Jim Cramer is now known as a former hedge fund manager with degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law School, the host of CNBC's "Mad Money." But he spent six months in California living in his car with no driver's license, no home address, expired Florida license plates, and an unregistered handgun in the glove compartment.
Mr. Cramer's distinctly unglamorous roots were the subject of a talk he gave Saturday at the annual alumni lunch in Cambridge of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. The financial journalist recalled his days at Harvard and his early work as a crime reporter, and he also had some advice to those seeking careers in the news business.
Mr. Cramer began by recalling the internal politics that in 1976 won him the presidency of the Crimson. He was competing against Eric Breindel, who he described as a "privileged prep school student." Mr. Cramer said he, in contrast, was at Harvard on a "full boat scholarship," and worked delivering the newspaper to pick up some extra cash. When the outgoing president of the Crimson, Nicholas Lemann, now the Henry Luce professor and dean of Columbia Journalism School, showed up at Cramer's dorm room at 3:30 a.m. to announce that Cramer rather than Breindel was the next president, a "night of the long knives" that included "genuine fisticuffs" ensued, as Breindel and his supporters were sorely disappointed, Mr. Cramer recalled.
Mr. Cramer said he had a good year as president of the Crimson thanks in part to help from the paper's business manager, Steve Ballmer. "Some say Ballmer did a better job in that position than he did running Microsoft," Mr. Cramer said. He said Mr. Ballmer, now the CEO of Microsoft, was known in college as "Shoebox Ballmer" for the shoebox filled with change that he brought to card games. Mr. Cramer also singled out Mark Whitaker and Jonathan Alter for their help on the news side.
Breindel, who later became famous as the editor of the editorial page of the New York Post, eventually became a client of Mr. Cramer when Mr. Cramer worked at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Cramer said.
As a senior, Mr. Cramer wrote what he described as a "vicious piece" criticizing the master of Eliot House, Alan Heimert, for celebrating a victory in a faculty vote to keep History and Literature as an elite selective, honors-only major at Harvard. Professor Heimert retaliated by waving Mr. Cramer off the podium at the Eliot House graduation ceremony at which Mr. Cramer was to have received his diploma. The president of Harvard later wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Cramer's mother that included the diploma, Mr. Cramer said.
Mr. Cramer said he applied to 50 newspapers for jobs after college and got interviews at only three. "I still have every one of those rejection letters," he said. He eventually wound up at the Tallahassee Democrat, where his starting pay was $155 a week. He said he still keeps one of those paystubs in his wallet.
A job at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner was an upgrade in pay — to $179 a week — but not in circumstances. His editor assigned him to try to get an interview with the "San Diego Sniper" while the serial killer was still shooting. It was then that he wound up living in his 1977 Ford Fairmont. "Someone was murdered a few cars down from me in my parking lot home," Mr. Cramer recalled. On the upside, he did not need homeowner's insurance, "because my collision and theft covered everything."
Things have since turned upward for Mr. Cramer. "I love my job," he said, advising young journalists: "You need the Nielsens, you need the page views, you need the showbiz."
"On Monday, go register yourname.com," he said. "If you believe, as I do, that journalism is indeed commerce, you might as well own yourself."
In addition to his work at CNBC, Mr. Cramer also works at thestreet.com, which he described as "really in turmoil." Although he said "the web won" over television, he said the web-based journalism business is tough. "Every year your ad rates go down," he said.