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December 5, 2011

Loving a Madoff

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laurie sandell and catherine hooper

Author Laurie Sandell (left) wasn't sure what to make of Catherine and Andrew at first.

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Andrew says his father didn't try to bring him into his asset-management business. At first, Andrew didn't think that was so strange: He was young and still learning the business. But as Andrew climbed the corporate ladder, Bernie still refused to share information about his piece of the firm with his sons. "I gave you guys the trading operation!" he would shout, according to Andrew. "This is my business, and it's gonna die when I do." Andrew worshipped — and, at times, feared — his father, he told me. When Bernie yelled, Andrew backed down.

There was no succession plan in place for Bernie's firm. In the event of Bernie's death, the entire asset-management business was to close. Andrew and his brother would have to rely on their father's lieutenants — such as Frank DiPascali, who pleaded guilty to being a key facilitator of the scheme — to wind down the business. Whatever money came out of it — and Andrew had no idea how much there was — would be in the hands of people Andrew didn't know very well. This was a point of chronic frustration, Andrew told me. Whenever he tried to discuss this with his father, Bernie would clam up.

Then there was his father's public profile. Bernie had been chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange, and some of the most sophisticated investors in the world had handed over millions — possibly billions — of dollars for him to manage. Andrew, too, had money invested with his father; the trades listed on the sheet that showed his returns looked "completely plausible," he told me. Why would he question the man who'd taught him everything he knew? He thought Bernie must have been a genius. When Andrew learned of his father's historic fraud — in a stunning conversation at his parents' penthouse apartment — he says, he felt "sickened."

Andrew answered every question thoroughly and with a striking amount of detail. His manner and responses felt like those of an innocent man. But what really convinced me of Andrew's innocence was the fact that he was never indicted. In the wake of the news, the government went over every scrap of documentation in Andrew's and Mark's offices: every computer file, every paper file. Diana Henriques, a financial reporter for The New York Times, also concluded that the brothers were not involved after researching the case for her book about Bernie, The Wizard of Lies. She came to the same conclusion about Ruth. Today, Andrew continues to cooperate with all the agencies involved with the case. But the case is so large and complex, involving so many tangled legalities, it will likely drag on for years. That is something Andrew will have to live with; he accepts that.

I first met Ruth Madoff in Seaside, Florida, in March, when Andrew and Catherine were visiting, along with Andrew's then 15-year-old daughter, Emily. Ruth had not spoken to the press, so I had no idea what to expect. I'd seen photos of her in the news: She looked attractive, remote, even snobby. The woman I met was nothing of the kind. She spoke with a thick Queens accent and kvelled — Yiddish for "rejoiced" — over any children who crossed her path. She wore a simple white shirt, drawstring pants, and flip-flops. We did yoga together; she laughed as she "messed up" the poses. Just three months past her son's death, she was emotionally fragile; almost any mention of her former life triggered a torrent of tears. If anything, she reminded me of my own Jewish grandmother: warm and emotional, if a little dotty.

In April, Ruth met with me in Los Angeles to be officially interviewed for the book. Because of her financial situation, which she cannot discuss due to ongoing settlement negotiations, she stayed with me at a two-bedroom apartment I was subletting while working on the book. Although she'd spent the past 20 years living in a Manhattan penthouse, she was thrilled with the much smaller digs, saying, "I could live here!" as soon as she walked in. For the next five nights, we sat outside on my balcony, looking out over a small pool as I interviewed her. I had her sleep in the master bedroom — as I would any guest — and stocked up on food I thought she'd like: salads, cold cuts, and vegetables. I wondered if it would be awkward to have her staying in my home or if she'd flee after a difficult interviewing session.

My concerns were unfounded. Over the next week, she seemed to enjoy the little things, like walking up the street to Trader Joe's to buy groceries. She stocked my refrigerator with cheap wine, which she liked to drink at night. In the mornings, she hiked up Runyon Canyon, a paved, uphill path popular with dog owners, coming back to my apartment breathless with stories about the "people-watching." Then she would sit outside on the balcony, smoking one of the five cigarettes she allowed herself per day and eating carrot sticks or salami with her fingers. At night, I took her to local restaurants, where she raved about the dishes. She said she liked the divey, hole-in-the-wall restaurants with ethnic food the best. No one realized who she was. Every day she would say, "I love it! No one knows who I am!"

She was right. I took her to the Getty museum, and we strolled through the lush gardens completely incognito. We went to see a movie at the ArcLight theater; all eyes remained on the screen. For a woman who'd just lost her son, whose husband was in prison for the rest of his life, these simple activities were clearly a salve. Time and again, she told me how lonely she'd been over the past two years, and how nice it was to spend time with a person who wasn't part of her legal team.

Because of the choices Ruth made in the immediate wake of her husband's confession — namely, to stay by his side — she had suffered tremendous consequences. Both of her sons had stopped speaking to her. Every single one of her friends — almost all of whom had been fully invested with her husband — had abandoned her. Forced to leave her Manhattan penthouse when it was seized by the government, she found herself couch-surfing at the age of 70. The media ran story after story hinting at her involvement in her husband's scheme. People screamed at her on the street. She received death threats and cruel notes, she told me, penned on beautiful stationery. Ruth, who'd met Bernie when she was 13 years old in Queens, New York, and had married him at the age of 18, had no idea that it was even an option to leave her husband of 50 years. She had never lived alone. Bewildered, terrified, and numb, she did what she'd done her whole life: She clung to Bernie.

It was only after Mark's suicide that Andrew started speaking to his mother again. But their relationship was tenuous at best. Ruth still couldn't bring herself to divorce the man she'd loved for so long. That seemed to throw even more suspicion upon Andrew, and he couldn't bring himself to forgive her for that action. He himself has not spoken to his father since the day of the confession. I came onto the scene as Andrew and Ruth were attempting to broker a fragile peace, and I witnessed some of the most intimate conversations I have ever seen between a mother and son.

When all of the interviews were finished and I started to write the book, I learned what it actually meant to step into a truly controversial story. One friend asked if I was prepared to have the whole world hate me. Another asked to have his name removed from my acknowledgments page. I holed up at an artists colony in the Adirondacks to write the first draft, and when I was finished, I held in my hands a story of betrayal, family dysfunction, suicide, and the price of loyalty. But above all, it was a story about family. What this family had gone through felt strangely familiar to me.

Catherine Hooper got a lot more than she bargained for when she fell in love with Andrew Madoff, but she wouldn't change her situation, she says, because she got to meet her soul mate. Today, she is the glue that holds the family together. She runs her business with Andrew. (Because of Andrew's legal issues, the business is entirely in Catherine's name. "I trust her with my life," he says. "I have to.") They share an office and work side by side, dealing with employees, building an infrastructure, and growing their clientele. At night, tired of talking shop, they "meet" in their kitchen to cook dinner and reconnect emotionally. They would love to be married someday, but until Andrew's situation is sorted out legally, they will have to settle for "feeling" married. Finished having children, they are happy with the three they have between them. Ruth lives in Florida, still shell-shocked, unsure of what the future holds for her.

When I look at this family, I see myself seven years ago, when I first started to write my own family memoir. I told the truth then, and the fallout was painful: My relationship with my father ended; my mother denied what I'd written and experienced a tremendous amount of stress. But the truth enabled me to live a free life. And Andrew Madoff has the same hopes for himself. As does Catherine.


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