BY JAMES GRANT
Louis Rukeyser, the exquisitely tailored and pun-loving television host who helped millions of Americans believe that they could get rich in the stock market, or at least begin to understand it, died yesterday at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 73.
He died of multiple myeloma, said his brother Bud Rukeyser.
When "Wall Street Week" was broadcast for the first time on Nov. 20, 1970, probably nobody, not even the always self-assured Mr. Rukeyser, dreamed that the show would run for 32 years while attracting the biggest audience on public television and making its host a celebrity in the improbable field of light-hearted, free-market-oriented financial commentary. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was then languishing, and the population of American mutual funds numbered a scant 323.
And though the Dow continued to languish (not until 1982 did it push above 1,000, a mark it had first set in 1966), "Wall Street Week" prospered. "I invented the job of economic commentary on television," Mr. Rukeyser said in 1980. He was already well along in inventing the medium of investment broadcasting.
"Fridays at 8:30 find me — amply fed, digestive organs ruminating contentedly to the rhythmic sloshing of martini juice — sitting in my Louis Quinze armchair awaiting another installment of 'Wall Street Week,' " wrote Russell Baker in The New York Times at the beginning of the show's second decade. "By 8:33 my mind is reeling so wildly with gyrations of the Dow Jones average and the pinwheeling of money funds, Treasury bills and gold markets that I often require a calming infusion of brandy."
The show attained its biggest audience, some six million viewers, in the mid-1980's.
Mr. Rukeyser, though he prodded the financial gurus who appeared on the program to forecast the stock market (the rosier the outlook, the better he liked it, as a rule), he usually kept his own predictive counsel.
But when, in 1980, he uncharacteristically ventured part way out on a limb — "I think we have entered the decade of the common stock," he said — he proved only partly correct. In fact, the market had embarked on a nearly two-decade up-cycle, and Mr. Rukeyser was started on his own professional bull market.
"Wall Street Week" had as its point of origin not the beating heart of American finance in Lower Manhattan but the leafy Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, Md. The show was the brainchild of Anne Truax Darlington, a producer with Maryland Public Broadcasting, and the original corps of panelists was recruited from the Baltimore financial community, not previously noted for its telegenic possibilities.
Mr. Rukeyser's supporting cast members (later augmented by experts from outside Baltimore) became little celebrities in their own right. "I get recognized in bus lines," one long-serving panelist, Monte Gordon, remarked in 1990. "I get recognized when I'm eating in restaurants. There's a lot of psychic satisfaction to being on the show."
There was money at stake, too. The value of an appearance on "Wall Street Week" to each week's "special guest"— mutual-fund portfolio manager, bank trust officer, economist — climbed as the bull stock market went higher and higher.
"So how badly do people want to get on?" The Times asked a New York publicist, Len Kessler, in 1990. "It's spelled k-i-l-l," said Mr. Kessler.
Louis Richard Rukeyser was second of four sons of the financial journalist Merryle S. Rukeyser, who wrote a syndicated column in the Hearst newspapers.
Louis Rukeyser graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University in 1954. He took a reporting job at The Baltimore Sun and, within five years, was made London bureau chief, an unusually swift rise through the newsroom ranks. He joined ABC News in 1965 as a correspondent and commentator. Not until 1973 did he judge it safe to quit his day job for a still-unproven "Wall Street Week."
It was a decision that he never regretted. After 20 years on the air, Mr. Rukeyser was earning $300,000 a year from the show and $1 million or more in annual speaking income, each speech bearing the same title, "What's Ahead for the Economy" — the echo of the title of a book he wrote for Simon & Schuster in 1983.
He produced, in addition, a thrice-weekly newspaper column and a book on investing ("How to Make Money in Wall Street," Doubleday, 1974). Later he added a pair of newsletters, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street and Louis Rukeyser's Mutual Funds. He flew first class, loved to gamble, slept in the best and gaudiest suites in the finest hotels and dressed every inch the sybarite he was. In 1991, The Fashion Foundation of America pronounced him the "best-dressed man in finance."
The host of "Wall Street Week" ("with Louis Rukeyser," he never failed to add to the show's title) and self-described champion of the "little guy" could be openly contemptuous of professional investors, a sentiment many of them warmly reciprocated. Mr. Rukeyser reserved his most withering scorn for the "gloomy Guses" and "Wrong-Way Corrigans" who warned of financial troubles that, during the prosperous 1990's, never transpired.
An eternal bull on the stock market, the more bullish, and less tolerant of dissenting bears he became, the higher the averages climbed. On the program of Nov. 5, 1999, Mr. Rukeyser announced the firing of the veteran panelist Gail Dudak for her 156 consecutive weeks of bearishly errant forecasting. Ms. Dudak heard the news from her neighbors the next morning. The stock market peaked four months later.
Though "Wall Street Week" never fell from the top of the heap of TV financial programs (a pile that owed much of its impressive height to Mr. Rukeyser's success), viewership slipped as stock prices fell and as competition from other financial media increased. In March 2002, Maryland Public TV announced that the snowy-haired Mr. Rukeyser would be eased out to make room for a youth movement led by the staff of Fortune Magazine.
Mr. Rukeyser would have none of it. "I want you to rise up out of your chairs," he summoned his viewers from the set of "Wall Street Week' the next Friday evening, "not to shout, 'I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!' but," he added, to "write or e-mail your local PBS station saying you heard Louis Rukeyser is still going to have a program and that you'd like to see it."
Mr. Rukeyser was fired. But he quickly re-established the show at CNBC. He took pride in his new success and glee in the spectacle of Maryland Public Broadcasting suffering a forced retrenchment as his sponsors decamped from public television with him. (The Fortune version of "Wall Street Week" was canceled in 2005.)
Failing health forced Mr. Rukeyser off the air in 2003. He was presented with the Gerald Loeb Lifetime Achievement Emmy for Business and Financial Reporting in 2004.
Besides his brother Bud, of West Palm Beach, Fla., he is survived by his wife, Alexandra; three daughters, Beverley Bellisio of Middletown, Conn., Susan Rukeyser of Amarillo, Tex., and Stacy Rukeyser of West Hollywood, Calif.; two grandchildren; and two other brothers, William S., of Knoxville, Tenn., and Robert, of Greenwich.
One cost of celebrity for Mr. Rukeyser was the jibes he would have to bear while indulging his fondness for casino gambling. No sooner had he settled into a blackjack game, he once recalled, than someone would ask him if the odds at the table were really better than those on Wall Street.
James Grant was a panelist on "Wall Street Week" for 10 years, beginning in 1988.