Feeding the Wolves

Sara Tirschwell accused her Wall Street boss of misconduct, but that was just the beginning of her troubles.

Photo: KHOLOOD EID/The New York Times/Redux Pictures
Photo: KHOLOOD EID/The New York Times/Redux Pictures

Sara Tirschwell stood in the elevator of her apartment building, an elegant redbrick co-op a few blocks east of Central Park. She was headed to a law firm’s cocktail party, where she hoped one of the people in the room might spark the connection that would lead to her getting a job. This sort of networking event had once been the 54-year-old hedge-fund professional’s bread and butter, and she used to relish the thrill of working a room. But things were different now. Since the firing, there had been only bad days and really bad days. Today was one of the really bad days.

This was in June 2019, a year and a half into the legal battle that has consumed her life. Since then, she has spent countless hours meeting with lawyers, providing depositions, and rehashing the hellish — and hotly contested — chain of events that led to her being ostracized from her field. With her finger on the down button, she thought about all the questions about the lawsuit she would have to answer, all the forced enthusiasm and fake smiles. “What if somebody asks me a question and I totally break down?” she said. “That is something I just can’t do.” She walked back to her apartment, slipped off her white dress and heels, and curled up on the couch to watch The Hateful Eight, the bloodthirsty Quentin Tarantino drama about a roomful of men and one woman, each waiting to put a bullet in everyone else’s back.

On December 14, 2017, Tirschwell was fired from her job at TCW, the $200 billion asset-management firm where she had been brought on to manage and launch a distressed-debt offering, one of the first of its kind helmed by a woman. Tirschwell claims that she was repeatedly coerced into sex by her boss, Jess Ravich, and that the firing was “retaliation” for filing an HR complaint against him. A month after her firing, Tirschwell filed a lawsuit against Ravich and TCW alleging retaliation, gender discrimination, and breach of contract and asking for $30 million in damages. These sorts of complaints are typically handled with hush-hush settlement agreements, yet Ravich and TCW have opted not to settle quietly. Ravich denies any sexual contact occurred while he and Tirschwell worked together at TCW, and he and TCW deny that they retailated or discriminated against her.

Now Ravich, Tirschwell, and TCW are in the midst of a long and messy discovery process with a trial date yet to be scheduled. If the case does go to trial, it will be the first major Wall Street #MeToo-era battle to see the inside of a courtroom. And yet unlike similar stories emerging from the media and entertainment worlds, the Tirschwell case hasn’t set off Wall Street’s own #MeToo reckoning. In part, this is because Tirschwell and Ravich had dated years earlier. Her claims that she “reluctantly acquiesced” to Ravich’s sexual advances, instead of being physically forced into sex, have made it difficult for some of their peers on Wall Street to see this as a case of workplace abuse as opposed to an alleged affair between two consenting adults (even if one of the adults was the other’s supervisor). Many of the people I spoke with who were sympathetic to Tirschwell still seemed to view it mostly as an office romance gone wrong and refused to be quoted on the record. Ambiguity has always been the enemy of sexual-misconduct cases, and few want to litigate a he-said-she-said. Yet Tirschwell has pressed forward, putting her reputation and livelihood on the line.

“I understand why people don’t understand,” said Tirschwell during a conversation at Aquavit in midtown. “It’s hard for me to understand how someone I had a relationship with treated me like that,” she added. Still, “how could people in my industry have trouble understanding that there are a ton of men in finance that are powerful and controlling and love to be master puppeteers? And that, in his case, he used his power to get what he wanted because he thought that I owed him?”

Over the past three decades, Sara Tirschwell has made a name for herself as one of the few successful female investors in one of the most ruthless corners of the finance world. Distressed-debt investors, or vulture investors, buy up the bargain-rate debt of companies facing bankruptcy, then often become active participants in restructuring the companies they invest in. It takes a certain type of tenacious and contrarian personality to wade into a bankruptcy proceeding. As Hilary Rosenberg writes in The Vulture Investors, distressed-debt investors combine a “fascinating mix of intellect and chutzpah … willing to fly head-long against a blizzard of prevailing opinion.” Knowledge of law and business are key, as are skilled negotiating tactics and sharp analytical and problem-solving skills.

