Lazard Ltd. said chief executive Bruce Wasserstein is dead. Exact details of his passing could not be learned.

The death of Wasserstein, 61 years old, is a blow to Lazard, the investment bank he has run for several years.

Mr. Wasserstein was one of the pre-eminent deal makers of his time, helping forge the modern image and role of the investment banker.

The descendant of Eastern European immigrants, Wasserstein attended college at 16 and earned law and business degrees from Harvard. After a stint as a corporate lawyer, he decamped to investment bank First Boston Corp. There, he and another deal maker, Joseph Perella, helped unleash the mergers and acquisitions boom that defined the 1980s.

During that decade Mr. Wasserstein forged the persona of the modern investment banker. For Wasserstein and a cadre of other sharp-witted young guns, banking was no longer the gentlemanly art practiced at places like Lazard. It was more akin to brawling in expensive suits, with tortuous financial tactics, platoons of lawyers and public relations deployed as M&A weapons.

After feuding with the management of First Boston, Messrs. Wasserstein and Perella left to start their own bank in 1988. Mr. Wasserstein revealed a fascination with the Lazard mystique. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 1988, he said of his new bank, Wasserstein, Perella &Co.: "We want to be the Lazard of the '90s."

Shares of Lazard were recently trading after hours at $41.75, down 3.5% from their close.

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