An important word to friends reading my blog. Should I ever “use” you as material, I will always ask permission first. The reason is fairly obvious. Not to do so would be a betrayal of trust. Which brings me straight to the subject of today’s blog…
Dinner on Thursday with friends from Greenwich. Table for four at the Harrison in Tribeca. Cold, pelting rain on picture windows outside, all brick and wood and safe inside. The woman, I’ll call her Grace, is one of my oldest, finest friends. Her husband, I’ll call him Robert, has become a friend, too. I like him because he doesn’t pretend to be someone he isn’t and because he makes no bones about the fact that money (inherited money) makes him extraordinarily fortunate. “Anybody tells you money is a burden,” he told me once, “is a liar or doesn’t have any.” I like him because despite his money, despite living in what I consider to be a bizarre form of captivity, he is always asking questions. Always. He is voraciously curious about everything, even women. Especially women. He wants to know why we’re angry, why we cry, why we’re suddenly leaving our husbands. “Up where I come from,” he said on Thursday night, “it used to be the men leaving the women. Now I don’t know. The rules have changed.” There is something almost naif about Robert but then there are also moments of uncanny lucidity, even wisdom.
“So, Brenda. Tell me. Are people talking in New York?”
“What do you mean, Robert. About what?”
“Of course, they’re talking about money. Isn’t everybody?”
“Not in Greenwich, they’re not. Listen, I’ve been in this group for years. We call it the Dinosaur Club. (He smiles sheepishly.) I’ve known the guys forever. We golf, we lunch every Tuesday. And we’re talking about everything BUT money. Sports, wives, ex wives…I just don’t get it.”
“Maybe your friends have lost money,” I say. “Maybe they’re embarassed.”
Grim chuckle. “Yeah. Remember when I saw you a couple of months ago? I was only down 20%. Those days are gone. Now I’m just angry.”
“At who, Robert. Everybody’s lost something.”
“At myself. I’ve always been so prudent. So careful. So on top of it, you know?”
(I don’t know. I’m utterly clueless.) “You don’t take risks, right. That’s what you’ve always told me.”
“Exactly! I mean, I know guys. My brother, for instance. He’s blown through millions and millions. Guys inherit money. They’re arrogant. They think they know it all. They take big, big risks. It’s the women who inherit money who hold onto it.”
Here, I am genuinely intrigued. “Really?Why?” I say, “What makes…”
“Because they know they can’t make anymore, Brenda. They know this is all they have. So there’s less ego involved. They’re cautious.”
And then he says: “Listen, this guy, Madoff? Have you heard of him?”
“No. I don’t hang out with a lot of high flyers, Robert.”
“Right. Well, read the paper tomorrow. Because he’s gonna be front page news.”
And sure enough. Friday morning. There he is. Bernard Madoff. Genial, affable Bernie. The kind of sweet old Jewish guy everybody wishes was their grandfather. The FUCKING Devil Incarnate. This is a guy who masterminded the greatest Ponzi scheme in history; who ripped through 50 BILLION dollars worth of other people’s assets. Actually, not just “other people’s assets.” Friend’s assets. Friends he played golf with, dined with, travelled with. Polite, old Jewish money that funds hundreds of worthy charities; that takes care of its own. Yet this man whose betrayal of his own tribe ranks right up there with Jesus Christ is most often described by those who knew him in New York and Palm Beach as “lovely” and “generous.” It beggars the imagination. The irony of it. The cruelty.
I mean, what if these friends had known that Bernie’s lavish contributions to their favorite causes was coming straight out of their own pockets? And how do you think the guys Bernie turned down must feel? The guys who joined the Boca Raton Club in desperate hopes that Madoff might, just might, take them into his oh-so lucrative and exclusive fold. How deliriously happy/relieved they must be this morning. And what his poor wife and sons? The sons who turned him in?
People always say that true evil is banal, ordinary. Well, there ain’t nothin’ about Bernie Madoff that seems banal or ordinary to me. As the brilliant Willie Morris once wrote: “Surely, as one grows older, friendship becomes more precious to us for it affirms the contours of our existence; of having lived through many things in our brief and mutual moment on earth.” He then adds: “In the lexicon of human cruelty, I rank the betrayal of a friend–as dastardly almost as child abuse or manslaughter.” Morris was too kind. In the case of Bernard Madoff, I would substitute manslaughter for murder.
As for my friend Robert…He’s been commuting between New York, Greenwich, and Palm Beach since he was a kid. His mother owned a magnificent old place with one of those secret tunnels under the highway that leads to the ocean. Robert’s father was Jewish. The two of us love to gossip about the infamous “No Jew” policy at the posh, Wasp clubs down there. But obsessive golfers like Robert need access to clubs. So I can’t help but wonder…Maybe once, just once, he might have teed off with the Devil at the Boca? Maybe they took turns washing their balls. (I’m talking golf balls.) I’d also love to be a fly on the wall at the Dinosaur Club lunch Tuesday. Because even if Robert and his friends haven’t been talking about money much till now, they sure as hell will be talking about it tomorrow. I’m going to give him a call.
Oh. A detour. I thought I harbored a ‘secret’ love for Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War. I had no idea it had even been reviewed. But it’s listed as #2 in Best Non-Fiction of the Year in the NYT Book Review.
and it’s GOOD! Better than good.