Tirschwell grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her mom died when she was 4, and she was raised by her father. She learned to develop a thick skin. “My psychotherapist says that I am the best compartmentalizer she’s ever met,” she told me. “She says I compartmentalize things so much that I can’t even access them.” After earning an undergraduate degree in economics from Rice University in 1987, she made her way to New York, where she soon became a specialist in distressed-bank-loan trading. “I knew I had found my passion,” she said. “It’s like the whole world made sense to me.”

Tirschwell worked for 11 years at the $30 billion hedge fund Davidson Kempner; by the end of her tenure, she was a managing director specializing in distressed investing. These deals are all about relationships, building connections and trust between parties with competing financial interests. On a daily basis, she was interfacing not just with her colleagues but with bankers and lawyers, companies and creditors.

According to Tirschwell, she was usually the only senior woman (if not the only woman) on a deal, and sometimes men outside of her firm misread her professional relationship building for something more. “They spend a lot of time with you, and they’re like, ‘Maybe she doesn’t just want to work on the deal with me; maybe she likes me.’ And then, next thing you know, they’re planting a kiss on you,” said Tirschwell with the nonchalance of someone well versed in fending off advances. “You try to make a joke out of it, so that nobody is so embarrassed that they feel like they have to avoid you, because you need them to work with you,” she added.

“Some men felt like they were entitled to more than just a professional relationship,” affirmed a woman who worked in the industry with Tirschwell who said she too received sexual advances from people she was working with. “If you didn’t laugh at the jokes and smile, if you spoke up, you got slapped on the wrist or were looked at differently.” She said she personally knows “a handful” of women who have left jobs on Wall Street because of sexual harassment.

When she wasn’t working, Tirschwell and her two daughters often embarked on intense physical adventures. In 2014, she and her eldest daughter, Katie, climbed Kilimanjaro on a trip with a group of Tirschwell’s industry peers; Tirschwell and Katie were the only mother-daughter duo on a trip full of dads and sons. “At times I wished I had more of a mommy who would hug me and comfort me and stuff like that,” said Katie. “And I did get that from her. But a lot of the time she wanted to raise us to be pioneers just like her, self-sufficient and independent women.”

In 2012, Tirschwell began a long-distance relationship with Ravich, a prominent Wall Street executive on the West Coast for whom she had worked in the mid-’90s. According to Tirschwell, Ravich sent gifts for her and her two daughters, including an iPad and tickets to New York Rangers games. Yet once they had begun to date, she said, he began to grow increasingly controlling and she realized the relationship was not going to last. She said he grew irate when she forgot to call or text him at a prearranged time. Things appeared to come to a head at a party in the fall of 2013, when Tirschwell stopped to chat with a friend after Ravich had said he wanted to leave. In email messages, he chastised her. “I have been waiting in the hall for 10 minutes. I am not the tour guide who needs to move you along. Can’t believe you stopped to chat for so long,” he wrote. “Not how I want to be treated or how I would treat someone. Am leaving.” Tirschwell responded by pointing out what she perceived to be Ravich’s control issues. “If it wasn’t this, it would have been some other small thing that made you suddenly realize how inconsiderate I am. Stop thinking you love me. That is not love,” she wrote, adding that while she would continue to be an emotional support for him, “I am never going to date you again.”

In 2014, Tirschwell began thinking about leaving Davidson Kempner and starting her own fund. She was one of the few senior women in the industry, and she had a Rolodex of powerful people who supported her. At the same time, talk began to surface in the investing community about the importance of diversity, with a number of books and articles making the case that women were actually better investors than men. Tirschwell had never really thought of herself as a feminist, but she saw the value in launching a female-owned fund. “I think a lot of [women in the industry] felt stuck,” she reflected. “They felt like they couldn’t step out and take the risk of starting their own fund. They needed to stay within the cocoon and play by the rules — the bro rules. Which is not being argumentative, not being too assertive, not getting pissed off.”

In 2015, she teamed up with an investor she’d known for years named Dan Kamensky to start a firm called Livia, which means “lioness” in Hebrew. The fund never launched. “Sara Tirschwell and Dan Kamensky lined up everything to launch a successful hedge fund, only to realize they could not work together, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters,” reads a story published at the time. Though no one was willing to speak on the record to describe the split, one source told Reuters it was “amicable.” As of this spring, Tirschwell and Kamensky were represented by the same PR firm.

