The Madoffs were also generous with their employees, many of whom are still loyal to them. “I have nothing but good to say about her. She’s an outstanding lady,” says Richard Carroll, Ruth and Bernie’s boat captain in Palm Beach for 39 years. Their landscaper in Montauk, Cynthia Hahn, who worked for them for 24 years, recalls Bernie and Ruth advancing her a loan when she bought her first house twenty years ago. “There was a genuine caring,” Hahn says.
It’s hard not to wonder if this was part of the plan. Keeping everyone around you happy and taken care of would arguably be a wise move if you were hoping to avoid questions about your business practices. After Bernie was arrested, he and his wife were fixated on trying to pay their staff and give bonuses to employees. Hahn remembers that the Madoffs immediately sent her a check for the $6,500 they owed for recent landscaping work. “Ruth called me two days later and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so embarrassed. They’ve frozen all our accounts and that check isn’t going to go through.’ ” In February, Bernie left her a voice-mail message, apologizing again and saying that he would get a check to her as soon as possible. Finally, Hahn asked Ruth, “ ‘Will I ever get paid?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
If Ruth was aware that her husband’s business was a fraud, then she knowingly led nearly every one of her family members down the garden path to ruin. The Alpern name appears dozens of times on the list of Madoff victims; Saul Alpern and the Sara Alpern Family Trust are there, as are Ruth’s sons, Mark and Andy, along with their children. Ruth’s 96-year-old aunt is said to be nearly broke and may have to move out of her old-age home in Boca Raton, Florida. And then there is her sister, Joan, one of the only people who has stood by Ruth through the crisis. Joan and her husband, Robert, claimed losses of $2.7 million and $8.7 million, respectively. Their three daughters and their families were invested, too. Perhaps Bernie’s scheme seemed like a victimless crime, a spigot of money that would never run dry—maybe it seemed cruel not to let those closest to them partake.
Similarly, many of Ruth’s friends are suffering huge losses because of investments they made with her husband. Harriet Mayer, the wife of Lenny Mayer of the Mayer & Schweitzer brokerage firm, is said to have lost a substantial sum, along with Renee and Stanley Shapiro, who were with Ruth and Bernie at the company Christmas party the night before the fraud became public. The commercial-real-estate developer Edward Blumenfeld, who reportedly co-owned a $24 million jet with Bernie, and his wife, Susan, who decorated Madoff’s offices, lost a great deal of money.
One of Ruth’s best friends, Cynthia Lieberbaum, also lost money to Bernie, according to the list of victims. But another close friend, whose husband is a former finance executive, asked to invest years ago and was turned down. “Not as long as [your husband] is working,” she remembers Bernie telling her. She thought at the time that he must have been joking, but looking back on it, she suspects another explanation: “Most of the people who had money with him were not on Wall Street—they didn’t know how to read financial statements that weren’t true.” Toward the end, her husband did start to wonder where all of the securities in Madoff’s asset-management business were being held, but he never asked Bernie about it, because Bernie refused to discuss the investing side of his company. When the fraud became public, “We were floored, but not totally shocked,” the friend says. “The minute [my husband] heard it, he knew they weren’t making it up.”
There is some sympathy for Ruth among her friends, but most of her social circle has closed her out. “It’s a horrible thing. Her life is over,” says a former schoolmate. “The only hope for Ruth is to change her name and move out of New York.”
Another of her closest friends puts it bluntly: “What’s the definition of a sociopath? Can you do these terrible, horrendous things and still be a good person? That’s what I fight with all the time.”
To an outside observer, December 10, 2008, would have seemed like a typical day for Ruth. She met a friend from high school for lunch at a Tuscan restaurant called Centolire on Madison Avenue at 86th Street, where they chatted about the reunion and their growing families. “We talked about the children, how great the grandchildren were, that if we’d known about the grandchildren we’d have had them before having the children,” the friend says. “She was going to meet Bernie right after we had lunch.” She adds, “I always knew that Bernie had done very well, but I never ever realized to what extent.” Then, toward the end of lunch, Ruth mentioned that “she had a place in France and a place in Palm Beach.”