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Bernie Madoff's latest victim: his wife, the loneliest woman in New York

She used to get foil highlights every six weeks — her shade is Soft Baby Blonde, and she was religious about color — but the last time she called her Manhattan salon, Pierre Michel on Et 57th Street, she was told not to return. "I understand," she said, according to the salon's co-owner.

The Amagansett florist who decorated her husband's annual corporate party in Montauk with lismachia, Queen Anne's lace and thistles has banned her as a client, saying she will not associate with the wife of one of history's most notorious financial scoundrels.

Even her sons, Mark and Andrew, who have not been charged by prosecutors but are banned by their lawyers from contact with their parents, have begun to refer to "Mom" and "Dad" as "Ruth" and "Bernie," according to family friends.

Ruth Madoff, 68, has not been charged with any crime or even questioned by prosecutors. But she has become perhaps the most vilified spouse of a financial rogue in history. When her husband, Bernard Madoff, divulged his Ponzi scheme, a $65 billion fraud for which he awaits sentencing later this month, Mrs. Madoff's life was also ruined. Although no evidence has emerged to date that she conspired or even knew about her husband's crimes, her plight has evoked no apparent public sympathy. She has been pilloried and turned into a pariah.

The wives of other notorious criminals, like Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Nicholas Leeson, endured rough social sledding but eventually emerged with new careers and new friends. It's not as if they couldn't still go out and have their hair done. There wasn't quite the same pack of gleeful tabloid photographers as there was, say, when Mrs. Madoff bought cheese in the supermarket a few months ago.

By contrast, the public reaction to Mrs. Madoff has been white hot and vitriolic. Rightly or wrongly, she is viewed as an unrepentant beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth, a petite and well-dressed embodiment of the collective, bloated greed that helped topple the stock market and the housing industry.

"She's perceived as the succubus to Bernie's incubus," said professor Richard A. Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago. "She was inside a circle of people whose wealth has been sucked out of the system."

Even Seema Boesky, whose ex-husband's name became synonymous with insider trading and the excesses of the 1980s, feels conflicted.

"My immediate reaction was utter sympathy for this woman," Mrs. Boesky said in a telephone interview, adding that she does not know Mrs. Madoff. "I wanted to write her a letter, reach out to her, take her out to lunch. But my lawyer said, 'No.' "

Viewed as complicit?

Ever since prosecutors accused Madoff, 71, in December of orchestrating a scheme that fleeced thousands of investors and foundations — including beloved charities, universities and the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel — Mrs. Madoff has been taking it on the chin. The reaction has been so negative compared with other wives in the same position partly, it seems, because her husband's crimes grievously harmed individuals rather than a bank or faceless institution.

Her unusual closeness to her husband, too, in a world where wives are often on the sidelines, is among the things working against her. Mrs. Madoff had been a director at her husband's firm and had stood inseparably beside him through 49 years of marriage.

Then there is the lack of public contrition by Mrs. Madoff, and her move days before the scandal to shift $15.5 million out of an investment account and to transfer watches, cuff links and other jewelry to her children. One day after she left the Manhattan jail where her husband has been held, an ABC camera crew asked her what her message was to the victims. She said, "I have no response to you."

By contrast, neither Mrs. Boesky nor Lisa Leeson (the ex-wife of the guy who brought down Barings Bank) nor Lori Milken (spouse of the once-disgraced junk-bond king) was viewed as complicit in their husbands' crimes. Nor was Denise Rich, the former wife of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton (and who himself lost money to Madoff).

Mrs. Rich has thrived in recent years as a socialite, philanthropist and songwriter. Mrs. Milken threw herself into fundraising for prostate cancer, which her husband suffered from while in prison. Mrs. Leeson was in her 20s when her husband's crimes came to light; while in prison, he wrote an autobiography, Rogue Trader, which she promoted even as she apologized for his actions. None of these three women would comment for this article.

Mrs. Boesky said she fought hard to preserve her reputation. "I knew that I had to be an ambassador for my name," she said. "That I had to forge ahead, be proud and do good deeds. I was determined to convert all who had prejudged me." She writes "Seema Says . . .," a column for The Wag, a giveaway fashion and party magazine in Westchester County.