After Livia proved to be a nonstarter, Tirschwell was gutted. Her big bet had not paid off. It was in 2015, with Tirschwell adrift from the failure of Livia, that Ravich threw her a life preserver. He introduced her to TCW, the multibillion-dollar asset-management fund where he was working as head of alternative products. TCW offered her the opportunity to start a distressed fund as majority owner and manager for the company.  From her perspective, TCW was supposed to take care of all the back-office and marketing support, leaving her to do what she was good at: making investments. “It sounded like the deal of a lifetime,” she recalled. Still, her close friend Ulrika Parash warned her against it. “I remember saying, ‘Sara, hang on, you know that he can’t be around you without wanting to acquire you and make you his,’” Parash recalled. “‘That’s his nature. [A man with] that kind of personality looks at something he can’t control, and it makes him want to control it even more.’”

But Tirschwell believed she and Ravich were just friends now. She had even stayed with him and his new girlfriend on a trip to Los Angeles. Plus, Tirschwell said Ravich had disclosed their prior relationship to CEO David Lippman, and, per her complaint, Lippman had told him to “keep [his] hands off of her” and that he didn’t want any “funny business.” (In court documents, Ravich affirmed disclosing the relationship to TCW but denied telling Tirschwell that Lippman had said this.) The TCW company handbook prohibits supervisors from having romantic or sexual relationships with their subordinates.

By the spring of 2016, Ravich had started sending Tirschwell flirtatious messages. In one text exchange from March 2016, after Ravich said he would get Rangers tickets for Tirschwell, he texted back, “And what do i get:).” On another occasion, in May 2016, he seemed to imply that having a houseguest was an impediment to seeing her, writing, “If scott weren’t staying over….” In the complaint she would eventually file, Tirschwell claims that, at some point in April or May 2016, she and Ravich began having sex at his apartment and that this happened seven or eight times over the next ten months under the guise of “breakfast meetings.” A text from Tirschwell to Parash on May 24, 2016, reads “Had sex w/Jess this morning.”

“I was waiting for that,” Parash responded, less than a minute later.

Tirschwell states in the complaint that Ravich “repeatedly coerced” her into sex: usually answering the door in a white terry-cloth bathrobe, boasting about favors he had done for her, such as securing a key investor, and then initiating sex with the implication that this was the price she had to pay if she wanted resources for her fund. She also claims Ravich groped her in the office. “I was furious at myself,” she recalled to me. “I thought, You have shown terrible judgment. What are you thinking? How did you get yourself into this situation?

Tirschwell said in her complaint that this went on until around early 2017, when she stopped sleeping with Ravich. While she doesn’t remember exactly how things ended, she characterized her thought process around that time as being: “I’m not playing this game anymore. My fund is up and running. That’s it.” She alleged that after February 2017, Ravich became increasingly apathetic toward her, that progress on marketing her fund stalled, and that he began putting roadblocks in her way, such as sending in another trader to sign off on all her trades. She said he also started telling her that CEO David Lippman disliked her, finding her “bitchy” and “sharp-elbowed.” In November, she claims Ravich began “pressuring [her] to negotiate a voluntary exit.” And on December 3, she said, Ravich told her that Lippman was going to let her contract lapse in February and that he could get her $700,000 severance if she left before then.

On December 5, in response to what she viewed as Ravich’s increasing retaliation attempts, Tirschwell sent an email to HR. “This is one of the most difficult letters I have ever had to write,” the email begins. “I am writing to report to Human Resources that Jess Ravich, Group Managing Director and my direct supervisor, was in a sexual relationship with me, under the guise of breakfast meetings to discuss the development of the Fund, between mid 2016 and early 2017 when I ended it. Since that time, I have been finding it has been increasingly hard for me to do my job and Jess has now advised me that the CEO purportedly wants me to leave the firm.”

TCW general counsel Meredith Jackson and head of HR Cheryl Marzano held a brief meeting with Tirschwell in which they told her they were going to hire an investigator to look into her allegations. Depositions show that they were skeptical of Tirschwell’s account, with Jackson saying, “Sara was not very credible in the complaint that she raised to us,” both because her recollections were vague and because “the timing was convenient for someone to make a complaint on their way out the door.” Nine days later, on December 14, Tirschwell was pulled into a meeting and told she would be fired.

