Thursday, May 23, 2024

Bernie Madoff: Before and After

In 2009, Boca Mag discussed Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and how it tarnished the lives of his Boca Raton clients. Below is an excerpt from that feature:

In one portrait, the subject wears the devil’s guise, complete with high collar and a red skullcap. Horns protrude from his head, and he has a long, knife-sharp ear. His heavily lidded eyes look down, and his mouth is fixed in a tight, subtle grin. He appears, if not proud of himself, certainly satisfied with what he has wrought.

In another portrait, he wears a different uniform: black and gray prison stripes, with matching cap. He seems more like himself (although some would argue the first rendering does him more justice); the face is fleshier, the features more lifelike. As in the first portrait, he looks down. A Mona Lisa smile crosses his lips. He seems strangely resigned to his fate.

The jig is up.

The artist has dubbed the 11-by-14-inch pastel drawings “Before” and “After.” A better title might well be “The Devil and Bernie Madoff,” for, in both cases, that’s who the subject is—Bernard Madoff, the architect of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

The artist is Boca Raton resident Bernard Hoffman.

“We invested with Madoff after my [in-laws] had been with him [as clients] for more than 20 years,” says Hoffman, speaking from his vacation home in Pennsylvania. “We didn’t have the kind of money [Madoff] was interested in, but my wife convinced him because of the family connections.”

It’s a familiar story by now: investors being made to feel as if Madoff, the Midas of Wall Street, was somehow doing them a favor by taking them on as clients, when really all he was doing was taking them to the cleaners. Most investors never even met Madoff. They would invest their money through friends or relatives or as part of a hedge fund or other collective. Hoffman was an exception.

“I wanted to see the man I was giving my money to,” he remembers, adding that Madoff preferred checks—no transfers of stocks or bonds, please. Hoffman delivered his money to Madoff’s New York City office in May 2006, and the two men met briefly. “He was magnificently well-dressed, well-groomed,” Hoffman says, “and extremely cordial.”

Other than that initial impression, Hoffman remembers little of his interaction with Madoff that day. Nothing profound was said. Nothing memorable happened. Hoffman just handed Madoff his check, thanked him, and left.

“I finally felt I was financially secure in my private life,” says the 78-year-old retired advertising executive, who declined to be photographed for this story. “Until my son called me [in December 2008] and told me [Madoff] was arrested.”

That, too, is usually how it happened for Madoff’s investors. The end came not with a bang but a whimper. They got up one morning, poured themselves a cup of coffee, turned on the television and discovered they were a lot poorer than when they went to bed.

Almost 50 years ago, Hannah Arendt, writing about the Holocaust, coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” in which she speculated that unspeakable evil could simply be the end result of a series of otherwise unremarkable acts; a man shakes your hand, pats you on the back, fills out some paperwork—or doesn’t—and then one day, your life is destroyed. For the perpetrator, it’s business as usual. For the victim, it can feel like being struck by lightning out of a clear blue sky.

“It’s more of a psychological blow,” says Hoffman, who lost more than $700,000 with Madoff, enough that he needed help from his son to pay off his mortgage. “The biggest thing right now is fear of the future.” While he waits for the future to get here, Hoffman, perhaps trying to tell himself that he should have been able to see Madoff for what he was all along, draws portraits of his nemesis as Lucifer.

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