Growing Up Madoff

The latest edition of Vanity Fair brought yet more grist for the Madoff mill — this time with a profile of Madoff’s sons, Andrew and Mark. In theory, this ought to be fascinating stuff: the boys who turned in their father. What could be more Oedipal?

But it’s pretty thin gruel. One problem is access. Not surprisingly, reporter David Margolick seems to have had trouble getting anyone particularly close to the boys to speak frankly, and on the record. In fact, there isn’t much in the way of clear information at all. Though the sons remain under a pall of suspicion, there isn’t any solid evidence that they were involved. The suspicion, rather, comes from the sense that they were Bernie’s family – surely they must have known. And plenty of others feel certain that they didn’t – according to the article, Edward Blumenfeld, a New York real estate developer whose family lost big with Madoff, nonetheless invited Mark to Passover seder.

The more serious problem, from a storytelling point of view, is that the sons seem perfectly ordinary: a pair of straightforward, seemingly honest, and un-imaginative young men who spent their entire careers working for the family firm. They don’t have any of Bernie’s epic qualities, such as his resentful ambition, his poker-faced connivance, his compulsiveness, his outrageous audacity or his callousness.

The relationship with their father is hazy. Bernie’s former secretary says they were close, but others say Bernie was a distant, critical man who refused to give his sons any latitude or credit. But rather than strike out on their own, they sullenly continued to work for their father. A more interesting detail emerges about the boys’ mother, Ruth: They apparently haven’t spoken to her since Bernie confessed to them, not because they think she was in on the scheme, but “because they believe that her tendency to side with him, no matter what, when they complained to her about him, enabled his dirty deeds.”

If Bernard Madoff’s story was the dark side of the classic striver’s tale — the outsider whose will to reach the top leads him to destroy his friends, family, and eventually himself — then his sons represent the next generation. They didn’t have to strive to reach the top because they grew up there. They had nowhere to go — except, as it turned out, straight down.

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