The political significance of Michael Milken’s junk-bond insurrection was not obvious to the world outside Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, where his Drexel Burnham Lambert high-yield—that is, junk-bond—department operated, until he decided to take over M&A. That was in the mid-’80s. Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, Milken built his sales and trading operation with intense, monomaniacal energy and did it outside the public eye. He saw no need for the press. He was, to an extraordinary extent, a furtive creature of the markets, not a public figure. He was a control freak, a workaholic, and still young, at 39, in 1985. He was a man who kept his information close, including a few items that probably weren’t secrets to his colleagues, like his toupee, which he donned in his twenties. All that ended with Drexel’s decision to join the takeover wars in 1985.
Milken had grown up, the son of an accountant, in Southern California, and like a character from Ozzie and Harriet—a common reference in Milken profiles—he was a high school cheerleader (Sally Field was on the squad, too) and prom chairman and he worked in a diner. He neither smoked nor drank nor indulged in recreational drugs nor sipped caffeinated or carbonated beverages. He attended the University of California at Berkeley during the free-speech movement, joined a fraternity, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, then went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, graduating in 1970. He appeared untouched by political events: he was a finance junkie, which in those days was a more unusual preoccupation than it is today. At Berkeley or Wharton—accounts vary—he stumbled across, like Joseph Smith in the New York woods, his golden plates: bond studies going back to 1900 by W. Braddock Hickman, an economist at Princeton and Rutgers universities.