Sisterhood Blog

In Defense of Ruth Madoff

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Photographers staked out the Upper East Side building where the Madoffs lived. Ruth Madoff moved out last week.

Ruth Madoff’s recent turn of fortunes fascinates me; it also makes me wonder if she deserves to lose nearly everything she has.

With her husband Bernie, she enjoyed a privileged life, with estates in Montauk, Palm Beach, Fla., and a reportedly “modest” 3 bedroom place on the French Riviera, in addition to their penthouse on East 64th Street in Manhattan, which is filled with Persian carpets, Georgian antiques and $65 thousand of silverware.

Ruth — who, like the couple’s two sons, has not been charged with any crime — agreed to give up $80 million in assets she owned with her husband in exchange for being allowed to keep $2.5 million in cash.

Last week she moved out of their Manhattan apartment with only the clothes on her back, as federal authorities seized it in advance of selling it to provide some restitution to Madoff’s victims.

It is not known where she is staying. How many choices does she have? With one of their sons, who both have homes in Manhattan and Greenwich, Conn.? Andrew Madoff had millions of his own invested with his father though his older brother Mark had pulled his money out of the Madoff managed fund to pay for his divorce in 2000. Another likely option would be with her sister, Joan Alpern Roman, who has lately come to her defense.

Before losing her home, Ruth Madoff had already become a virtual prisoner in it, stalked by photographers and shunned by friends and associates, even by her hairdresser and restaurant owners. She said in a statement, issued last week shortly after her husband was sentenced to 150 years in prison, “Many of my husband’s investors were my close friends and family.”

Her statement also said:

From the moment I learned from my husband that he had committed an enormous fraud, I have had two thoughts – first, that so many people who trusted him would be ruined financially and emotionally, and second, that my life with the man I have known for over 50 years was over … Lives have been upended and futures have been taken away. All those touched by this fraud feel betrayed; disbelieving the nightmare they woke to. I am embarrassed and ashamed. Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused. The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years.”

I find her claim that she does not know her husband — her high school sweetheart — intriguing.

Is it, as one friend claimed at a lively Shabbat dinner table discussion last week, simply a legal maneuver to distance herself from being further implicated in Bernie’s criminal conduct?

But I wonder if we ever truly know even the people with whom we are most intimate. On this question the two married couples at the table were silent. Only the never-married man at the table thought she must have known what was going on. The rest of us, perhaps, knew better.

After all, even among couples in my generation (late-30s to 50s), many times one partner handles the finances and the other says that she (usually it’s the wife) leaves it in her husband’s hands.

All the more so for couples of the Madoffs’ generation. Ruth is 67, Bernie 71. It was typical, when they were married 50 years ago, for women to be uninvolved in their family financial life and certainly in their husbands’ business affairs, even if they were close in other respects.

I feel sure that she enjoyed all of the material fruits of her husband’s fraud. But I think she can only be blamed for greed and willful ignorance. And, to a certain extent, can’t we all?

It is human nature to want to turn responsibility over to people who say that they’ll take care of things – whether it’s an investor when we desperately want someone to provide us with big dividends, a doctor when we are desperately ill, or a rebbe, when we are desperate to have faith.

We all do it. And if we don’t, we wish that we could.

Ruth Madoff has fallen from a very high place. Perhaps she should have known what was going on. But I don’t think she did. And I feel sorry for her.

Sephardiman Mon. Jul 6, 2009

As the wife of an avowed enemy of the American people, a traitor to the National Community, Ruth Madoff deserves no sympathy from anyone. She should count herself fortunate that in this country blood relatives of miscreants are not required to share their fate in protective custody.

Joanna Mon. Jul 6, 2009

It's not up to us to judge her, but I think it's naive to feel sorry for Ruth Madoff. So she gave up $80 million (that was stolen from others) but she is still left with $2.5 million - a lot more than those who invested with her husband, whose stolen money she's been living off of for years. I also think it's worth pointing out that she hasn't offered any help to the victims of her husband's fraud and frankly, I find that her public statement does not even begin to acknowledge the depth of the damage that was caused. We can't know whether she knew or not - so we can't judge her as a criminal in that sense - but I also can't say I feel bad for her or even trust her stated ignorance towards the crime. (And, it's worth mentioning, she apparently had a business degree and worked at Madoff's firm. How ignorant could she be?) This is a person who has been living off of stolen millions for years. Withhold your judgment and your pity.

Ellen Braunstein Tue. Jul 7, 2009

Not sure why she had to leave just with the clothes on her back. She must have known she was going to be evicted and could have been able to take some clothes. Ideally, she should have given up every penny and moved in with her sons or sister and gotten a job.This is what other victims have had to do. I hope she did everything possible to work ... Read Morewith authorities in investigating where the money went. I do believe someone like Bernie Madoff could have that many secrets from his wife. Ruth's apology still showed some allegience to her husband, so I didn't think she did well by the victims. And Bernie's apology was completely hollow because he didn't do all he could to help authorities find money and assets. Her life is totally in ruins. There are some wives of disgraced financiers who have done all right. She can't recoup. I would change my name. I worry about the grandchildren. All the Madoffs should change their names.

Rick Scott Tue. Jul 7, 2009

Bernard Madoff is a sociopath, a person who "fakes" emotions like affection and sympathy because he has never experienced them in his heart. It's like being color blind. The one experiencing it doesn't have a clue about what he's missing. The best he can do is fake it with sometimes tragic results. As in this case.

Those of us who aren't sociopaths, like the contributors to this exchange and very likely Ruth Madoff, have no way to put ourselves into the mind-set of those who are. Again think of color blindness. Can you really understand what it means to see the world without reds and greens?

I feel sorry for everyone involved in this catastrophe. Least of all for Bernie Madoff the sociopath, but he is a crippled human being. Most of all for his victims who didn't deserve to be stripped of their life savings and security. And somewhat for Ruth Madoff, who very likely is speaking truthfully when she says the Bernie Madoff who committed these crimes is not the Bernie Madoff she was married to all those years. Each of these in their own way is a victim of the human condition.

jewish girl Wed. Jul 8, 2009

I don't know how exactly I feel about Ruth Madoff, but I do understand her statement about realizing her husband may be a stranger.

My father, an upstanding member of our community, and well loved, hid his financial failings, by using up his retirement fund before he retired, and raiding my mother's inheritance from her parents, hardworking immigrants. He died and left us with virtually no money.

Since that happened, I have found out that similar things have happened to a range of people I know, most, but not all, Jewish. I don't know if this is a problem of general greed, or embarrassment, or if it is something men do, or Jewish men, since number of my friends have also had similar situations in their families...and it was fathers, not mothers who were perpetrators.

For my mother, siblings, and me - living within our means would have left us more secure after his passing...but he did not leave us that choice. No one in our community knows about this, my mother wants his reputation untarnished, but it is sometimes hard when people tell me how lucky I was to have such a mench as a father - he helped others more than he helped his own family. And I am sure that someone reading this now has been similarly affected, or know someone who has been.

You surely understand how I couldn't possibly leave my real name.

David Wilson Thu. Jul 9, 2009

My heart bleeds cold borscht for Ruth Madoff. The point that she didn't know about her family's finances is contradicted in fact. Ruth was no shrinking violet outerborough princess who played mah jong with the girls. In the beginning of their business, she took an active role and was considered pretty street smart. Bernie may be a sociopath who conned people out of their money, but Ruth benefited from the con game.

dorothy Thu. Jul 9, 2009

"Only" $2.5 million? How much of that is from her own legal income? If my husband carjacks a Mercedes and I get used to driving it, do I get to keep the car? Maybe she's a victim, but none of that money belongs to her.

Sephardiman Fri. Jul 10, 2009

JG-It's funny that you mention this because a similar story happened to my family. My late father took out an $80,000 loan from a finance company, while struggling with terminal cancer, and my elderly mother knew nothing of it until a few months before his death. She was straddled with this debt but fortunately was able to pay it off. I'm not sure but there seems to be a culture of "no one will find out" among our Jewish people these days.

jewish girl Sat. Jul 11, 2009


My late father also took out a second mortgage on our house without telling anyone..and my friend D's father left her father with loans..and N's husband was dipping into their savings without and all these guys are the same basic age as Madoff.

thanks, Sephardiman, I'm glad someone can relate.

Sephardiman Sun. Jul 12, 2009

Unfortunately JG, I can relate all too well to this sort of behavior.

Elona-Llyn Sun. Jul 12, 2009

I am just a year or two younger than Ruth Madoff. When I married, I left our finances to my husband while I raised our five children until the eldest was fifteen years old and trusted him implicitly. Out of the blue, while living in a foriegn country and without family around, my passport, with those of my children hidden from me, my husband suddenly divorced me without warning, married a twenty year old and left with the children I had lived my live for. I had no idea. I was left penniless. The children were told by the new mother that I didn't love them any longer and had new children anyway, etc. Life can be terribly cruel. I wish Ruth Godspeed.

Stephen Nash Tue. Jul 14, 2009

The author is a romantic and is inaccurate. In the majority of American families the finances are handled by the wife, not by the husband. The prototypical example of this, well known to Market Researchers and their advertising clients, is the American male factory worker who hands his paycheque to his wife and then receives an allowance.

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