Bernie may be behind bars, but his crime is still very much an unsolved mystery, a tangled money trail that may take years to sort out. Fairly or not, as long as there are loose ends, and until every last penny of the $170 billion prosecutors say flowed through his fraudulent enterprise is accounted for, Ruth will be a target of suspicion. In the public eye, Ruth has come to represent the spoils of her husband’s criminal activity: The lifestyle, the furs and jewelry, the fancy hair salon, the clinking glasses at parties, the trips around the world—they all seemed like they were her domain, orchestrated and enjoyed more by her than by the stone-faced, withdrawn Bernie. It didn’t matter that Ruth came from modest beginnings; something about the way she carried herself—her highlighted hair, the upturned collar and petite physique—played into the stereotype of the pampered, free-spending wife.
Ruth’s problem seems to be a particularly female one. “It’s the gender politics of the culture,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s easier to blame the person with less power.” And, she adds, why aren’t people blaming her sons? “They would be much more likely to be in cahoots, because they were in the same professional field. And the answer is, they’re men, that’s why.”
The court of public opinion has not given Ruth the benefit of the doubt about whether she could have been unaware of her husband’s activities, as she has maintained. But there was a time when it was considered normal for wives not to keep track of everything that their spouses were doing. “I’ve spent decades writing about marriage, and I have never ceased to be astonished at what women don’t know about their husbands,” says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake. “I don’t know about Ruth Madoff, but an awful lot of men deceive their wives.”
According to a friend from high school, it would not have been difficult to keep Ruth in the dark. “I don’t know if you fully understand the difference between you and us,” says the woman in her late sixties. “When we were young, and the man came home for dinner, he was the king of the house and we catered to him … We were the type of people who, if your husband came home and said, ‘Sign this,’ you wouldn’t ask why. If he asked you to sign it, you would sign it.”
Like many women of her generation, Ruth relied on her husband to support her and the children. Even if she had suspected that something was amiss with Bernie’s business, she would have been faced with a terrible, Carmela Soprano–esque choice: Push for the truth, knowing that it could devastate the family and leave her destitute. Or look the other way.
On a Wednesday in May, a tiny woman scurried through the metal barricades on Park Row in lower Manhattan with her head down. She was dressed all in black and wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, her face pressed into a scowl, a black purse slung across her chest. Ruth was leaving from her weekly visit with her husband at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Outside the photographers were lurking, trying to goad her into saying something. One really got the sense of how oppressive her life had become. “I have no response to you,” she snapped at an ABC News television crew as she hailed a cab. Then she followed it up with what some have interpreted as a mumbled “Fuck you!”
It hasn’t helped her cause that Ruth has played the public-relations game exceedingly badly. In the months after her husband’s indictment, while hundreds of senior citizens and charities were reeling from devastating losses, and Ruth probably should have been off ladling soup for the lepers of Calcutta, she fought to hold on to a huge chunk of money. Her lawyers argued that much of the couple’s wealth—$62 million in savings, homes in New York, Palm Beach, and Montauk (valued at $7.5 million, $7.45 million, and $7 million, respectively), as well as Ruth’s $2.6 million worth of jewelry—belonged to Ruth exclusively and should be hers to keep. According to prosecutors, Ruth and Bernie also mailed packages full of jewelry to family members right after Bernie’s confession, in violation of the freeze on their assets. “She still hasn’t made any public apologies, she’s still trying to hold on to her money,” says a longtime employee of Bernie’s company. “You have not heard one compassionate, positive thing out of her.”
Rather than distance herself from her husband’s bad behavior (like, say, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s wife, Jenny, did) or casting herself as one of Bernie’s shocked victims (like her sons), Ruth managed only to lash herself more tightly to the man she had been bound to since her teenage years. “She adored him beyond the telling,” says a close girlfriend. “She worshipped him. She would tell me all the time, ‘Don’t you think he’s fabulous, don’t you think he’s great?’ ” Some argue, though rarely publicly, that it was precisely this closeness that could have made Ruth blind to what was happening. But to others who know the couple well, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she didn’t know what Bernie was up to, as they were inseparable, a team in every sense of the word. “He conferred with her on everything. The idea that she didn’t know anything is laughable,” says the longtime Madoff employee.