Saul and Sara spent summers at Sunny Oaks until 1996, the year Sara passed away at the age of 94. Sara reportedly bequeathed several trusts, one valued at $1 million and another worth $1.2 million, which were eventually to be split among Ruth, her sister, and the grandchildren. When Saul passed away three years later, his will listed two State of Israel bonds with a value of $1,000 each and 992 shares of Pitney Bowes stock worth $39,000 as his primary assets. It wasn’t much money to Ruth—she is said to have given her portion of the inheritance to her sister and grandchildren. By that point she was wealthy beyond her wildest imaginings, thanks to her husband’s booming business.
Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities was a family affair. Ruth’s office was on the eighteenth floor of 885 Third Avenue, sandwiched between the investment-advisory business on seventeen and the legitimate market-making company on nineteen. Shana Madoff, Bernie’s niece and the company compliance lawyer, also had offices on eighteen, along with Charles Wiener, the son of Bernie’s sister Sondra Wiener and the head of administration, and Maurice “Sonny” Cohn, who co-founded Cohmad Securities with Bernie and was recently charged with fraud by the SEC. According to a longtime employee, Joan’s husband, Robert Roman, also worked for the company doing insurance until two years ago, when he handed the job over to his son-in-law, Seth Hochman.
For many years, Ruth worked there, paying the invoices for the company. She also handled her and her husband’s personal checkbooks and expenses, rather than having a secretary do it, as Bernie’s brother Peter did. “They didn’t believe in letting other people take care of their personal stuff, when it came to money,” says a longtime employee of the firm.
Once she stopped working full-time, sometime in the nineties, Ruth continued to come into the office once or twice a week when she wasn’t traveling. “She played golf, visited her grandchildren, she had her hair done,” says the longtime employee. Occasionally she and Bernie went out to lunch, sometimes ending up at P. J. Clarke’s up the street or Nicola’s on 84th Street. Other times, Ruth would simply sweep into Bernie’s office and speak with him behind closed doors. She was bawdy and brassy, reportedly telling her husband, “Go fuck yourself,” or “I don’t give a shit,” when she got annoyed.
One of her closest friends asks: “What’s the definition of a sociopath? Can you do these terrible, horrendous things and still be a good person?”
It wasn’t Ruth’s style to be showy. She favored elegant, simple clothing—lots of black and crisp white dress shirts. But she did enjoy spending the money Bernie’s business provided, especially on travel. Time could be gauged by exotic locale. The Madoffs decamped for six weeks every summer to their apartment in the exclusive Château des Pins community in Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera, where they also moored one of their multiple yachts named Bull. In the summer of 2008, they returned only once from their sojourn in France for the Madoff annual staff party at the Montauk Yacht Club. “Last summer, they were gone the most ever, which was a little odd,” says one of Ruth’s closest girlfriends.
Ruth’s American Express bill from December 2007 to January 2008 could form the basis for a line chart of her meanderings: $48.01 spent at the Publix supermarket in Palm Beach, Florida; $5,015 at the Montauk Yacht Club; $396 at Tiffany & Co. in New York; and $2,000 at Giorgio Armani in Paris. When they weren’t in France, summer weekends were idled away at the beach house in Montauk, which backs onto white dunes overlooking the sea. In the colder months, Ruth and Bernie traveled back and forth to their waterfront mansion in Palm Beach. In between were the annual ski outings sponsored by Interbourse, an organization of stock-exchange members from all over the world.
Mixed in among the credit-card charges are numerous gifts to charities: $1,000 to Project Sunshine, $10,000 to the 92nd Street Y, and $2,500 to the Everglades Foundation. Ruth and her husband, but primarily Ruth, developed a reputation for being quick with the checkbook. “There was never a charity that I was involved in where Ruth didn’t say, ‘What do you want?’ ” says a close girlfriend. “For all my charities, it was a $10,000 check. The 92nd Street Y, Mount Sinai. Anything we ever did, we knew we could depend on them.” One person involved with an organization the Madoffs donated to recalled visiting them in Palm Beach, asking for money. It was almost alarmingly easy: A casual 45-minute discussion led to a $4 million donation.
“What do we say about the fact that they were very generous when it turns out not to have been their money?” he says. “I’m assuming that’s how they wanted to be perceived, as successful, generous citizens of the world. After you have the houses and the yachts, what else do you want? You want to be well regarded. So they did that, too.”