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June 3, 2009

When White-Collar Hubbies Go to Jail

white collar wives of criminals


Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield

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She was ruthlessly excised from her social scene

FIVE YEARS AGO, Karen Weinreb looked like every other well-heeled mother dropping her kids off at Rippowam Cisqua, a tony $16,000-a-year private school in leafy Bedford, NY, a half-hour drive north of Manhattan. After parking her gold BMW X5 among the fleet of Range Rovers and Chevy Suburbans, Weinreb ushered her two boys, then 2 and 3, through the corridors, past the other moms in their straight-leg Barbour cords, Chanel quilted puffer vests, and Ralph Lauren galoshes. Pregnant with her third child, Weinreb was lumbering through this preschool scrum when one of the moms caught her hand and held it for a moment before slipping her a sympathy card. Weinreb looked puzzled. "You do realize everybody knows, don't you?" the woman said, surprised. Weinreb's face flushed, and for a second she thought of fleeing. Instead, she smiled meekly and kept moving, tugged forward by one of her boys. She hid her shame until later that day, when she unleashed it on her husband: Everyone knows! You have ruined our lives!

Weinreb's husband, a former Bloomberg salesman, had just pleaded guilty to fraud after he was busted for passing himself off as a money manager and bilking investors out of an estimated $12 million. His sentencing hearing was only a month away, yet Weinreb had remained in serious denial — hustling her boys to school, still taking private tennis lessons at the members-only Saw Mill Club, and tending to their stately six-bedroom home on 26 acres in Bedford, in addition to their Manhattan pied-à-terre. She all but ignored her husband's legal woes — the relentless calls from his lawyers, even the holes he punched in the walls of their home office in a fit of frustration one day. "Before then, it just didn't register with me," explains Weinreb, settling into an upholstered chair far too large for her slim, curvy frame, in a dimly lit anteroom at the Yale Club in New York (Weinreb is a Yale and Oxford grad). "But the day I got that card, I woke up and realized how big it was."

Weinreb expected — perhaps naively, she now admits — that her tight-knit community would rally around her in the days following her husband's imprisonment. She anticipated being inundated with friends suggesting intimate coffee dates and leaving foil-wrapped dinners on her doorstep. Instead, she found herself ruthlessly excised from Bedford's moneyed social scene. She stopped receiving invitations to charity events and dinners, once fixtures on her calendar. Trying to arrange playdates for her boys resulted in excruciatingly awkward conversations that ended in vague "I'll get back to you" promises. At Starbucks, where the "gilded marionettes," as Weinreb calls them, killed time after school drop-off and before tennis, her entrance prompted a flurry of not-so-subtle whispers. "I wasn't one of them anymore," Weinreb sighs, tossing her girlishly long chestnut hair. "I realized these women need their charity to be at arm's length. I was too close to home. I was a 'there but for the grace of God go I' story."

Weinreb, a former editor, began writing a novel to help make sense of it all. The Summer Kitchen, about a Bedford woman whose privileged life comes undone when her husband is arrested for fraud, is loosely based on her experience. The main character locates a secret safe full of cash behind a plastered wall — her sole source of funds after her husband is incarcerated. Weinreb had no such hidden stash, she insists, but is tight-lipped about how she got by financially while her husband was in jail: Accounts were frozen and unfrozen; her children's private-school tuition was prepaid; and when the $2000 membership at the Saw Mill Club came due, she promptly canceled it. Eventually, the couple forfeited their Bedford home, as well as the apartment in Manhattan, to pay the $12 million in court-ordered restitution, and she moved with the kids to a decidedly more modest home in rural Connecticut.

Weinreb seethed over the irreversible damage her husband had caused her, socially and financially: While he wiled away his days in prison working out, she was effectively a single mom, tending to three small children on limited resources. She stopped wearing her wedding ring and stuffed her husband's unopened prison letters in a file. Weinreb screamed at him unremittingly during their daily 10 minutes of phone time. It went on like that for about a year until, slowly, her fury began to dissolve into regret. Finally, Weinreb opened her husband's letters — long, sensitive missives in which he cited philosophers, recounted fond memories, and worried about the kids. Never once did he complain about prison. "I couldn't just point the finger and say, 'What a bad man,'" Weinreb says softly, "because I actually knew him to be a good man. A good man who had done a bad thing."

Weinreb realized that she shared some of the blame for her husband's by-any-means-necessary bankrolling of their extravagant lifestyle. After all, she was the one pressing for the Caribbean getaways, tickets to swanky fundraisers, and multimillion-dollar renovations of their estate. It was a wake-up call, really, to the grievous consequences of being a slave to money, to living a superficial life — a lesson she thinks the entire country is working through now. "I suddenly realized that I had turned into this kept woman, that I had lost myself," she says, crossing her toned legs. But, she says, writing the novel helped her reclaim her confidence and autonomy. She defiantly squirreled away the six-figure advance in her own personal bank account. "I'll never place my financial well-being in another's hands again," she declares, adding that she's already at work on a second novel.

After her husband was released from prison last summer, Weinreb felt as though she'd welcomed home a new, improved version of the man she married: He was present, grateful, adoring. And for a while, she felt lucky that they had been granted a massive do-over at such a young age. But the sentiment didn't last. "I fell in love with not being married," she says of her time alone. "When we got back together, I found myself shifting back into that wifely mode, and that wasn't me any longer." In April, after a long, somber discussion one night while the kids were asleep, the couple decided to divorce. "I feel empowered and so incredibly happy," says Weinreb, her voice light and breathless. "Here I am, a woman who lost herself, re-emerging to take on the world on my own terms. I don't need a man. I'm in control now."

NEXT PAGE: AMY SHELTON, 51 - Her friends pay her grocery and utility bills.

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