The bonfire of the vanity: revisiting Bernie Madoff

He ran the biggest Ponzi scheme in history — and died earlier this month just 12 years into a 150-year prison sentence. Harry Shukman revisits the wizard of lies.

It was the day after Bernie Madoff was arrested, and the phones at his Midtown Manhattan office were ringing non-stop. That morning, on December 12th 2008, it seemed like everyone who had ever put money into Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities was now calling in desperation to liquidate their accounts. It was carnage up on the 19th floor, where sobbing investors bombarded the phones, begging for help, and sending in so many faxes that office staff had to replace the machines’ ink cartridges mid-call. It got so bad that Eleanor Squillari, Madoff’s secretary, organised a rota with her assistants to do twenty minutes on the phones so that in between shifts she would have time to dash to the bathroom and vomit from stress.

Madoff in his heyday on his investment company's famous 19th floor

This frantic scene is just one of the stomach-churning moments from Jim Campbell’s new book, Madoff Talks: Uncovering the Untold Story Behind the Most Notorious Ponzi Scheme in History. Campbell is an American business radio show host who extensively interviewed Madoff, or Inmate 61727054, from prison in North Carolina. It is a gripping account, and unmatchable now that Madoff has passed away aged 82, just two weeks before Campbell’s book was published this April. He was 12 years into his 150-year prison sentence.

The scale of Madoff’s criminal operation beggars belief, and this book does an excellent job of reminding you of the lives he ruined. There were 16,000 American investors in Madoff’s wealth management operation, which was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, in addition to around 720,000 international investors. The size of the fraud, according to prosecutors, was estimated to be $64.8 billion. And it may have gone on, by Campbell’s reckoning, for as many as 40 years.

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