As for Mrs. Madoff, "she hasn't said, 'I had no idea,' " said Samantha von Sperling, a Manhattan social-image consultant. "All we see is her living in a world of stolen money. If I were her, I'd devote my life to charity — an orphanage or a pet shelter would be a good place to start."

Alexandra Lebenthal, who is a friend of one of the Madoff sons, Andrew, as well as a fixture in Manhattan financial and social circles, said that Mrs. Madoff has not taken any steps that might rehabilitate her image. "In America, we love tearing people down and then bringing them back, but she hasn't played the game," she said.

Interviews in recent weeks with people close to Mrs. Madoff portray her as a woman-turned-outcast, anguished over the lack of contact with her children and grandchildren. Most people declined to speak for the record, citing the criminal investigation of her husband.

Ira Lee Sorkin, a lawyer who represents Madoff, said that his client's wife "has great sympathy for the victims of her husband's misconduct, and is deeply concerned about her husband's physical and emotional condition." But he added that "there is no question there's an image problem."

Two top lawyers who are former federal prosecutors and who represent some of the victims said Mrs. Madoff had invoked the legal doctrine of marital privilege and declined to testify against her husband.

A simpler life

These days Mrs. Madoff's life is circumscribed by the federal prosecutors who are trying to unravel how her husband's extensive fraud took place — and who else took part. She recently submitted to a voluntary freeze on all spending, except for essentials like food.

Her home in Palm Beach has been surrendered to the authorities. Now she leaves her Upper East Side apartment mainly to visit her husband in jail, every couple of weeks (most recently in mid May) or to buy food nearby or to visit her lawyer, Peter Chavkin, at his Midtown offices. Chavkin declined to comment and said Mrs. Madoff would not comment, either.

Mrs. Madoff's opportunities to redeem her image — for instance, through charity — appear limited. She was active with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, whose gala her husband was chairman of in 2006, the year that a nephew, Roger, died of leukemia. But the foundation lost at least $2 million in the Ponzi scheme; its executive director, Jay Feinberg, declined to comment.

The other charities she supported also seem to be distancing themselves.

Eating at the chic Manhattan restaurants she used to frequent is also out of the question. Marco Proietti, the general manager at Bella Blu, an Italian restaurant on Lexington near 70th Street, said she would likely be declared unwelcome. "People definitely think she knew what was going on," he said. Plus, "one of our customers lost $10 million."

Asked if she would accept Mrs. Madoff again as a client, Beth Eckhardt, who runs Amagansett Flowers by Beth on Long Island, said: "Are you kidding? No way! No way! No way! I mean, really."

Oriente Mania, the general manager of Sette Mezzo, an Italian restaurant on Lexington near 70th Street, said he would open his doors to Mrs. Madoff only if she paid $160 due from a meal she and her husband had in December. While Madoff wrote a check to cover the bill, prosecutors blocked it from being cashed, he said.

As for her salon, Pierre Michel, Mrs. Madoff had dropped in every six weeks over the last 10 years. One morning in March, she was told that she could no longer enjoy her routine of sitting with a glass of Poland Spring water while Giselle, a colorist often cited in Vogue and Allure, wielded the foils. Pierre Ouaknine, an owner of the salon, broke the news, according to Kelly Brady, a spokeswoman for the salon.

The salon also refused to send a stylist to her apartment, a few blocks away, Brady said. Too many clients at the salon had been swindled, and the owners did not want their image further harmed, she explained.

Even in her exile, Mrs. Madoff's world is rapidly getting smaller. Victims of the scheme are pushing the bankruptcy trustee and federal prosecutors to sell anything they can, including the couple's penthouse, which was used to help secure Madoff's bail; it could be seized after Madoff's sentencing, which is scheduled for June 29.

The place is decorated with Greek- and Roman-type statuary and Impressionist-style paintings, said Michael Skakun, a journalist hired by Mrs. Madoff a few years ago to make a scrapbook for her husband's 65th birthday (she canceled the project before he started it). "I felt like I'd walked into a consulate," Skakun recalled.

For now — and from afar — Mrs. Boesky has a message for Mrs. Madoff. "If you are honest," she said, "don't let the world put you on a spit and turn you over."

Bernie Madoff's latest victim: his wife, the loneliest woman in New York 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 5:30am]

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