Even when his business was legitimate, Madoff was a bit astonished by his success. Andrew and Mark, having been born into the club, took it more for granted and were comfortable with the privileges that came with it. They might fly to the family home in Montauk or jet off to Montana for some weekend fly-fishing. Madoff was happy to see them prosper. He, too, had become accustomed to luxury. As he told me, “I lived very extravagantly. In the end, I bought a plane with another person. I had a boat [and four homes]. You’re talking about someone who had a billion dollars.” He took pleasure in financing a home for Mark in Nantucket. In addition to his Manhattan place, Andrew had one in Greenwich, though he rarely used it. And yet Madoff was aware of the difference between the generations. He lived in the shadow of a failed father. “My sons never had to deal with that,” Madoff said.
However happy Madoff was to have his family in the office with him, he made no bones about whose business it was. He once shouted at his brother, “Until your name is the name on the door, don’t tell me what to do.” The business revolved around Madoff, his thoughts, his needs, his idiosyncrasies, including his compulsion for order. “I definitely have obsessive-compulsive tendencies,” he said; everyone remembered him on his knees, straightening the venetian blinds. Revere him as they did, the sons could feel like props in Madoff’s perfectly aligned world, and for years they bristled at this unfairness. They and their uncle did the heavy lifting while Bernie, as Andrew vented to a friend after the fraud, “didn’t have to do shit,” though the credit naturally fell into his lap.
The boys had their separate spheres, but Bernie didn’t hesitate to get involved. “He didn’t have a filter,” as one observer put it. He’d say things to his sons that other employees thought shocking, even abusive. His version of an explanation was, “Because I said so.” More than once, the boys thought, He’s a bully. Andrew told friends that the abuse rolled off his back. After all, he knew that in private, “there was a constant expression of pride and love on his part,” as Andrew told a friend.
Later, they wondered what fraction of that love was sincere. They’d always known their father was a master manipulator, one quality that had helped him succeed on Wall Street. Through his attorney, Andrew declined to speak, but his friends make clear how he felt. “My father had a way of winning you or imposing his will that sometimes felt good and sometimes didn’t, but it was undeniable,” Andrew told a friend. Andrew had experienced the force of his father’s persuasive abilities when he’d tried to strike out on his own. A couple of years after surviving lymphoma—he was diagnosed in 2003—Andrew talked about leaving BLMIS to do something of his own, but his father persuaded him to stay. To Andrew, his father deployed his special mix of love and bullying. Some of it was good-natured cajoling, flattery so subtle he realized it only in hindsight, some of it as direct as an offer of money.
Andrew gave in. Persuading a son to stay in a business a father knows will eventually take everyone down is, in retrospect, an act of deep selfishness. But it wasn’t a hard sell. A person close to Mark explained: “They wanted their independence, yet they were very grateful for the chance to participate in what they thought was a very successful business. They were proud of that business. But they were men in their forties working for their father. When they were certain of Madoff’s love for them and certain of their family’s closeness and solidarity, they were able to make the sacrifice.”
It took them a few more years to understand exactly what kind of a sacrifice it was.
The dynamic with Madoff’s other victims was different. Later, it was said that Madoff insinuated himself into the sympathies of wealthy, often older people, the better to fleece them. In Madoff’s mind, everyone understood the terms of friendship: They liked him because he made them money. And Madoff insists that rather than the pursuer, he was usually the pursued. People begged him to take their money. Madoff says that he waved red flags, issued caveats that should have been obvious to even an unsophisticated investor. “They were all told by me, ‘Don’t invest any more money than you could afford to lose. This is the stock market. There’s always stuff that can happen. Brokerage firms can fail. I could go crazy and do something stupid. If you want a [safe thing], put your money in government bonds. So everybody understood this.