In that meeting, Jackson told her she was fired for violating one of the firm’s compliance policies, which they allege came on top of a history of compliance violations. The company claimed she had crossed an ethical wall by sharing information with a member of another team. “Ms. Tirschwell was terminated due to serious, repeated, and documented violations of compliance and other firm policies, and we would treat any employee with a similar track record of serial violations in the same manner,” TCW said in a statement. Tirschwell told The Cut that the firm manufactured an excuse to get rid of her and that her firing was retaliation for her HR complaint.

TCW hired an independent investigator to look into Tirschwell’s claims, though this investigator’s contract wasn’t finalized until December 15 — one day after Tirschwell had been fired. TCW claims that the investigator began her work prior to the contract’s being finalized and that Tirschwell refused to participate in the investigation. (The investigation, like most aspects of the suit, has been a source of legal back-and-forth. “That ‘independent investigator’ obviously would not be ‘independent’ if it was representing TCW’s interests and serving as TCW’s counsel,” said Tirschwell’s attorneys in a filing.)

On December 27, Ravich was appointed to TCW’s board of directors. According to a deposition from board member John Redett, the board knew about the sexual-harassment case and did not discuss or consider it when deciding to appoint Ravich to a position.

Ravich wouldn’t step down from the board until almost a year later, in October 2018, after “unprofessional communications” — the text messages described above — came to light during the legal discovery process. He left the firm for good in June 2019.

When she filed suit soon after her termination, Tirschwell assumed TCW would settle. “I wanted to figure out a way for me to say something sanitized about my time at TCW, for TCW to say something sanitized about my time there, and that’s it,” she said. That was not to be. The ensuing case is a particularly dramatic example of what can happen when a #MeToo allegation gets dropped into a world like high finance, where everything is litigated to the mat and nobody likes to lose.

Both TCW and Ravich have firmly denied wrongdoing, alleging that Tirschwell failed at running her fund and fabricated the sexual-harassment complaint after learning she would be terminated. Ravich declined to speak on the record, but in June, his attorney, from the elite law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, provided a statement to the Cut. “These allegations are completely false,” the statement reads. “The documentary evidence that will be presented in court will prove the claims against me could not have happened. I never sexually harassed anyone and have always treated people with dignity and respect both in and outside of work.” Through representatives, Ravich has acknowledged meeting Tirschwell for breakfast meetings at his apartment on three occasions but has disputed the allegations from her most damning claims (he denies they had sex) down to the details (he denies owning a white terry-cloth bathrobe), painting a portrait of Tirschwell as an opportunist riding on the coattails of #MeToo.

In his statement, Ravich also denied withholding resources from Tirschwell: “As one of the seed investors in the distressed fund, it was in my financial best interest to help the fund succeed. Any claim that I withheld support for the fund is preposterous and completely illogical. I was Sara’s biggest supporter at TCW and had no role in the decision to fire her.”

TCW too denies withholding support from Tirschwell. “It’s kind of absurd to say that we would stop or stall marketing when we really wanted the product to succeed,” said a TCW executive. “Jess didn’t control marketing, and the marketers are paid on commission. So I wouldn’t understand the incentive [not to market the fund].” The company told the Cut that they hired a senior analyst and product specialist for Tirschwell’s team as late as August 2017.

Why didn’t Tirschwell tell Ravich to leave her alone? Why did she start working with her ex-boyfriend in the first place? Why didn’t she talk to HR sooner? These are the questions that haunt Tirschwell’s case and that have alienated her from her peers, many of whom refuse to come near what they view as a toxic personal situation. To Tirschwell, it comes down to what she saw as the unwritten rules of engagement in her male-dominated industry. In interviews and in her legal complaint, Tirschwell, who hasn’t been able to find a new job in her field since the firing, said that though she may not have been physically coerced, Ravich had complete power to make or break her career. Now, she told me, she’s fighting for her reputation and her principles. “I didn’t think there was a choice,” she said, her voice brimming with frustration. “I think it was just, Okay, this is what I have to do to get my fund up and running … And I stupidly thought it would be fine. I thought, When I have my fund, I’ll stop, because then I’ll have the power.”

