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Poor Ruth

Why does Bernie’s better half inspire such vitriol?

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Ruth Madoff in happier times, July 1981, Montauk.  

A month before her husband would confess to the largest financial fraud in history, Ruth Alpern Madoff put on a silky black dress, fixed her frosted blonde hair, slipped on her eyeglasses, took her husband by the hand, and breezed into the Doubletree Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was the 50th reunion of Far Rockaway High School’s class of 1958, and although Ruth, 68, had lost touch with most of her friends from that time, she wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Few people from her school days knew exactly what had become of Ruth, but no one was surprised to see her arriving on the arm of Bernie Madoff: “They were a couple since I knew them,” says a childhood friend of Ruth’s who sat with them that night. “I never knew Ruth without Bernie; it’s like bacon and eggs.”

Ruth sat with a couple of old friends, gossiping about what had happened to their classmates and remembering the days of double dates and the Springfield roller rink. She was now the carefully groomed better half of the wealthiest couple of Far Rockaway’s 1958 class, and those who hadn’t stayed in contact were curious about Bernie’s success. Ruth wasn’t ostentatious; she didn’t brag. In the reunion book, she wrote simply but proudly of the life she and her husband had built: “After college I married Bernie Madoff … Bernie and I worked together in the investment business that he founded in 1960. We have two sons, Mark and Andy, five grandchildren and one more on the way … Currently I travel and hang out with my grandchildren.” There was no hint that things were about to change.

Now, in the aftermath of Bernard Madoff’s sentencing, Ruth is one of the most reviled figures in New York, a widow of sorts, whose family has splintered into opposing camps. In an impressive act of self-preservation and media savvy, Ruth’s sons retained lawyers and the high-powered crisis-management firm Sard Verbinnen & Co. right after their father confessed to his crimes and have refused to communicate with their mother ever since. The silent treatment reportedly isn’t because they think Ruth was in on her husband’s fraud but because of her tendency to side with Bernie in any situation.

“I think [Andy’s] perspective is, when all this happened, his parents ceased to exist for him,” says Alexandra Lebenthal, a friend of Andrew Madoff’s.

The sons’ lawyer, Martin Flumenbaum of Paul, Weiss, explained the distance as a purely legal move: “As I would do in any government investigation of this complexity, I have instructed my clients not to have contact with other potential witnesses involved in the investigation.”

Ruth is said to be incredibly hurt by her sons’ behavior—they were close for most of their lives, with a long tradition of spending summer weekends together in Montauk. She lived for time with her grandchildren, but now she sees them only during limited visitation, and her sons are never present. According to someone who has spoken to Ruth recently, “She sounds beaten up.”

With no PR advice aside from her lawyers’, Ruth has been maligned more than any other Wall Street criminal’s wife in memory. She’s become the primary punching bag for the media and the victims—many of whom still suspect her involvement despite the fact that she has yet to be indicted and anonymous sources suggested last week she likely won’t be. After a seven-month policy of radio silence, Ruth decided to make a statement on the day her husband was sentenced to 150 years in prison. “Ruth released the statement when she did for two reasons,” says her lawyer, Peter Chavkin. “First, because she did not want to impact her husband’s sentencing, and second, because the misinterpretations of her silence became most obvious in the days preceding the sentencing.”

Her statement was measured in its compassion (“Lives have been upended and futures have been taken away”), careful in its wording (never mentioning exactly when she “learned from my husband that he had committed an enormous fraud”), and somehow unsatisfying to those who had been waiting to hear Ruth condemn Bernie’s actions (“The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years”). But it was a start. She seemed to realize, finally, that she would not simply be allowed to fade from public view, that her family tragedy had entered a new, meta stage: From this point forward, her life—and her children’s lives—would be about trying to manage the perception of guilt.

During Bernie’s final court appearance, Ruth was invoked repeatedly by his victims, almost as if she’d forced him to steal from them. “It pains me so much to remember my husband, a fine physician, getting up in the middle of the night and going into the hospital … so that Bernie Madoff could buy his wife a Cartier watch,” seethed one. “Your wife rightfully so has been vilified and shunned by her friends in the community … You have a marriage made in hell,” said another. The Internet mobs have been almost rabid in their treatment of her. “Time to burn this witch,” reads a typical comment.


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