A Global Life by James Wolfensohn

by |November 1, 2010
Citizen Kane is often cited as one of the grea...

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Compared with love stories and spy thrillers, we don’t get a lot of movies about business. OK, before you say The Social Network or Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps, for every one Citizen Kane, Network or Tin Men there are ten Gone with the Winds, Eat Pray Loves or Avatars. Of course, we know that the machinations of high finance, and the nexus between financial power and political power makes for engrossing reading material. Only a couple of months ago, Jed Rubenfeld wowed everyone with his politico-romantic-historical-espionage-finance thriller The Death Instinct, which just about covers all the bases in the great-read department.

Wolfensohn (left) with U.S. President George W...

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Oftentimes however, fact is most interesting than fiction, and so it is with the life of James (Jim) Wolfensohn. So memo to script writers and would be movie directors: If you are looking for a story to tell, and an Australian one at that, you would have to search long and hard to come up with one more interesting than Jim’s life at the centre of global financial and political power. Remember you heard it from me first.

Jim Wolfensohn was in Australia for a couple of days last week promoting his autobiography, A Global Life. He is a charming, urbane, funny man, with an interesting mix of self-deprecation and the kind of arrogance borne of a life time of hard work and public success.

SAINT PETERSBURG. Meeting with President of th...

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Like  just about everyone in the room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney on Thursday, economics editor of  The Australian, Michael Stutchbury is clearly fascinated by the man.

“How do you make a James Wolfensohn? How does a short, fat boy born to struggling immigrants during the 1930s Depression and who failed his final high school exam go on to represent Australia in fencing at the Olympics, have a stellar finance career on both sides of the Atlantic, play the cello at Carnegie Hall for his 50th birthday, then run the World Bank for a decade while amassing a galaxy of friends and contacts among the international business, political and artistic elite?”, he asks. His explanation, is of course, mandatory reading.

In a room full of what used to be the elite of Australian business and social power (representing  the links he forged with  family, friends and associates from the time before he left to stride the world stage), Wolfensohn quickly moved from the glittering side of his presidency of the World Bank, his long association with Carnegie Hall, private sector philanthropy and even his role as a middle east peace negotiator to his real obsession – namely the increasing disparity between rich and poor, development and underdevelopment and the shift in global power to China and India, a shift that we in Australia are poorly equipped to capitalise on.

Of course, we all know that the memoirs of Dannii Minogue and Russell Brand will outsell our Jim in spades, and yes, Keith Richards’ one is a shoe-in by the simple virtue that he can still (apparently) put a sentence together, but for a true Australian story of a man of substance, who has been at the very centre of power for most of his life, A Global Life is absolutely engrossing.

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