It’s Good to Be Michael Lewis

October 3rd, 2011

New York Magazine
By Jessica Pressler
October 2, 2011

Collins Tuohy
has told this story before, and by now her delivery is spot on. It was Thanksgiving morning, and her family were on their way to pick up breakfast. “Because in our household,” she says in her Memphis drawl, and pauses for emphasis. “My mother thinks that if we go and get food.” Dramatic pause. “And bring it back to our house.” Another pause. “Then it counts as home cooking.”

The audience laughs as Collins, a twentysomething Kappa Delta in a leopard-print dress and heels that bring her a good four inches closer to God, shakes her head affectionately at her parents, Leigh Anne and Sean, who are sitting next to her onstage at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Then her story turns serious. As they were driving, they spotted a boy from Collins’s school walking down the street, unseasonably clad in shorts and a T-shirt. Leigh Anne asked her husband to pull over.

You probably know the rest. So did the thousand or so salespeople that diamond manufacturer Hearts on Fire had invited to hear the Tuohys speak during its annual seminar. At this point, practically everyone with eyes has seen the movie The Blind Side, which tells the story of how the Tuohys adopted that boy, Michael Oher, and transformed him, by the grace of Jesus and with the help of cash from Sean’s fast-food franchises, from almost-certain lost cause to millionaire NFL star.

Oher’s story might never have been told outside Memphis if Sean Tuohy’s high-school classmate Michael Lewis hadn’t happened into town soon after that Thanksgiving Day to talk to his old friend for a story he was working on about their high-school baseball coach. Lewis watched as Collins, her brother, Sean Junior, and a six-foot-four, 350-pound mystery streamed in and out of the house and quietly wondered what the hell was going on.

When they were done talking, Sean Tuohy escorted Lewis to the door. “Well, I hope another 25 years doesn’t go by,” he said.

Lewis paused in the entryway. “You’re really going to let me out of here without telling me who the black kid is?” he asked.

Collins Tuohy hasn’t actually read the book that Lewis subsequently wrote about her family and that served as the basis of the movie. She doesn’t need to, she says, and not just because she “lived it,” as she puts it, but because the story has taken on a life of its own. Last year, the Tuohys published another book, In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving, followed in February by Oher’s own memoir, I Beat the Odds. Leigh Anne, who was an interior decorator before she became professionally herself, has appeared on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, is developing a reality show about at-risk children, and has become good friends with Sandra Bullock, who played her in the movie. “I could eat him with a spoon,” she told People, of the actress’s own recently adopted child.

“But it was Michael Lewis,” Sean reminds the crowd at the Aria, “who got the ball rolling. And he has a new movie coming out, Moneyball—”

“Oh, don’t plug him,” Leigh Anne interrupts good-naturedly. “He’s made plenty of money off us.” Big laughs from the crowd—she has a point. But so does Sean. Without The Blind Side, the Tuohys would be a family of local saints; with it, they are something like national heroes, touring the country from speaking engagement to speaking engagement on a kind of paid victory lap. They may be the most enterprising beneficiaries of a phenomenon now so common it deserves to be called the Michael Lewis Effect—the way the author makes his subjects into celebrities just by writing about them, endowing obscure figures with major profiles, intellectual prestige, even earning power.

“He changed my life,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane had told me the day before, bouncing through the Oakland Coliseum on a golf cart between his own press appearances for the movie Moneyball, adapted from Lewis’s baseball book turned management manifesto. Beane had been a backroom-style executive in a forgettable market—a pretty good gig if you like baseball, but nothing that would get you recognized in the street—before Lewis’s 2003 Moneyball proclaimed him a genius for his team’s use of sabermetrics, an arcane statistical method of evaluating players. The book, which sold over a million copies, changed the way baseball was played, made “Moneyball” a shorthand term for data-­driven innovation in any field, and turned Beane himself into a savant legend well outside of baseball circles. Though he’s still not quite as well known as the guy who sneaks up behind him and slaps him on the back as Beane walks to his next interview. “Hey, man,” says a familiar voice. That would be Brad Pitt, who plays him in the movie.

“Michael does this over and over again,” says Don Epstein, the agent who handles Lewis’s speaking engagements, which are plentiful and remunerative. Epstein also handles Lewis’s remarkable spillover: When Lewis does a book, he often puts the people he writes about in touch with Epstein, because, inevitably, they are going to need an agent, too. Even supporting characters are in demand: Epstein books for Paul DePodesta, Moneyball’s number-crunching straight man; Susan “Miss Sue” Mitchell, who tutored Michael Oher in The Blind Side; and Meredith Whitney, the financial analyst whose early warnings about subprime debt were highlighted in Lewis’s financial-crisis narrative The Big Short. “It’s almost like he stamps his own brand on you by writing about you,” says Whitney.

Lewis is often referred to as a business writer, and this is sort of true, in that his narratives usually focus on some kind of market, be it for bonds or baseball players. But he’s a business writer only in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell is a business writer. What most interests him are people and how they behave. He tends to favor stories about mavericks—like the Tuohys, Beane, Whitney, and Steve Eisman, the eccentric short-seller star of The Big Short—smart people who identify gaps of logic and market inefficiencies, and take advantage of them.

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