“The other thing that went through my head is, I thought, You know what? I slept with him before, she added. “Close my eyes, it’ll be over before I know it.”

The post-Weinstein #MeToo movement is not even two years old — about as old as Tirschwell’s lawsuit — but already it seems to have been codified into some mythic narrative wherein a valiant woman goes up against a predator and wins her honor and the acclaim of others in turn. But as Tirschwell found out, it’s rarely that simple. Though she had built a career of finding her way out of tangled distress situations, nothing prepared her for how thorny her own fight would get.

Memory has been a key source of tension in the case and one of the primary ways Tirschwell’s version of events has been undermined. Tirschwell’s memories of the sexual encounters are foggy. She doesn’t remember the exact date of the first encounter. After Tirschwell spoke to the New York Times, the paper published a story that focused on holes in her memory, highlighting the fact that she said “I don’t remember” 46 times during her interview with a reporter. In our conversation, Tirschwell at one point wondered aloud whether the first time they’d slept together was in a hotel room when they were on the road, a notion that does not appear in her legal filing. “This memory did not come back to me until after we filed the lawsuit,” she told me. “And the reason the memory came back to me is because I was sitting in the conference room with my lawyers and somebody had a muffin. And all of a sudden, I look at that muffin and I was like, Oh my God. And I had this memory of being on the road with Jess and another colleague and having coffee and me ordering a muffin, which I do very rarely, and staring very intently at the muffin while I was eating it and feeling like I had something to hide from the colleague.”

As with everything in this case, if this explanation does find its way into a courtroom, it is sure to be fiercely contested, as it was in the five-page, single-spaced letter sent to the Cut and New York Magazine’s lawyers from Ravich’s attorney this month. “Mr. Ravich and Ms. Tirschwell took only one overnight out-of-town business trip (together with another TCW employee),” the letter reads. “The trip occurred before Ms. Tirschwell was either a TCW consultant or TCW employee … [and] months before Ms. Tirschwell contends the first incident took place.” (In the same letter, Ravich’s attorney calls the Cut “beyond reckless” for publishing this story at all, given Tirschwell’s “unsupported” claims.)

While Tirschwell may not remember exact dates or locations of the encounters she alleged happened three years ago, she told the Cut there are plenty of details that she does remember. During our interview, she described Ravich puffing up his chest, “half peacock, half sleazy pool player,” she said, throwing her shoulders back and jutting out her breastbone to demonstrate. She said she remembers the blue wallpaper in his apartment and the coldness of his bathroom floor, where she would go to clean herself up before walking to work, as well as the sticky sweetness of his cologne.

“You kind of feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Tirschwell reflected in frustration. “If I had texts, notes, or made recordings, everyone would’ve accused me of putting that in my back pocket and just waiting to play that card. I feel like this is exactly why women don’t come forward. If you’re not a perfect victim with a perfect story, you’re lying or you’re crazy.”

“During unwanted sexual experiences or assaults, it’s not uncommon for people’s awareness to be disconnected from body sensations,” said Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and a Harvard Medical School teaching associate. “That’s a self-protective mechanism, and it partly accounts for why people often don’t have very clear memories about unwanted sexual experiences.” Still, in a court of law and in the public eye, it’s hard to prove one way or another what happened when there aren’t firm dates to back it up. Instead, attention has turned to debating materials that do exist, like text messages, email records, and work calendars. For example, Ravich’s lawyers maintain that TCW’s work calendars rule out the possibility of any breakfast meetings beyond the three Ravich acknowledges — not the seven or eight Tirschwell describes in her complaint.

A log of emails and texts presented to the Cut show that, during two of those meetings, the longest Tirschwell and Ravich went without sending text and email messages was 14 minutes. According to the August letter from Ravich’s attorney, this leaves “no plausible period of time during which Ms. Tirschwell could have had sex as she alleges.” As for the flirty texts, a person familiar with the case suggested that neither Ravich nor Tirschwell modified the casual way they dealt with one another once she came to work for him. By this logic, it was simply an unusual employer-employee dynamic, not an abusive one.

