New York – Bernard Madoff is a member in good standing of the Palm Beach Country Club, the exclusive Jewish club on the North End of the island. When I would talk to friends and acquaintances who were members, they often chatted about good old Bernie. The 70-year-old Madoff had been the chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange. He was a brilliantly successful money manager who may well have handled the assets of a majority of the 300 members as well as that of those of a largely Jewish clientele across the eastern United States and a number of wealthy WASPS.
Bernard and Ruth Madoff bought their home on North Lake Way in 1967, and are among the most long standing members of the club. The Palm Beach Country Club is the ultimate symbol of the Jewish ascendency. Unlike the WASP clubs, to join you have to have made major charitable contributions. You also have to have made your fortune in clean ways. There are no garbage magnates, no slum lords. You have to be a person of character. And there was no one more revered and honored than Bernard Madoff.
Earlier this year I gave a talk at the club about my forthcoming book, Madness Under the Royal Palms. There were people in the room who are in my book and I avoided talking about them or anything that I thought might irritate or offend. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for years and I can take a few amusing anecdotes and strung them together into something that’s not too painful and generally brings smiles if not laughter. But this afternoon there was dead silence. Nobody found anything I said amusing. In retrospect, I realize that these people had come to a bastion of anti-Semitism where Jews could not even enter the Breakers Hotel until 1965, and they had made the island theirs. And here I was to their minds mocking this world they had made their own. They found it profoundly unsettling.
People in Palm Beach sort themselves out into the group in which they belong based largely on how much money they have. Even the poorest of the islanders seem to have everything yet joy proves elusive, even for the country club members, because there is always someone richer or better socially connected. Joy is driving out of your 35,000-square-foot mansion in your Bentley and tooling up to the entrance of Mar-a-Lago for your fifteenth ball of the season, the valet parkers salivating at the chance to take your car and the prospect of a twenty-dollar tip. Joy is having a wife younger and thinner than any of the other wives at your table. Joy is subtly announced during dinner that your hedge fund scored 33 percent last year, while that of the arrogant son of a bitch across the table with the fat wife scored only 17 percent.
Those with the biggest financial gains generally had their money managed by Madoff. It was an honor having him handle your fortune. He didn’t take just anybody. He turned down all kinds of people, and that made you want to give the man even more of your money. When he took your fortune, he told you that he would tell you nothing about how he achieved his returns. He was a god. He had the Midas touch.
Yesterday Madoff was arrested and accused of running what probably will prove the greatest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. He may have dissipated as much as fifty billion dollars into nothing. For the elite Jewish world, it is a curse of almost biblical proportion. I was at a dinner party last night and one of the guests called on his cell phone a man whose money Madoff had managed. I know the man and he is a generous, kind person who recently gave away over a hundred million dollars. He said that both his company’s retirement plan and his charitable foundation had been handled by Madoff. He was preparing to fly back to his Boston home to walk among the ruins. It’s a story told scores of times yesterday. Bankruptcy. Despair.
There was one largely Jewish charity event last evening. “It was like the Titanic,” one attendee said. “The ship was sinking, and people were crying, ‘I lost this and that.’And everybody was drunk. The Titanic was going down and we might as well carry on.”
There is a feeling of incredible shame, embarrassment, of exposure, as if their whole world has been exposed as jerry built. Many of these people thought they were smarter than everybody else. They thought they deserved higher returns because they were who they were and you and I aren’t. And now it’s all over.
This evening the synagogues in Palm Beach will be full. And there will be men and women listening to the truths of a great and ancient faith as they have never listened before.