Mom and Dad and Ruth and Bernie

Queens high-school yearbook photos of Bernard Madoff and Ruth Alpern, later Ruth Madoff.Photo: Polaris

The best place to begin to find out about Bernie Madoff is inside his closet, in the apartment on East 64th Street. To the left are four rows of four drawers, each drawer only large enough to contain a single shirt—sixteen identical shirts, same cut, same color, a French blue that matches his eyes. Straight ahead is a row of a dozen identical suits, double-breasted, charcoal gray, English cut, pants and jackets on separate hangers, with the same amount of air on each side of each hanger. Below are two rows of handmade tie-shoes, at least a dozen of them, and again, each in the same style, the same color. There are no decisions to make, no possible deviations. Stepping into this closet was perhaps the one moment in his roiling days that had the appearance of calm.

Bernie wanted to be rich; he dedicated his life to it. He was loved and admired by many, but when his story finally runs its course, it may be that the adoration that inspired him had more to do with things rather than people. Ruth, Bernie’s wife, told my sister, who told me, that when they first moved into the apartment on East 64th Street, Ruth walked upstairs one night and found Bernie sitting alone in the dark, in the living room, weeping. He had made it, he told her. The apartment was impeccable—the last co-op in New York that Angelo Donghia designed, they bragged—with immaculate flourishes of color, deep-red Chinese lacquered cabinets that stood on opposite sides of a doorway, and the creamy color that extended down the curved staircase, and the jewel of a study next to the master bedroom, with its polished mahogany paneling, silver tea-paper ceiling, and sterling-silver sconces. In the midst of all this, Bernie tearfully thanked Ruth, moving her to tears in turn. This was what Ruth had fallen for to begin with, this sliver of vulnerability, and the apartment, in which she had played a major role, choosing and overseeing the design, reflected her image of what she hoped Bernie might become: at ease.

My first memory of Bernie: I was 10. We were swimming in the Atlantic, off Neponsit. Bernie was on my left, my soon-to-be brother-in-law, Mike, on my right—both were 18. He and Mike wanted me to join them to swim out to a sandbar that had formed well outside the breakers. I had never done it. I began swimming with energy and speed but soon faltered. I remember looking over, seeing Bernie’s eye as his head cleared to breathe—he was looking straight at me, perhaps realizing I was in trouble. But there was no coddling, no stopping to wait for me. We kept on swimming, and I was dizzily out of breath as we finally made it out there. The swim back would be longer than the one coming out, and we began. My problem was that I swam too quickly. Take longer strokes, Bernie called out in his Noo Yawk accent. Reach. Trust yourself.

Had my mother lived, she would have killed him. Bernie and Ruth were two of only four people who were not family at my mother’s funeral, which occurred in a gaunt chapel on a crisp, sunny day in Queens.

After a brief service and the interment, younger members of the family went off to find relatives’ tombstones, and as I walked toward the gates to leave, Bernie strolled up beside me to say that now that my mother was gone, “the deal” was over. He said it in a way that indicated a joke so deliberately on the money that you knew he was not kidding. Ruth, who was often at his side at these moments, would laugh, saying something like “Bernie, stop.” It didn’t matter. Even if he apologized, he had already made his point.

What “the deal” referred to was the original investment my parents had made in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, in 1961. My folks were angel investors, among the most expensive money Bernie would raise. They demanded quarterly returns, and for years, the golden-yellow Madoff checks arrived on time, and usually for the correct amount: If ever there was a discrepancy, my mother, who had once studied bookkeeping—she had been my father’s secretary—called Bernie’s assistant, Annette, who, like Bernie, called my mother Mrs. G. (my family name is Greenberger). Annette had a harried New York honk of a voice: “Mrs. G.! What can I do for you today?” And Mom would refer to some trade Bernie had made. “Lemme tawk to Bernie,” Annette would say, and, invariably, Bernie called Mrs. G. back, telling her, in his staccato stammer, that he was only off $17.

“Give me a break, Mrs. G.” My mother reminded him of the terms of their deal, paid quarterly. “Don’t worry. I’ll make up the $17 to you next quarter.” What she required was a check for seventeen dollars and 63 cents this quarter. “Mrs. G., ya killing me,” he would say, laughing.

“On the contrary, Bernie,” Mom said, “I pray for your health daily.”

When Bernie came around looking for investors, my mother succumbed to the allure of the ground floor, to be the very first. When he met with my folks, he showed them his bank statements from 1960. He had invested $5,000 of his own money, all he had, in himself. Mom and Dad liked that. Years later, in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel, I watched Bernie cajole $300,000 more out of my mother. This was after my father had died. She continued to admire Bernie, and Bernie always flattered her—“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, Mrs. G.” Bernie, in his mid-thirties, leaned in so that his head was slightly below hers, an energized supplicant.

There was only one thing that made my mother nervous: Bernie’s twitch. Bernie’s twitch began in his right eye and spread to the left: There were also other facial tics, random body tics, elbow tucks, jacket-pocket tappings. Maybe the business was driving him crazy, Mom thought.

But Bernie developed his tics as a diversion from his stammer. I noticed this once, when he began sputtering as I talked with him about my account. The only position Bernie had me in was thousands of shares of Merrill Lynch, and when I asked him why, he mumbled something about the financial sector, but he became caught on a word and the eye twitch kicked in. My eyes rose from his mouth to his eyes, and in that one moment, I think he believed he had me, any of us, at a disadvantage, an eye blink’s worth of time to gain the upper hand by spinning another story. Years later, I was with my tax attorney at year’s end, going over my Madoff statements. The attorney informed me that I was wiped out. I called Bernie; he was calm, he told me not to worry, he would make back everything I had lost. And six months later, Bernie called me to tell me that everything was all right, back to normal. It was his unceasing ability to rebound that fostered my belief in him.

Bernie could be mean, but not consistently so mean that he could be written off as a crank. He was especially tough on my sister, whom he purported to adore. Bernie said the worst imaginable things to her—“If you think you’re any prize, and that your husband should kiss your ass for the measly couple of million bucks you stand to inherit, you are fuckin’ delusional.”

There was something Borscht Belt in Bernie’s delivery, an air of unreality, which must have been why my sister not only put up with it but was often the loudest laugher at her own expense. Mostly his remarks were about my sister’s weight, which really only fluctuated in a seven-pound range, from around 118 to 125. In retrospect, I realize that what Bernie said to my sister he wanted to say to his own wife, because while Ruth was attractive, she wasn’t perfect.

I don’t know who else is involved in Bernie’s crime. The boys, Mark and Andy, whom I have known since they were babies, always seemed, respectively, guileless and misplaced, not larcenous. And whether or not turning in their father was staged, I want to believe that Bernie had some notion of family, that surely he must have protected them (and his brother) by keeping them out of whatever was criminal. It was assumed that Bernie loved his boys, although he often demanded center stage in the family; his moods and needs were paramount.

Ruth’s culpability is up for grabs. I can’t decide for myself about her, because it is not enough to blame it on love—the standing-by-your-man thing. What speaks volumes is the way that, increasingly, to me she seemed disconnected. How disconnected did she have to be to ignore what was happening?

Mom and Dad and Ruth and Bernie