Bernie Madoff’s decades-long Ponzi scheme, worth upwards of $50 billion, put the Manhattan money guru, former NASDAQ chair and philanthropist in jail for life and devastated thousands of investors, including some of his closest friends and family members. To his son Mark, who later committed suicide—he hung himself with his dog’s leash from the same beam in his SoHo apartment where he’d lately hung a pinata for his daughter’s birthday party—Madoff left what Mark colourfully described as a “legacy of s–t.”
That Mark put his father’s impact on his life in scatalogical terms is no accident: a preoccupation with poop defined Madoff’s private life, according to many not-so-subtle hints offered by two recent “inside” accounts of the family—The End of Normal: A Wife’s Anguish, a Widow’s New Life, by Mark’s widow, Stephanie Madoff Mack, the other, magazine writer Laurie Sandell’s Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, brokered by Catherine Hooper, fiancée to Mark’s younger brother Andrew.
In both books Madoff emerges as a screamer, a domestic tyrant, anal in the truest sense. He could not “abide the feeling of elastic,” Sandell writes, and therefore ordered custom-made underpants with buttons up the side. On his 88-foot-long boat (appropriately, but perhaps incompletely, called Bull), Madoff enforced strict cleanliness, including walking new guests through proper use of the bathroom: “close the lid on the toilet before you flush,” he tells Catherine, “or it’ll be a s–t shower.” “Bernie was fastidiously neat to the point of being obsessive-compulsive,” writes Madoff Mack. “Even worse, Captain Dick, the man who looked after Bernie’s boats, kept coming in to use the toilet, which Bernie would then inspect. The rest of us were then treated to his crude description of what he had seen, and his almost girlish outrage over how disgusted he was.”
Madoff’s concern with excreta wasn’t lost on his wife, Ruth, who is depicted as both conveniently oblivious to her husband’s financial dealings (“What’s a Ponzi scheme?” she asks after his confession) and quite cutting when it comes to her sons’ mates (Madoff Mack notes her “talent for playing two sides against the middle in any scenario”). Ruth delighted in telling close friends of the first night she and Madoff slept on a friend’s “elegant” yacht, Kisses, where Picassos hung on the walls: “When Bernie woke up on board the first morning, he was horrified to see dark streaks on his bed linens, and he shamefully assumed he had soiled himself while he slept,” recounts Madoff Mack. “That night, Ruth noticed Hershey’s Kisses left on their bed by the crew at turndown; it was melted chocolate Bernie had been rolling around in the night before.”
If Ruth was blind to her husband’s massive but unhurried fraud (only Madoff knows when it began but it was likely when his sons, who worked with him but operated entirely different divisions from the investment fund, were still boys), she wasn’t the only Madoff with a bad case of cluelessness.
Incuriosity and facile self-help jargon become the other common denominators linking these two duelling accounts, either written or sanctioned by women who joined the Madoff clan before catastrophe struck, and who have long hated each other. That mutual animus lends a Rashomon-meets-Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous frisson to reading their books.
Hooper and Madoff Mack both represent second stabs at love for the Madoff boys. The brothers (it may not be hard to believe) saw earlier marriages unravel after learning, to their utter astonishment, that they were cuckolds. In Andrew’s case it was eight years in, when Debbie “started losing weight,” wearing “more feminine” clothes and, for the first time, “got a Brazilian wax.” “All the classic signs, if you were paying attention,” Andrew admits to Sandell. “But I wasn’t.” “Slowly,” Sandell goes on, he “came to realize that every one of their friends had known about the affair.” Life’s now better for Andrew after landing Hooper, who to Sandell describes the couple falling asleep on a boat “entwined like woodland creatures”—idyllic, but probably quite messy. Daddy wouldn’t approve.