She stayed, and it cost her more than she ever imagined.
For nearly two years after Bernard L. Madoff confessed to running the largest Ponzi scheme in history, Ruth Madoff — who fell in love with him at 13 and married him at 18 — stood by her husband, a man the rest of the world saw as a cold-blooded monster.
She stayed despite doubts about his fidelity, hostility from friends who became his victims, and a deepening rift with her two sons, who insisted she cut herself off from him.
She finally cut the knot last fall, Mrs. Madoff said in a recent interview. “You’re going to have to leave me alone and not call,” she bluntly told her husband. When he persisted, she changed her number.
After years of silence and seclusion, Mrs. Madoff agreed to talk with a reporter for The New York Times because her surviving son, Andrew, asked her to help promote “Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family,” an authorized family biography by Laurie Sandell to be released Monday by Little Brown.
Tiny and slightly stooped, Mrs. Madoff arrived at the interview, held at her sister’s home in Boca Raton, Fla., dressed in cropped white canvas pants and a gray knit top. She spoke in a soft throaty voice, frequently on the edge of tears, about the devastation of her family — and thousands more around the world.
“It’s so sad,” she said. “Everything that I think about the victims — it’s hard to face, because there’s nothing I can do about any of it.”
Like so many of those victims, she now has just a thin slice of the life she once had. Turned down by several Manhattan landlords, she lives in a borrowed town house in a gated community in southeast Florida. She is facing litigation and is “afraid to spend a penny.” The damage her husband inflicted on his victims still shocks her, she said — “it was beyond anything imaginable.”
But she has slowly rebuilt a life. She worked with children who needed extra emotional support, and now spends up to four days a week as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, where she has a small network of new friends.
A few things have not changed. Some Madoff victims still accuse her of complicity in the crime — which she denies — and attack her on the Internet or in the media whenever she is mentioned in the news. It has been that way since the day her husband, a respected Wall Street statesman, was arrested for stealing at least $17 billion in cash and $64.8 billion in paper wealth from victims around the world, including many in his extended family.
The billions taken from investors largely covered payments to other investors. But some uncounted millions helped support the lavish Madoff lifestyle — yachts, a town house in the south of France, a designer wardrobe, a 10.5-carat diamond, a private jet. Those are all gone, seized to help compensate victims.
Those treasures don’t figure in Mrs. Madoff’s best memories from “before,” she said. Instead, she spoke about being the mother of two bright, busy boys in suburban Roslyn, N.Y., and spending summers on a small boat with the boys doing chores around the docks. She added, “Those were the years that I cherish more than any others.”
Mrs. Madoff struggled to explain why she had stood by her husband, a decision that seemed to catalyze the public hostility toward her that persists to this day. Indeed, she and her husband felt so hopeless and embattled in the weeks after his arrest that they tried to commit suicide by swallowing large handfuls of Ambien, she said.
In an e-mail from prison, Mr. Madoff confirmed that he and his wife “made a feeble attempt” at suicide “while in a severe state of depression. Fortunately, we woke the next morning very sick but alive.” He concluded, “Please understand this is very difficult to admit.”
She stayed with her husband, she said, because “I come from a generation where marriage meant staying put, for better or for worse. This was agonizing, but I couldn’t abandon the man with whom I spent essentially my entire life.”
So she visited him a handful of times at a federal prison in Butner, N.C. One visit in 2009 came after the publication of a memoir in which a former Hadassah executive claimed to have had an affair with Mr. Madoff.
Gathering the doubts of decades — “he was always a flirt,” she said — she confronted her husband in the prison visiting room.
“I said, ‘Tell me what happened. I can’t stand the thought of you lying to me.’ He said it was totally not true, but I didn’t believe him.”
When she finally cut her ties to her husband, it was too late for her son Mark. After his suicide attempt in October 2009, Mark Madoff had begged her to walk away from his father. But she didn’t act quickly enough, she said. On Dec. 10, 2010, the second anniversary of his father’s arrest, Mark Madoff hanged himself.
One more time, Mrs. Madoff called the prison — to tell her husband that their firstborn was dead. She spoke first to a chaplain, she recalled, near tears. “He got Bernie — he told him before I spoke to him. I could barely get it out.”
Mrs. Madoff said she was “haunted” by her failure to act soon on her older son’s appeals. “I had no idea it affected Mark so brutally,” she said, tears spilling over.
That memory determined her response when, early this year, her surviving son, Andrew, asked her to help promote the new book. Despite her lawyer’s opposition and her own fears, she barely hesitated.
“I wanted to do what he wanted me to do,” she said. “I hadn’t done it in Mark’s case, and I will regret that until my dying day.”
Unlike his mother, Andrew Madoff did walk out when his father confessed. But that did not exempt him from the suspicion his mother still faces.
Like many brothers, Andrew and Mark Madoff were always rivals — Mark was the better athlete, Andrew made better grades. Their first marriages, and subsequent divorces, introduced new tensions into their relationship. At work in their father’s firm, they vied fretfully for his approval.
But when their father told them on Dec. 10, 2008, that his glittering success was actually an immense Ponzi scheme, the brothers were instantly united.
“Every bit of rivalry or anger or anything simply got parked outside,” Andrew Madoff said in a recent interview in the sunny Midtown Manhattan offices of Black Umbrella, an emergency preparedness consulting business founded by his fiancée, Catherine Hooper.
“We knew we had to turn him in, but we had no idea how.”
What they did next made worldwide headlines: they reported their father’s confession to law enforcement officials and he was arrested early the next morning. Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
Their father’s crime sent them careening toward grievously different destinations.
When Mark Madoff tried to kill himself in October 2009, his younger brother was furious at what he saw as his brother’s abandonment of his family. During one hospital visit, Andrew angrily told Mark he would no longer be listed as the legal guardian for Andrew’s children.
He acknowledged his reaction might seem harsh. He explained: “I was very angry at him. I wanted to help him. He wouldn’t really let me, and that was very painful.”
Until his brother’s suicide, he had not been in regular contact with his mother since before the arrest. “I didn’t really think about my mother or the impact on her.” He and Mark discussed which of them could take her in, he recalled, but never posed the offer to her.
Before they could, he said, she asked him to sign for his father’s bail.
“I was devastated. There was no chance that I was going to sign, and I couldn’t believe that she would ask me to.”
Like their mother, both Madoff sons were the targets of public accusations that they had been involved in the scheme.
Ruth and Andrew Madoff deny that, and neither they nor Mark were ever the focus of a criminal investigation. “I would have no way of knowing” about the elaborately concealed fraud, and neither did her sons, Mrs. Madoff said.
Andrew Madoff, casually dressed for his interview in jeans and a dark sweater, was even more emphatic. “From the beginning, when this whole thing started, I’ve wanted to talk and tell my story.” When Ms. Hooper, his fiancée, suggested he work with Ms. Sandell on an authorized biography, he immediately agreed.
Why? “I’m hoping that when people have heard my story, they will judge me a little bit less harshly,” he said.
Mr. Madoff first learned about his parents’ suicide attempt early this year. “It gave me a little better insight into where she was emotionally when all this came unfolding,” he said.
He added, “I had hardened myself a little to her within that period.”
He says he thinks his mother should file for divorce, but she sees that as a meaningless gesture. He also says that working on the book has helped his mother deal with her anger over his father’s betrayals and will make a hostile public more sympathetic.
Mrs. Madoff doubts that, she said. But she said she would like to emerge with two precious things: She hopes to have sewn together at least some pieces of her tattered family life. And she hopes to feel “that I can walk down the street and hold my head up a little bit.”