(Bloomberg) — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg spent some of his 90th birthday party like he’s spent much of the past decade: angry.
As he addressed his family at a lunch at a private estate this month, one of his sons made another laugh. Then their sister cracked up. Greenberg told her to leave if she couldn’t keep it down.
“It got held onto for the rest of the day, so that when we were leaving he still gave me grief about it,” his daughter, Cathleen London, a 52-year-old family physician, said a day later. “I said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Greenberg, who built American International Group Inc. into the world’s largest insurer, doesn’t let go easily. A decade after losing control of the company, he’s waging one of Wall Street’s longest and most expensive wars for redemption.
That means trying to build up another insurance business while fighting claims that he’s responsible for sham transactions, suing former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for defamation and taking the federal government to court, saying the 2008 bailout that rescued AIG cheated shareholders out of at least $23 billion.
Winning at least one of those fights isn’t as improbable as it once seemed. As the U.S. trial got under way last year, Credit Suisse Group AG analysts put his chances of winning at 1 in 10 and the New Yorker described him as “a dogged old coot.” The bank boosted odds to about 1 in 3 after his lawyer David Boies, who has represented Al Gore and Philip Morris, hauled Ben S. Bernanke, Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner to the witness stand and wrapped up closing arguments last month.
Trim and fit in his Park Avenue office this month, a waist- high hourglass across from his desk, he didn’t want to answer questions about the case, his company, himself or turning 90. “I was no different the night before, the day before, the week before, the month before,” Greenberg said.
When asked if he’s mellowed with age, he set his jaw, locked his eyes straight ahead and said the interview should end. “You have no idea the things that I’m thinking about,” he said. “All I’m going to do next and the year after that and the year after that, that’s none of your business. You’ll see it when it happens.”
From his New York office, Greenberg oversees a group of insurance and investment businesses known as Starr Cos., whose assets of $15.3 billion at the end of 2014 were about a 30th of AIG’s. Visitors are greeted by a security director who wears a horseshoe mustache and introduces himself as Harry.
There’s a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a photo of an exploding bomb and 11 security video feeds at his workstation. While classical music played, he demonstrated how to twist the skin over the pectoral muscle in combat. Down the hall, outside Greenberg’s office, a smaller hourglass sits on his assistant’s desk.
A few days after the family birthday party, Henry Kissinger, who’s 92, toasted Greenberg at a dinner at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“I have one piece of advice to the younger people here,” Richard Nixon’s secretary of state told revelers, he recalled a week later. “It is less painful to give Hank Greenberg what he wants than to resist.”
Greenberg got what he wanted throughout most of his life, according to his 2013 memoir, “The AIG Story.” It opens with his return from the Korean War, when he tells an insurance executive that his underling is a jerk and is rewarded with a job. The government is an enemy by paragraph three, he threatens a rival by page 10 and he’s boss by AIG’s 1969 public offering.
His description of what comes next reads like a pulpy spy novel. As AIG expands into China and the Soviet Union and offers insurance for kidnapping and a secret satellite, Greenberg slays a Hungarian stag, outfoxes Mikhail Gorbachev, yells at Ferdinand Marcos and rescues a jailed colleague accused by Iran of spying.
Even that freed colleague calls Greenberg stubborn. “Hank is not an easy man to work for,” K.C. Shabani said this month while praising his drive. “Very rude to me, almost abrasive.”
Jeff Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management and a friend of Greenberg’s, brought up Siddhartha, Odysseus, Nietzsche, Moses and Job to describe him. Greenberg’s own book gets biblical when it says his “wrath befell those who delayed or deceived.”
By 1998, AIG’s market value was more than $90 billion. Not only did it sell life and property-and-casualty insurance, it had a top performer called AIG Financial Products starting to sell credit-default swaps, derivatives that allow bond investors to protect against or bet on losses.