Sconces and Scrapbooks: A Visit to the Madoffs

First Person

By Michael Skakun and Ken Libo

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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We arrived, two scribes-for-hire, at the Madoff residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Queens High Baroque,” we said sotto voce in unison as we stepped off the elevator and into the vestibule of the Madoffs’ apartment. It was a wet day, and we quietly removed our galoshes.

We had been summoned by the lady of the house, Ruth Madoff, director of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC and wife of the company’s owner, to help with a special project. We took no notes that day, about five years ago, but the scenes and quotes that follow have come to mind in recent days, and are told here as faithfully as memory allows.

The ample Madoff foyer and living room burst with what appeared to us as classical knockoffs, the regal effect spoiled by overexertion. Gold sconces lined the stenciled wallpaper, a Napoleonic-style desk stood to the side, and the Greek and Egyptian statues vied with each other to set a mood of antique decorum. Arabesque-styled Central Asian rugs beguiled our vision with looping patterns and impressive symmetries, further softening our footfalls.

Ruth Madoff, a petite blonde with a pert nose and quick movements, ushered us into a sunlit kitchen. We could see that the downpour outside had come to a halt. “We’ll be more comfortable here,” she told us. White cabinets swept from floor to ceiling. The Formica-topped oval table had an array of crystal-cut glasses brimming with cooled fruit juices.

Ruth’s taut, well-tended skin made her look a good 10, if not 20, years younger than she was. She was thin, sylphlike, giving further economy to the word “trim.”

Ruth shook out her curls as she sat herself down on a wicker chair. Her manicured fingers lay folded on her lap. “It’s heimisher in here,” she said. The spotless kitchen stood in warm contrast to the cold hauteur of the foyer. The Madoffs, we feared, had effectively exiled themselves from their well-appointed living room, reserved strictly for formality and occasion.

On the tabletop lay her spiral-bound, hearth-toned cookbook, filled with recipes she had culled from the great Gallic and American chefs, many graduates of the French Culinary Institute. She had charmed the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Burke, Daniel Boulud and Bobby Flay to conjure up dishes that would pass the strictest dietary laws. Among its tinted pages, recipes for vegetable gumbo jostled against those for paupiettes of baked salmon; wok-seared duck breasts nestled side by side with braised and cooked goose, garnished with watercress aglio-olio.

“Now we can get down to business,” she said, pouring herself a cup of hot tea. “Bernie is turning 65. Other men slow down; take it easy, not him. He’s got the whole world on his head.”

Ruth smiled wanly and brushed her hand through her soft, layered hair.

“I want to give him a birthday present he won’t forget,” she said.

We asked her what she had in mind.

“Maybe a surprise scrapbook, you know, pictures, photos, invitations, the works,” she said.

We let the idea settle in, and she continued.

“Oh, we’ll think of something, maybe interesting collage effects. What we’ll want is to bring out Bernie’s many facets,” she said.

But no sooner had she spoken than she caught herself.

Bernie, she said, was cautious, even circumspect, a man who liked the tried and true, things in their proper place. He never wanted to be caught off guard. But that is exactly what his wife was hoping to pull off, somehow to charm him without startling him.

At first, Ruth thought she knew exactly where to begin. She brought out photos of a smiling, gap-toothed Queens boy, bat at hand, ready to hit a home run. He had quite a swing in those days. Boy, could he send those balls flying.

But with each passing photo she hesitated, breathing more heavily.

Bernie, she observed, was a secretive man. “He likes to keep things close to his vest,” she said. She looked wistfully at the photos lying on the table.

Suddenly, she gathered the pictures into a heap. She looked wistfully out the window.

“Let me mull this over,” she finally said and whisked us out the door.

The next day we received a call from Ruth. We could hear the pause in her voice. It seemed touched with sadness. She had changed her mind. More time was needed, she said. She thought 65 was an age betwixt and between. Seventy, three score and ten, would give the fuller measure of a life, would be just the right moment to spring this happiest of surprises on Bernie.

Now, we have learned, it is Bernie who has sprung the unhappiest of surprises on investors around the world.

Michael Skakun is a writer and translator at the Yiddish Forward.

Ken Libo is a writer, editor and part-time educator at Hunter College in New York.






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