Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Bernie Madoff Story

My drawing is based on a Time Magazine photograph.

It’s the most peculiar, frightening, yet tantalizing story in a long, long time! Who will get to tell it?
by Charlie Leck

How could he have done it? I don’t mean technically, or in financial terms. I mean, how could Bernie Madoff get his soul and heart and mind to come together in agreement to do what he did?
The answer to that question is the big story and someone in the next two or three years is going to write it and give us the answers.

Sometime or other, not too long after he had moved down the road in this Ponzi scheme, Madoff must have realized that it couldn’t go on forever – that, eventually, it all had to come crashing down upon him. Whenever that realization washed over him, I want to know how he dealt with himself and his life.

How was it to fly to the French Riviera and board his multi-million yacht and go slithering out into the Mediterranean?

How was it to play golf at his extraordinary country club in Palm Beach, with buddies whose lives he was destroying by siphoning off their dreams of a comfortable retirement?

How was it to sit at dinner with his family, in his home out in the Hamptons, and realize, deep down, that soon their lives would be nearly destroyed?

How was it to go to synagogue and to sit listening to the Rabbi’s homily about honesty and decency and kindness?

I heard a chattering, seemingly intelligent fellow musing on Public Radio. He speculated that a guy like Madoff takes the first step into a scheme like this believing there is a way out – that there is a fix at hand and all can be made whole and well again. With each ensuing step into the scheme that possibility disappears, and eventually one has waded into such a depth that one realizes it is all hopeless.

Will we ever know the mind of Bernie Madoff? I’m not so interested in the technical methods he used to destroy the financial lives of so many people and institutions; I’m interested in the mind-set of the man and what he thought with each step he took that led him deeper and deeper into this sea of hopelessness.

That will be the great story of the coming decade and there are a dozen or so writers out there dreaming about telling it. Who can get his cooperation? Can Bob Woodward? Perhaps John Seabrook? Or Peter J. Henning? Or Steve Fishman, who has written the best long piece about Madoff to this point (The Monster Mensch in the New Yorker Magazine). Oh, if Truman Capote were only alive to write it.

What a story of evil and destruction! Yet, Madoff doesn’t seem like your typically evil person! The juxtaposition of those two realities makes it a dream story to write.

Is Madoff a sociopath? Or is it some other imbalance of ego? Some inability to deal in reality? What?

Is this something Madoff could not have done alone? Along the way, there had to be people who knew. A poor, slob of an accountant knew barely anything, but falsely validated Madoff’s accounting reports. He probably was paid not to know – not to look and not to do an accounting! He’ll go to prison as an accomplice, but was he? So many questions?

How involved were members of Madoff’s family. His brother, Peter, carried the title of “chief compliance officer” of the firm. He had an obligation to the public to make sure the firm’s internal controls were in place and functioning and that investors were protected. Involved? Guilty? Stupid? In an interesting side-story, Peter’s assets were frozen this week by a judge in Nassau County as the result of a claim brought by a young man who protests that Peter was the sole trustee for the last five years over a trust that had been established for him.

And his sons? What about his sons? Andrew and Mark did not work for the firm, but did they know? What did they know? When did they know it?

And what about Ruth, his wife? Did she have a clue? Did she see a darkness descending over her husband? Were there hints that he had waded beyond the shallow, shoreline waters? There are bloggers damning her and calling her things like “the black widow” and providing solid opinions that she was deeply involved. Is there a shred of proof? Some note or email? Some questionable deposit with her name on it? There appears to be nothing of the sort.

And what about the list of victims in this case? Have you looked them over? There are a number of billionaires on the list. How about names like Steven Spielberg? Elie Wiesel? Liliane Bettencourt? John Malkovich? And, there are significant foundations and non-profit organizations that invested with Madoff. They are now in desperate straits. What a part of the story they make! Amazing! What somewriter, who gets the cooperation of the victims, could do with this story!

Shall we ever know? It appears there won’t be a trial. No explanation will come from that. The accounting is there in the mind of the man, waiting for a genius to draw it out and tell the story. Who shall get the chance?

Steve Fishman gives us a hint of the drama and the tension that could be wrapped around this story. He writes of Madoff’s 70th birthday party celebration in Cabos St. Lucus in May of last year. By then things had begun to unravel and Madoff must have been feeling the pressure and tension; yet, at the party, he was cool and calm and listened, with pride and humor, to one birthday toast after another. Fishman writes that one guest can recall Bernie, on the beach, crooning Sweet Caroline, a Neil Diamond song.

“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowin’…”
What a story! A writer’s dream!

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