Tirschwell, Ravich, and TCW’s lawyers have spent the past few months fighting their way through the discovery process. Tirschwell and her lawyers hope to show that it was improper for her to be fired for the compliance violations she was accused of. “They were very technical violations that nobody on Wall Street gets fired for, like jay-walking,” Tirschwell told me. A 2017 research paper analyzing gender differences in misconduct punishment in the financial-advisory industry found that women are both penalized disproportionately to their male colleagues and less likely to find jobs after allegations of misconduct.

Over the course of my reporting, I spoke to many people in the industry who held Tirschwell in high regard and who couldn’t fathom how everything could have gone south at TCW. In her deposition, TCW general counsel Meredith Jackson described how one of Tirschwell’s TCW team members who had worked with her previously at Davidson Kempner had expressed concerns about her leadership, saying “he had not seen this side of her” before. Tirschwell suggested to me that, given the stress she was under, it’s understandable why she might have failed to perform at her usual level. “Every portfolio manager at certain points has self-doubt,” she said. “But when you have your boss preying on you, it’s really hard. Nobody’s at peak performance in that situation.” She remembered that year as if she were in a fugue state, utterly disconnected from herself. “She was a different person,” recalled her friend Parash, who shared a rental house with her in summer 2017. “She was so on edge and so stressed out I was just making sure the kids were out of the house. I found myself avoiding her. I felt helpless.” Tirschwell’s daughter Katie remembered driving back home from Thanksgiving in 2017 and how absent, distracted, and upset her mother was at that time: “I just could not reach her emotionally. I was just sobbing in the front seat being like, I can’t reach you. Please come back to me. I don’t know what’s going on. I just want my mom back.”

While Tirschwell expected some blowback to the lawsuit, the extent to which she was ostracized in her industry caught her off guard. A few friends warned against her filing litigation, saying she’d never work in the industry again. “I said, ‘You’re so naïve,’” Tirschwell recalled. “‘Maybe I’m not going to run a fund, but somebody’s definitely going to hire me.’” After she sued TCW, people stopped picking up her calls. The vast network she had built over the course of three decades seemed to shrink overnight. “I’m shocked at the number of people who I consider to be close friends, close colleagues, people that I used to talk to every day, several times a week, multiple times a day, who I just hear nothing from,” she reflected. “Nothing.” Tirschwell wants to win her case, but said most of all, she really wants to go back to work. (She spends a lot of time on LinkedIn.)

Her younger daughter has taken to saying something that really annoys her. “When she sees me upset, she goes, ‘I don’t know why you ever left Davidson Kempner,’” Tirschwell said, grimacing. “Which is really not helpful.”

Since she filed her suit, numerous promising career avenues have reached dead ends. “People are gun-shy in terms of having her name associated with their fund,” said an industry peer. He said he had recommended Tirschwell to a colleague, but the colleague balked at the suggestion. “When I threw Sara’s name out there, his first reaction was ‘No, no, no, no, no. I can’t do that. She may be wonderful, but I’m not getting in the middle of that.’ Even when this all ends, it will never end. It doesn’t matter how far the complaint goes or if you ultimately win or lose. People will talk about this forever.”

Tirschwell’s daughter Katie said that while she doesn’t think her mom considered herself a feminist before all of this, she has noticed a change in her. The lawsuit has brought her and her mom closer together. “This is about changing the narrative on Wall Street and paving the path for people in the future. And I think a large part of that is because of my sister and I,” Katie said. “Working in that industry, she wasn’t always so true to herself. You have to play their game, and you can’t be that decisive woman because then you’re going to be seen as a bitch. She was so indecisive for my whole life. And now she knows what she wants.”

For now, with her career in investing on indefinite suspension, Tirschwell is betting on herself.

“People in the distress industry are very good assessors of risk,” she said. “I made a very naïve calculus of risk. I didn’t believe my filing this suit would damage my career as much as it has. I thought that in the era of #MeToo, I thought this industry was more psychologically prepared for a long-standing and respected player to stand up and raise my hand and say this happened to me.” Although, she added, “I don’t think TCW’s assessing their risk correctly either. Because at this point, I’ve lost almost everything professionally that I cared about. So they have a lot more to lose than me.”

Feeding the Wolves