Should We Feel Bad For Ruth Madoff?

Illustration for article titled Should We Feel Bad For Ruth Madoff?

I mean, it can't be easy to be one of the most hated women in the world. And according to this list of stuff she can't do anymore, she haz a sad.


In a story titled "The Loneliest Woman in New York," the New York Times chronicles the series of petty humiliations that is the post-Ponzi life of the shunned scamster's moll. As everyone knows, the Madoff sons, eager to put as much distance as possible between themselves and prison, have cut off all contact with both parents. Ruth has been banned from her salon. She can't go to her gym. No merchants will deal with her, and restauarants are out of the question - if it's not scruples motivating the business, it's awareness of the number of defrauded customers they'd risk offending.

But of course, it's more than that: Bernie Madoff is, quite literally, the worst person in the world*: he defrauded widows and orphans, holocaust survivors, charities, his own synagogue. And just when you think he can't get worse, he does! Not since cold-eyed movie Nazis have we had such an unambiguous villain. And by extension. Ruth becomes a Prada-clad Eva Braun, at best a dupe who didn't want to examine the source of her lifestyle (which the Ethicist has declared unacceptable!), and at worst, criminally complicit. While Ruth hasn't been charged, she's tainted by her position as "director" at Bernie's firm, and by the alacrity with which she moved to transfer $15.5 million, as well as various baubles, bangles and beads. Maybe just following orders, but it's been a while since that garnered much sympathy. Of course, her trials are pretty tame in light of her husband's crimes - no highlights is hardly piano wire, here - but considering that, at this juncture, that's exactly what they are, the collapse of her life as she knew it still must loom pretty tragic for Mrs. M.


The Times contrasts Ruth Madoff's cold reception - "she is viewed as an unrepentant beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth, a petite and well-dressed embodiment of the collective, bloated greed that helped topple the stock market and the housing industry" - with that of the wives of other disgraced moguls, like Mrs. Ivan Boesky or Mrs. Michael Milken, who were perceived as injured victims and ultimately, and with work, got their rehabilitation on. But Ruth Madoff, who blows off the press and who's made no statement of contrition - or even a disavowal of her involvement - seems unrepentant. Never mind that she's probably acting under a lawyer's orders; she's losing the public sympathy battle spectacularly. Says some public-image consultant, "'In America, we love tearing people down and then bringing them back, but she hasn't played the game...All we see is her living in a world of stolen money. If I were her, I'd devote my life to charity - an orphanage or a pet shelter would be a good place to start.'" Of course, the fact that Ruth's pet charity - the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation - got defrauded by her husband for $2 million may make this easier said than done.

Whatever you think, there's something ugly about people's willingness to shun her - reflexive blacklisting and bullying are never attractive, even when they're understandable. Sure, there's schadenfreude - and there are pretty few people around to blame. But Ruth Madoff's position is nothing if not ambiguous, and we've rushed to judgment. And after all, Bernie Madoff fooled an awful lot of people - is in inconceivable that a sociopath could practice the same disconnect with his wife for 49 years? Does it even matter?

Even Seema Boesky, whose ex-husband's name became synonymous with insider trading and the excesses of the 1980s, feels conflicted..."My immediate reaction was utter sympathy for this woman," Mrs. Boesky said in a telephone interview, adding that she does not know Mrs. Madoff. "I wanted to write her a letter, reach out to her, take her out to lunch. But my lawyer said, ‘No.' "

Even for those who feel a reflexive distaste for this sort of mandated judgment, there is an element of Greek drama to the situation that, to the rest of us, feels right. Even beyond the particulars of her case, her shunning seems consistent with what we understand of the world of the rarified. In high society, as in high school, you live by the code and you die by the code. Doesn't it seem like Mrs. Madoff probably understands that too?

*Okay, top 100

The Loneliest Woman In New York [NY Times]
Ruth Madoff's Duty [NY Times]
No Apology From Ruth Madoff [ABC]

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An interesting side note here: an awful lot of the Madoff victims were widows of a certain age whose husbands had always taken care of financial stuff for them—including setting them up with Madoff investment accounts. The wives never asked any questions and figured their husbands "knew best."