|Bernie Madoff: Justin Lane/EPA/Corbis|
Of all the incidents that would unspool after the exposure of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme last December, the scene that stays with me took place at a coffee shop on East 62nd Street two days after Madoff’s arrest. The platoon of reporters had yet to camp out in front of Madoff’s building, which was just two blocks away, but you could feel the tension at that local Burger Heaven, in a neighborhood of people who have known one another for much of their lives and who come to their favorite coffee shop to read the Financial Times in their sweats after working out at the gym. “My father warned me about this guy,” said a woman having lunch with a friend in a booth. She wore a sheared mink coat and spoke softly, still in a state of shock. She referred to the Madoffs as Bernie and Ruth. “Ruth and I played with her grandchildren. She and Bernie did everything together. My father said, ‘Be careful of them. This is a big Ponzi scheme.’ And that was 15 years ago.” Her father was a real-estate titan, and his daughter now ran the company, but she was hardly preening about her foresight. Her husband had lost most of his foundation to the Madoff scam. I happened to be there that day with a friend who had spent years on the co-op board of Madoff’s building. The board would often meet in the Madoff apartment, with its wraparound terraces and black-and-white marble floors. “It was strange,” he said. “I could never understand a word that Bernard Madoff said.” The remark was Upper East Side code. It meant that, for all Madoff’s success, the hungry kid from Far Rockaway, in Queens, had never learned the implicit language of New York’s upper-middle class. My friend might have encountered a young Bernie Madoff in his university days, but he probably would have looked through him, not necessarily with reflexive snobbery, but with what V. S. Naipaul has described as a lack of “larger comprehension.” In the days following Madoff’s arrest, the shibboleths of New York from the time of Gentleman’s Agreement, when buildings were restricted up and down Park Avenue, were heard again. There were those who argued that the rejection Madoff had experienced may have acted as the trigger in his behavior: I’ll show them.
(Click here to read the full story on the Vanity Fair.com website)