“From the time he was born, he never really slept,” Leah Belfort, Jordan’s mother, tells me in the kitchen of their two-bedroom apartment in Bayside.
“He can’t sit still,” Max Belfort, his father, says.
“We’d come into the room, and he’d be watching his fingers,” Leah says about Jordan’s infant years. “I’d say to Max, ‘He’s not sleeping. He must be dumb. What kind of dummy are we raising?’ ”
In the kitchen, the appliances look plucked from a fifties time capsule, and framed recipes for gefilte fish and matzo-ball soup hang above us on the wall. The product of Bronx tenements and night-school master’s programs, Belfort’s parents represent the immigrant dream of hard work and ambition. Max and Leah are both accountants, but Leah decided to choose another profession after retirement. She went to law school in her sixties, graduated from St. John’s University, and still does pro bono legal work. With a home that appears so steady, part of the Belfort mystery is how a nice Jewish boy like him could destroy himself with such gusto.
Consider the following list of ingredients he packed inside “a brown leather Louis Vuitton shower bag” on a trip to Czechoslovakia, according to his memoir: “a half-ounce of sinsemilla, 60 pharmaceutical Quaaludes, some bootleg uppers, some bootleg downers, a sandwich bag full of cocaine, a dozen hits of ecstasy, and then the safe stuff: a vial of Xanax, a vial of morphine, some Valiums and Restorils and Somas and Vicodins, and some Ambiens and Ativans and Klonopins, as well as a half-consumed pack of Heineken and a mostly consumed bottle of Macallan’s to wash things down.”
In his memoirs, Belfort describes his parents as pushy and overbearing. He calls his dad “Mad Max” and fears his chain-smoking, vodka-drinking fury; Leah appears as a Jewish mother on steroids, demanding he start studying for medical school from the cradle. Both Max and Leah have read most of their son’s memoirs. Max and Leah are at least proud that he didn’t let the misery go to waste: Teaching himself to write and turning his gonzo tales into page-turning books, they believe, are great accomplishments.
“It’s an enigma, really,” Max says about his son.
“I wanted to deny he was my child,” Leah says.
“That time we found him growing pot in the closet,” Max says. “Very, very entrepreneurial. He said it was a school project, right?”
“He said, ‘I’m going to get an A.’ He was trying to buy me off with the grade,” Leah says. “I said to him, ‘I’ve been manipulated by better than you!’ Then Max came home, and you gave it to him.”
“A lot of lectures,” Max says, shaking his head again.
Leah says, “He always wanted to be part of the older kids, and all the big boys were taller. Much taller than he. And all the girls were much taller. He tried to build himself up with a bodybuilder, but that didn’t make him taller!”
“Yeah, all those girls were taller than him.”
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons he tried to compensate,” Leah says.
“Like Mayor Bloomberg, right?” Max says.
“Or Napoleon!” Leah says.
“My chief insecurity is that I was a late bloomer,” Belfort tells me. “I didn’t go through puberty until later in the curve. I didn’t feel confident in high school. Ninety percent of my focus was hot girls. I thought if you got rich, you’d get the girls. A lot of guys think that. And it’s true—it worked for me. It worked really well. When I really hit it, I had all these gorgeous women throw themselves at me. But the problem with that stuff is, it doesn’t really change you.”
Belfort has the salesman’s look: a flash of white teeth, tan skin, all of which radiate a youthfulness that’s impressive considering his age (he turned 51 this summer) and former drug habit. “A testament to the regenerative qualities of the human liver,” he likes to say of himself, with a heavy Long Island brogue.
It’s another tennis morning for us, and this time we play at the private court of Jeff Tarango, his personal tennis guru. Tarango is not any tennis instructor. The former pro and commentator has been rated one of the top over-40 players in the world.
“Obsessive-compulsive talent,” Tarango says of Belfort. “He’s not autistic, but he could be. He just can go into that tunnel.” Belfort is so committed to improving his tennis strokes that he and Tarango play together every morning. Belfort wanted to play on weekends, too. His sessions are tutorials. Behind the baseline, Belfort props up his smartphone to videotape himself in action; later, at night, he’ll study his technique in bed with his fiancée, Anne Koppe. His intensity can be overwhelming, but it’s all part of his recipe for success, a life philosophy he’s now hit the road with in his new incarnation as motivational speaker for hire. “I believe in total immersion,” one of his creeds goes. “If you want to be rich, you have to program your mind to be rich. You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor and replace them with new thoughts—rich thoughts.”