And as Madoff sees it, as everyone seemed to be getting rich, he was the one who was secretly suffering. “It was a nightmare for me. It was only a nightmare for me. It’s horrible. When I say nightmare, imagine carrying this secret,” he said. “Look, imagine going home every night not being able to tell your wife, living with this ax over your head, not telling your sons, my brother, seeing them every day in the business and not being able to confide in them.
“Look,” he said, “even the regulators felt sorry for me … The first day I came in here, they said, ‘How did you live with this? Not being able to tell anybody?’ ”
By 2000, as spreads and profits were squeezed in the market-making business, Madoff had a chance to sell for $1 billion or more. But he refused. “As far as my sons and brother and my wife were concerned, they thought I was nuts for not selling out,” he told me. His family was “livid,” and he didn’t dare explain it to them. “I couldn’t at that time, because it would have uncovered this other problem I had.”
Madoff’s lies to his family are perhaps the most stunning aspect of his criminal enterprise. The intimacy of that deception, the difficulty of keeping such a secret at the core of a close family, has led some to suggest that the family must have been complicit, but no one has found any evidence that they knew about the scheme. All of the Madoffs believed that they were the happiest of families. Even Madoff believed this, the ultimate compartmentalization. Ruth, whom he’d begun to date when she was 13, was Madoff’s constant golf and dinner companion; his brother, Peter, one of his regular ski buddies. And his two sons didn’t seem to want to let him out of their sight; they were happy to spend summers with their parents at the family place in Montauk. As Andrew wrote in his high-school yearbook: “mom, dad—ur the best.”
Except for Bernie’s secret life, the Madoffs were just like many other affluent Jewish families in their hometown of Roslyn, Long Island. In the early days, Madoff worked long hours building his business in the city, but even when absent, he was the core around which the Madoffs orbited. Ruth, lively, social, pretty, unassuming, took care of the family’s social and emotional life.
“My wife doesn’t forgive me, but at least she understood. With my sons I could never explain what happened.”
But it was business that kept the boys on the edge of their seats. They sat raptly at the dinner table listening to their father’s adventures taking on the powers of Wall Street. And wherever they went, they heard of his mastery—strangers lavished on them tales of their father’s genius. Their father was a Wall Street player, a wizard, a man who’d made a lot of people a lot of money. At the time, these were reasons to follow in his footsteps. In fact, neither of the boys seemed to ever experience a rebellious impulse—“Mark wouldn’t wear pink,” said a friend from high school—and neither considered any employer besides BLMIS. In that high-school-yearbook entry, Andrew wrote, “Mark—future partner MADF,” and continued, “u’ll all see—I’m the 1.”
Andrew, younger by two years, was the more intellectual—“a step up over Mark or myself,” said a friend of Mark’s—but more difficult to read. “Thornier,” said a friend. He was a numbers guy, and he jumped onto the trading desk, which he found as exciting a place as he’d ever been. Mark was the easy one. Easy on the eyes, to start with. “The best-looking kid in high school,” said a friend. If Andrew seemed to never speak before reflecting, Mark was gregarious, a hugger, a pleaser, and, said a friend, “a mama’s boy … in a good way.” Both boys adored their mother. But with Mark, the attachment was more obvious. “He was incredibly close to Ruth for years,” said the friend.
The boys, as they’d be called well into middle age, joined the Madoff business straight out of college, and within a decade, they and their uncle Peter were building it into an unlikely Wall Street powerhouse—except for Madoff’s investment-advisory business, which was, Madoff maintains, off-limits to them. “We were a very close family, and it was a family business,” Madoff told me proudly from prison. “We spent every day together. My brother, my sons.” Ruth loved that her men worked together, and took an office at BLMIS to be with her family and, of course, to look after Madoff’s every need.
They idolized their father, and “I idolized them,” Madoff said. Mark and Andrew eventually sat side by side above the raised trading floor, with Andrew overseeing the proprietary-trading desk and Mark the market-making business, the legitimate concerns. “I was very proud of my sons, and they were very proud of me, what I accomplished,” said Madoff. “They liked being a Madoff. There was a lot of recognition in that, you know.”