Darien’s Lee recalled as ‘shining star’
Published 5:53 pm, Tuesday, June 23, 2015
NEW YORK — James B. Lee Jr., a towering figure on Wall Street, was remembered at his funeral Mass on Monday as a father, a friend and an investment banker possessed of boundless energy, sprawling interests and a crackling wit, qualities that made him one of the most successful and beloved figures in his industry.
The service, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan, was just blocks from where Lee worked as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase. There, he shaped corporate America, and the nation’s biggest bank, through a career that established him as perhaps the pre-eminent deal maker of his generation.
Honorary ushers in attendance included Michael R. Bloomberg; media mogul Barry Diller; Roger Goodell, the National Football League commissioner; the chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey R. Immelt; television host Charlie Rose; and Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the private equity firm Blackstone.
Lee, known to everyone in the financial world as Jimmy, died on June 17 after he collapsed while exercising at his home in Darien. He was 62. His sudden death leaves JPMorgan without one of its best-known personalities, and a rainmaker responsible for securing some of the bank’s most prominent deals.
After graduating from Williams College — which he supported and championed through the years — Lee began working at Chemical Bank in 1975. As the banking industry consolidated, Lee rose through the ranks through a succession of mergers. In 2000, he became vice chairman at JPMorgan Chase.
The Fire Department of New York bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” to begin the Mass on a sunny first full day of summer, and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan presided over the funeral Mass amid the scaffolding erected inside St. Patrick’s, which is in the midst of a substantial restoration.
“In business, you were brilliant, a shining star, one of the best we’ve seen,” JPMorgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, said in delivering the first eulogy. “You were a nuclear power, a sun of positive energy, you had unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. Your deal-making was legendary. You were simply a huge influence on the success of so many of us.”
Dimon choked up as he recounted how Lee had supported him when he battled throat cancer last summer. Lee came into his office every day, gave him a hug and whispered into his ear, “You know, I love you like a brother,” Dimon recalled.
Lee was remembered as much for his dedication and love for his family, and especially his grandchildren, as he was for his business successes.
Lee’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, known as Izzy, shed tears while reading from Ecclesiastes 3, a passage that Lee sent her when she was upset over the death of a friend. Lee’s older daughter, Alexandra, known as Lexi, read a passage on sudden loss from the Book of Wisdom.
Lee’s only son, James, was visibly moved. His father had served as the best man at his wedding. Among the touching moments James recalled was how his father left notes for his children before catching the 5 a.m. train to work each morning. And other less serious times involved practicing guitar for performances with his rock band of JPMorgan employees, called the Bank Notes.
“He was a star, he was a superstar, and he went out at the top of his game,” the younger Lee said.
Lee pioneered the syndicated loan market — in which multiple banks cooperate to lend money to a single client to finance a major transaction. This innovation allowed Lee to become the go-to financier for corporate chieftains looking to strike transformative multibillion-dollar deals as well as for private equity heads seeking leverage for their big debt-laden buyouts of public companies.
And even though many on Wall Street nowadays aim to appear humble after the financial crisis, Lee remained unapologetically a brash investment banker, wearing slicked-back hair, blue shirts with white collars and chunky cuff links.
“I’m sure that the Lord is, as we speak, adjusting to this new force of nature in heaven,” Dimon said. “You’re probably asking why it took six days to create the Earth, and was it absolutely necessary to rest on the seventh. And I’m sure you think heaven would be a little more effective, if they merged some of the various religions.”
Lee possessed a powerful intellect and a deep understanding of the financial world’s mechanics, but was also known to over clients with showy displays, buying hoodies for the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a Corvette to demonstrate his loyalty to General Motors.
Among his recent work was leading JPMorgan’s involvement in Alibaba’s $22 billion initial public offering, and counseling General Electric in its disposal of its finance arm. In recent years, he also helped United Airlines acquire Continental, General Electric sell NBC Universal to Comcast, and News Corp. acquire Dow Jones.
“They never said that he was soft, or he was easy or he was someone people could bamboozle,” said the Rev. Robert T. Ritchie, who knew the Lee family well. “He was determined. He was dogged. He was organized.”
Lee was also remembered for as a generous spirit who championed diverse causes, not just his alma mater, but also underprivileged youths, and emergency and military personnel.
“When you come for judgment, God is not going to ask you ‘What was your position at JPMorgan, what was your bank account like, did you give money to your church?’” Ritchie asked.
St. Patrick’s recently was scene of the funeral Mass for Cardinal Edward M. Egan. Other notables who have been remembered in the grand gothic cathedral include Babe Ruth, Robert F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol.
“This is where we New Yorkers come, Catholics and all faiths, in moments of loss and difficulty and heartache,” Dolan said. “So you are all very much at home here this morning.”
Dolan said he last saw Lee on Ash Wednesday, when he had visited at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “What do we say?” Dolan said. “We are dust, and to dust we return.”