NEW YORK—It was quite a party: Celebrity guests like Martha Stewart and Mick Jagger mingled with business tycoons around bowls of caviar in an art-adorned Soho loft.
Some guests saw the December affair as emblematic of the host's generosity, and that it reflected an eclectic circle of friends. Others saw it as blatant social climbing.
Again, at another of his regular monthly salons, this time in June, there were no outward indications of just how much trouble Waksal was in. By then Erbitux's application had been rejected by the Food and Drug Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department were looking into suspicious insider trades.
Eight days later, he would be arrested.
"Sam is very determined, focused and positive," said Andrea Blanche, a longtime friend who was at both gatherings. "He once told me that failure was not a word in his vocabulary."
ImClone has failed to get Erbitux or any other drug approved. The company has never earned a penny, but is the subject of three federal investigations and numerous shareholder lawsuits.
Waksal was $80 million in debt when he was arrested, although his spokesman said he has repaid the $65 million secured by ImClone stock. In the past, there have been numerous liens against him for failing to repay loans and taxes, and several other lawsuits.
Lots of scientists start companies, and then struggle with finances or stumble as entrepreneurs. But Waksal's story is different.
The 53-year-old with a doctorate in immunobiology has a $20 million art collection, including a Picasso. Besides his Soho property, he owns two homes in Long Island's fashionable Hamptons beach resort.
His circle of friends includes Revlon CEO Ron Perelman and art dealer Larry Gagosian, who joined him on New York magazine's 1998 list of Hamptons playboys. Former girlfriends reportedly include socialite Patricia Duff, who is Perelman's ex-wife; Martha Stewart's daughter, Alexis; and Lally Weymouth, daughter of the late Washington Post owners Phil and Katharine Graham.
Waksal, who declined comment for this article, is accused of tipping off family members to sell ImClone shares a day before the FDA rejection.
Martha Stewart's sale of nearly 4,000 ImClone shares on the same day also has come under scrutiny, and her broker has been suspended by Merrill Lynch. Waksal and Stewart deny any wrongdoing.
In an era of scandals at much bigger companies like Enron Corp. and Tyco International Ltd., the allegations might seem like just another sign of the times.
But long before the ImClone imbroglio began unfolding, Waksal was already a flamboyant figure, standing out in the mostly staid pharmaceutical industry.
"Certainly no one in the biotech community has a personal life like Sam's," said Brian Rye, a biotech analyst at Raymond James & Associates.
Rye, like others, said Waksal's jet-setting tendencies didn't really detract from ImClone's promise. Doctors in the cancer community really believed Erbitux was a breakthrough medicine.
Still, his style -- especially his extraordinary confidence -- permeated ImClone's culture and operations. While other biotech companies hosted simple dinners at a major cancer meeting last year, ImClone rented out a bar and hired the Doobie Brothers to perform.
"That is something you would expect from a more established company," said Rye. "But ImClone always acted like a success."