Buddy Fletcher: Financial Genius — or a Fake?
EVEN IN THE DAKOTA, the storied apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side, home to such cultural icons as Yoko Ono and Lauren Bacall, Buddy Fletcher stood out. African American, fantastically accomplished, and wealthy, Fletcher had grown up in modest circumstances, gone to Harvard, and graduated as “first marshal” of his class in 1987. From there he hit Wall Street, earned millions before he turned 25, and started his own firm, Fletcher Asset Management. By the time he was 30, the company was operating as a hedge fund and boasting of triple-digit returns. Fletcher made multimillion-dollar donations to Harvard, and gave away millions more to museums, arts groups, and civil rights causes.
BusinessWeek and the New Yorker, among many other publications, wrote glowing profiles, and in 2009 Forbes named him one of the country’s 20 richest African Americans. With a net worth of $150 million, Fletcher was just a few spots down the list from Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Tiger Woods.
Fletcher dressed in a Gatsby-esque cavalcade of beautifully tailored suits and traveled around Manhattan in a Bentley driven by his full-time chauffeur. He bought a $5.9 million castle in upstate Connecticut. In New York, he rented offices for his hedge fund at the top of the GM Building on Fifth Avenue. There, rising 48 floors from the southeast corner of Central Park, he could gaze down upon the city in every direction.
Then there was his home, Apartment 52 at the Dakota, which, as the New Yorker put it, was “decorated with the apparent intention of recreating, as nearly as possible, the fusty, woody interior of the Harvard Club.” That was just one of four Dakota residences Fletcher had purchased over the course of two decades. In addition to two apartments for himself, he’d bought one for his mother and another for his employees to use.
Then, at the beginning of 2010, Fletcher informed the building’s board that he intended to buy still another Dakota residence. The owner of Apartment 50 had passed away, and Fletcher was ready to write a $5.7 million check for the two-bedroom.
As others had before, the members of the Dakota board — themselves mostly high-powered financial types — examined Fletcher’s financial statement, including an assessment of his net worth and records from his hedge fund. It was all standard operating procedure — but then the board came back with an answer Fletcher did not expect: no. Fletcher, the board said, could not afford to buy another apartment. In fact, it couldn’t say for sure how he was paying for the other four.
Buddy Fletcher, according to his neighbors in the Dakota, wasn’t the wealthy investor he appeared to be, but the head of a financially opaque hedge fund who was struggling to pay his bills. The news traveled fast to Cambridge, where the question was nervously asked: Was one of Harvard’s highest-profile philanthropists not what he seemed?
Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. — he got the nickname as a little kid — and his younger brothers, Geoffrey and Todd, grew up middle-class in Waterford, Connecticut. His father, Alphonse Sr., originally from Louisiana, worked as a technician at the Electric Boat submarine-making factory in nearby Groton. His mother, Bettye, was a public school principal and administrator. Firm believers in education and hard work, they couldn’t have been prouder when Buddy got into Harvard.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux