Books shed light on Bernard Madoff's shady activities

The first books on swindler Bernie Madoff's monstrous $65 billion Ponzi scheme have landed.

Financial journalist Erin Arvedlund's Too Good to Be True and biographer Jerry Oppenheimer's Madoff With the Money are among the best.

While they fall short of revealing the heart of the beast, surely Madoff, who pleaded guilty, is the only one capable of that analysis.

Both have the feel of being woven together quickly. Little wonder. They were. Madoff was arrested less than a year ago on Dec. 11 and pleaded guilty on March 12, 2009. Both do, however, make fine reading for the curious looking to pull back the covers even partially. The narratives revolve around a cast of characters, strewn across the globe, and complex Wall Street sleight of hand. Each cobbles together a portrait of Madoff, and what emerges is a starkly soulless figure — much like Madoff's gray-and-black office decors.

First up, Arvedlund's Too Good to Be True. You have to hand it to Arvedlund. She had the goods and guts to expose the shaky underpinnings of Madoff's secretive hedge fund empire in early 2001 in an article, which appeared in Barron's, based on more than 100 interviews. Her story, titled Don't Ask, Don't Tell, was a jarring eye-opener … if only the Securities and Exchange Commission had paid it any heed.

She skeptically asked Madoff how some of his funds invested for individuals in private accounts had never had a down year and had produced compound annual returns of 15% for more than a decade. He blew her off by saying: "It's a proprietary strategy. I can't go into it in great detail." She called around to the firms that marketed his funds, such as Fairfield Greenwich, a New York City-based hedge fund marketer, and asked how he accomplished this. Co-founder Jeffrey Tucker responded, "it's a private fund" and wouldn't discuss returns.

The returns had been so consistent that some on the Street had begun speculating that Madoff's market-making operation subsidized and smoothed his hedge fund returns, she reported. And she wrote that one satisfied, unnamed investor informed her "Madoff politely requests that his investors not reveal that he runs their money."

Arvedlund's book uses her Barron's story as a launching pad to delve deeper into the business story of how Madoff arrived at such a lauded state of hushed reverence from investors and SEC regulators alike. Until he was arrested, Madoff was relatively unknown outside the financial world.

She begins with Madoff's brazen court statement on March 12: "I never invested the money. I deposited it into a Chase Manhattan bank."

"Madoff's crime, painstakingly carried out over many years, was audacious but based on a simple premise: He paid earlier investors with later investors' money," she writes. Arvedlund has an investigative reporter's grasp of the investment world. She explains how hedge funds operate and how financial markets are regulated, and provides insight into some of the biggest global investors. She follows money funneled from individual investors to feeder funds such as Fairfield Greenwich, and ultimately to Madoff's Chase Manhattan account.

She drills down to Madoff's Wall Street days of a young stock trader in the 1960s and details his vision of electronic trading in the 1980s and his role in promoting and using Nasdaq (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation System), a nationwide electronic network of broker-dealers. She tracks his path to becoming a golden boy with a cozy relationship with the SEC as far back as the 1970s. She describes his secretive 17th-floor advisory operation in Manhattan's Midtown "Lipstick building" that remained largely hidden from his legitimate broker-dealer operation on the 18th and 19th floors.

That said, it's far from unraveling the whole story and is repetitive in parts, probably a result of the rush to press. "It's a complex, ever-changing, and expanding tale of a fraud of unprecedented proportions," she writes. She surmises, "Had the stock market in the United States not collapsed in 2008, Madoff's scam would probably have continued. But by the autumn of 2008, the shaky economy was beginning to take its toll, investors were clamoring for money out of their last safe haven, and Madoff needed to oblige them to keep the scam going. He needed cash fast."

"Bernie was facing a staggering amount of redemptions as more and more people cashed out … the 'sticky money' from individuals, from old friends and referrals on whom Madoff had relied for decades — the money that never left him — was now leaving. Even the big players were panicking. Investors wanted $7 billion of their money back now from Madoff before the year's end."

Madoff was able to carry on for so long because people trusted him. They were hypnotized by those returns. "Potential investors who did their due diligence and looked closely at Madoff often decided to steer clear," writes Arvedlund.

For those who refused to ask, the magic ran out. She writes that in 2001 when she penned her Barron's piece, she had no idea that Madoff was running a historic pyramid scam. But she did know he wasn't doing what he claimed. She also didn't know about Harry Markopolos, the certified fraud examiner, who had made it his personal mission to expose Madoff's scam starting in 1999, repeatedly sending the SEC warnings that Madoff was a fraud.

Jerry Oppenheimer's Madoff With the Money is a more titillating read, based on dozens of interviews with people who knew Madoff intimately. These range from disgruntled relatives to Hollywood victims, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, now in her 90s, and her ninth husband, Prince Frederic Von Anhalt, 65, to those who lost life savings through feeder funds.

Oppenheimer's yarn describes Madoff as a "born operator who always seemed to know his way around the system — even when he was a young punk growing up in Queens."

Recollections from high school classmates at Far Rockaway High School sketch a profile of a rather unexceptional student with a nervous tick and twitchy eye, an unremarkable athlete, a guy many remember as a "putz." He touches on Madoff's parents, who were involved in a questionable stock business, and his father-in-law, Saul Alpern, a "shrewd CPA" who would send him some of his earliest investors.

Like Arvedlund, Oppenheimer tips his hat to the tenacious Markopolos, who tried repeatedly to get the SEC turned on to Madoff's fraud. Oppenheimer reports that Markopolos later revealed that he feared for his life afterward and began checking his car for bombs.

But it is the cheeky details that can make for truly dishy reading. For example, the "very special" $7,400 unconstructed, handmade vicuna-and-cashmere, cream-and-brown herringbone jacket that took a very special guy to see it for what it was worth — and afford to pay for it. Bernie was that kind of guy, David Neff, the owner of the chic Trillion boutique on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, tells the author. Oppenheimer describes "the enormous custom-built, walk-in closet" in Madoff's East 64th Street co-op apartment and his passion for custom-tailored suits and expensive wristwatches. He spills out the contents of one month's worth of charges on the Madoff corporate American Express Platinum card.

He throws a few jabs at the spending ways of Madoff's wife, Ruth, his two sons and his niece. Other tasty minutiae: An employee in the London office spills the beans about what Madoff always ordered for breakfast when he was there, not kosher, and that he and Ruth enjoyed the music of Neil Diamond. And that he stayed at the Lanesborough hotel, where guests had private butlers assigned to them. He even tosses in a few morsels about Madoff's alleged extramarital affairs and regular masseuse appointments — all tidbits that do little to explain how or why he did what he did, but add a little spice to this unsavory story.

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.