar financial venture. Could truth be stranger than fiction? To be continued.