In the upper echelons of Wasp society, nothing is more frowned upon than the appearance of having fun. That’s what we learned from Vanity Fair’s story on the Noels (the family whose patriarch, Walter, founded Fairfield Greenwich Group, Bernie Madoff’s largest feeder fund) today, anyway. Among the egregious social behaviors committed by the family, as cataloged by Vanity Fair: Talking to people at cocktail parties, hugging people, table-hopping, leaving on the lights on in their home, having renovations done, and playing music. Can you imagine? Ghastly. And witness this anecdote from a neighbor in Southampton:
Walter also tried to get into the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, “but that died fast once Monica had a personal assistant call around to Shinnecock members inviting them to their house,” says this person. “It’s just not friendly to have your personal assistant call around to old club members inviting them over for a meal. … It smacked both of new money and being almost purposefully rude. Joining a club like Shinnecock is like joining a family. It’s not expensive, but the waiting list is very long because it’s very selective in inviting people to join who would fit in, in as gemütlich a way as Wasps can get. None of the members, even if they had personal assistants — which most of them are too poor to have — would use them to make a personal social call.”
Right? How totally not gemütlich. But despite his family’s coarse, new-money exuberance, the figure of Walter Noel comes across, in Vanity Fair, as not at all dissimilar to an older-money figure in the Bernie Madoff scandal: J. Erza Merkin, the refined, art-collecting Upper East Side financier friends and colleagues described, in a recent New York feature, as “an intellectual showman, a marvel of erudition” and “a model of success.”
Both were motivated by increased social standing (the Noels scratched at the windows of country clubs, while Merkin longed to replicate the financial and social success of his father). Both eagerly provided Madoff with access to their social circles (the Noels, Europe and South America; Merkin, the Upper East Side Jewish community). And both called themselves money managers but were ultimately salesman whose understanding of the product they were selling was questionable. “It’s very, very difficult for Ezra to make decisions,” one money manager told New York of Merkin, adding that his true gift lay in that he “was a world-class salesman.”
In Vanity Fair, Monica Noel echoes the same sentiments about her husband: “He did sales — he relied on others for due diligence.”
As one investor puts it to Vanity Fair, “[t]hey were amateurs.”
To both of these men, Bernie Madoff was like the tailor who promised to weave the emperor a fantastic new robe that no one else would have. Only Madoff was smarter, because he hit up not just the emperor, but the town noblemen and the serfs on the street as well. He knew, probably from his own upbringing, that vanity and greed cut across social strata. And now that the lights are on, everyone who bought into his scam looks pretty much the same.