She is "the 100-pound blonde who had come to embody all the ills of America's latest age of greed" - so why are we so obsessed with Ruth Madoff? Well, a few reasons:
In this month's Farrah-or-Michael-bedecked Vanity Fair, Mark Seal has a profile of Ruth Madoff. Well, sort of. Certainly he has dozens of comments and quotes from those who knew and worked with her, back when she and Bernie were high-school sweethearts in Queens, to her days as a modest young housewife, and through the rise and fall of the family's glittering, ill-gotten social career. All of these quotes, after all, are given in hindsight - and as in any such case, it's impossible to know who's claiming to have "always" suspected what and to what extent her current infamy is coloring their recollections of a woman who, apparently, was something of a chameleon anyway.
Having read the piece you come away with the impression that Ruth was a Stepford wife - or a woman who never lost her outer-borough rough edges. A warm and supportive employer or a demanding martinet. Social or cool. Desperately insecure, or at ease. Retiring or funny and warm. A perfectly controlled hostess or a foul-mouthed harridan. A canny businesswoman or a trusting wife who, personally, lost her father's inheritance. A pathetic victim or a selfish charlatan.
One thing's for sure: Bernie was her life. The consensus is that Ruth devoted herself to making his life comfortable, to looking perfect for him, and would hear no word spoken against her husband, even in jest. Says one family friend, "Ruth was absolutely under Bernie's thumb. If Bernie said, ‘Jump,' Ruth would say, ‘How high?' If her makeup was slightly off, he'd say, ‘What happened to your face?' For Ruth, looking good was all for Bernie."
Even on the subject of her guilt, acquaintances are divided. While no one believes in her total ignorance, some point to the fact that she lost some of her own money to the scheme as a proof that, up until that time at least, she couldn't have known everything. While everyone says she was canny and sharp-eyed and ran Bernie's books in the early days, it's also understood that she didn't have much of a grasp of modern technology, and one computer teacher quoted in the piece says he thinks any kind of online banking would have been beyond her. Says Seal,
In the course of writing three stories on the Madoff case for Vanity Fair, I've spoken to close to 100 people who knew Ruth, Bernie, and their family, and the majority believe that Ruth must have known about the scheme. Otherwise, if she was embarrassed, ashamed, betrayed, and confused, as she said in her statement, why did she stay with Bernie during his three months of house arrest-apparently at the cost of losing her sons, Mark and Andrew, who say they haven't spoken to their mother since the still not fully explained day in their parents' kitchen when Bernie confessed his crime to them with Ruth standing nearby? She's still under scrutiny by investigators, as are her sons, Bernie's brother, and Frank DiPascali Jr. and Annette Bongiorno, who directed Madoff's investment-advisory business, on the 17th floor of the Lipstick Building, in Manhattan. One longtime observer of the Madoffs told me that Ruth's statement, like everything preceding it in the case, may very well be just one more example of Bernie Madoff's brilliance at deception and manipulation. He always ran the show, and probably still does, the observer believes. From the day he turned himself in and pleaded guilty, Madoff was determined to take the fall alone. He continues from behind bars to try to control every detail of his destiny, including, at least one person is willing to venture, Ruth's statement.
As one former friend puts it, "Quite frankly, I don't know whether she knew or not-and I don't know which is worse. Either way, it's a tragedy for her. He's ruined a lot of families, but none worse than his own." Despite the fact that Ruth has, as the piece terms it, "cut a deal with prosecutors to keep $2.5 million in exchange for surrendering a potential claim to $80 million in assets, including her homes," and despite the rage her oblivious and ass-covering public statement has engendered, there are moments when you forget. When it's hard to, in one thought, reconcile the woman's loneliness and coupon-clipping with the entitlement and ill-gotten gains and, at best, total disconnect from reality. Perhaps this is why the author takes the precaution of beginning each section of the six-page article with a quote from one of Madoff's defrauded investors - all in circumstances far more straitened than Ruth's.
I think this is part of what fascinates people - perhaps especially women - about this case. On the one hand, this was a model of rarely-seen, retro marital unity unusual in a milieu where we're used to seeing multiple spouses rather than high-school sweethearts. Indeed, her behavior reads like a template from a mid-century good-wife's guide, down to turning a blind eye to possible infidelity. Says Seal, "She called her incarcerated spouse Doll, Darling, Baby, and Sweetie. She tried not to be dull or depressing; she wanted to be at her best for him." In short, she had no life beyond him. I think we have a certain scorn for that. And yet, there's more: maybe this is what makes it so confusing, her behavior so enigmatic: why devote your life to standing by your man, only to let him take the fall alone? Of course, that's what her husband wanted - people are pretty sure he's committed to going down solo - and it seems like she doesn't know how to operate outside his orbit. But still, I wonder if this doesn't factor into our contempt (not that there aren't plenty of legitimate reasons for it): she's getting off scot-free...and letting him go it alone. At best this is blind loyalty in the face of self-respect. At worst, despicable - and still depdendent. Is it just that she's out and free and relatively affluent? Sure. But I think there's another element that adds to our vitriol, and has spared Madoff's sons and brother. Yes, she's stood by him; yes, she visits him as often as possible. But compared to a life of such unity, this feels discordant. And I think we hate what we don't understand almost as much as what we know is deeply wrong. Ruth gives us both.
Ruth's World [Vanity Fair]