Sheryl Weinstein gave her life savings and her love to disgraced financier without realising he was world’s biggest swindl
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For almost three months after Bernie Madoff was arrested, I wandered through life in a mental fog. Day after day, I awoke with a weight on me; this total feeling of dread. Not only do I feel like Bernie stole our money, but he also stole our future dreams, a part of my son’s future, the little money my parents had left me, and the money my 88-year-old mother-in-law had given to us to invest for her.
In those early days, my dark, ironic humour took hold. One night as I sat in my bedroom, unable to comprehend all that had happened, a thought entered my mind: I am probably the only person in the world who has been screwed twice by Bernie Madoff.
Ronnie, my husband, wasn’t aware of my entire story. I decided it was best to tell him before he found out. I had faith that his reaction would be all right. I felt comfortable being truthful with him. I wasn’t proud of what I had done, but we had been married for almost 37 years, and this was the extent of my unfaithfulness.
We sat down after dinner one night. I told him that I had something to share with him. Before he could say anything, I plunged in. “I had an affair 15 years ago.”
He didn’t appear shocked or angry, but he asked: “With whom?”
This was the hard part. “With Bernie,” I said.
“You’re kidding!” He almost laughed. “With Bernie? Him? What about Joey?”
Joey was my college boyfriend, whom I’d stayed in touch with over the years. “I thought if you were going to have an affair with anyone it would be him,” Ronnie said.
“No, it was Bernie.”
In order to move forward, I have decided to tell my story. I truly hope Ronnie will be able to forgive me for sharing these private moments in our lives.
It was 9am on February 25, 1988 when I entered New York’s Lipstick Building, the red-enamelled skyscraper on Third Avenue. As chief financial officer of Hadassah, a Jewish charitable organisation of 350,000-plus women, I’d been asked to a meeting to discuss a $7m donation, the largest we had received from a single benefactor.
The donor, an elderly man named Albert, lived in France. He wanted to remain anonymous, and he stipulated that a New York broker named Bernard Madoff should manage the funds. So here we were — Ruth, the Hadassah president, two other executives and me — at the Lipstick Building to meet Madoff
I didn’t see him when he first entered the room, but I watched as Ruth’s eyes widened, her thin lips parting in a contented grin. Turning to look, I saw that he was wearing a cardigan. His casual attire seemed contrived in its subtlety, as if to say, I’m relaxed and in control; trust me! It was one of the only times I would ever see him so casually dressed.
When his gaze fell on me, he blinked and looked a bit surprised. At 39, I was younger than my colleagues by more than two decades. He gave me a welcoming smile. It wasn’t lewd and lascivious, but slightly seductive and almost happy. I knew instantly that he was attracted to me.
Though I’d felt a surge of connection, I wasn’t particularly attracted to him — he didn’t have the pretty-boy features I preferred. Still, there was something in him that piqued my interest. My female intuition was telling me there was something else going on with this man; there was an intrinsic sensuality about him that was both attractive and alluring. Yet there was also an oily slickness that I found disconcerting. Bernie kept catching my eye in a way that was different from how he looked at the other women in the room. And when he wasn’t looking at me, I found myself admiring his distinctive profile.
Before the end of our first meeting, Bernie and I had exchanged business cards. As the caretaker of Hadassah’s finances, I would have to speak with him occasionally. But I also knew Bernie would be calling me regardless. So I wasn’t surprised when a few days later he phoned my office.
“Would you like to get together and discuss investment strategies?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
He invited me to lunch at his office where, as I waited for him, I thought about how nice it felt to be noticed by a man, especially one as influential and successful as Bernie. I’d been married for 16 years, and still I’d felt alone a long time. Ronnie could be a difficult man. Things have changed since, but back then he had a temper and suffered from significant mood swings.
I jumped when I heard Bernie’s voice behind me.
“Hi, Sheryl,” he said in a low, husky tone.
That same wide, desire-filled smile spread across his face, and an air of excitement saturated the room. This time, he was wearing a navy suit with a light blue shirt that made his grey-blue eyes more alluring than I remembered. He took my hand and leaned in to kiss my cheek. “So glad you could come today.”
We discussed very little business. Bernie talked a lot about his family. He grew up in Queens and met Ruth, his wife, when she was 13 and he was 16. By the time he and I met, the high-school sweethearts had been married for almost 30 years. Bernie was approaching his 50th birthday. He explained that Ruth, his brother, Peter, and his older son, Mark, were in business with him. His younger son, Andrew, would be graduating soon and was expected to join the firm.
I remember laughing a lot with Bernie that day. The one bit of business we discussed was whether he’d be willing to invest some of Hadassah’s money in addition to Albert’s donation. Bernie agreed that it would be a possibility, and I told him I’d run the idea by our volunteers.
He had several stipulations. He would invest Hadassah’s money but would be unavailable to answer questions from anyone on our finance advisory board. When I asked him why, he told me the investment advisory side of his company was small, and he implied that he was doing this as an accommodation and didn’t want to be bothered by people asking him a lot of questions.
We decided to invest a few million dollars and see how it went. We all felt confident. After all, a donor with a good reputation had referred us to Bernie, and Bernie had been in business since 1960.
Bernie and I started making lunch a regular thing. I quickly realised he was a total narcissist, completely self-absorbed. By the time we’d been seeing each other six months, I’d picked up on a few of his eccentricities. In the middle of a conversation, he’d start blinking uncontrollably. He was constantly clearing his throat. I am convinced he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome — a neurological disorder characterised by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalisations called tics — or some other undiagnosed illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Bernie’s constant blinking prompted me to give him the nickname “Winky Dink”. He blinked all the time when he was with me, and not so noticeably when others were around.
One of his obsessive tendencies centred on his wardrobe. He had custom-tailored suits from Kilgour of Savile Row, London; 25 blue and 25 grey lined up in his closet on East 64th Street. They were identical and numbered so that he could match the trousers to the jackets. I found that very peculiar.
When Bernie described his sons, they sounded spoilt and obnoxious. It annoyed Bernie that Mark and Andrew insisted on flying every time they wanted to go to the family’s waterfront home at Montauk on Long Island’s East End. It was a 2½-hour drive from Manhattan — three in summer traffic — but the boys didn’t care to spend their precious time in the car.
Summer was nearly over when, as I arrived for lunch with him at the Four Seasons, Bernie looked up and down the length of my body. “Sheryl, do you know how incredibly sexy you are?”
I smiled. How can a woman answer a question like that? Bernie seemed enchanted by my sexuality. After we’d ordered our meal, he suddenly leant in towards me as if he was going to share a secret. “How about the two of us going off together somewhere?”
I was totally taken aback. The thought of taking our friendship beyond flirtation frightened me. I looked at him and started laughing. “I don’t think so. Adultery is not my thing. It’s not what I’m about. I’ve only been with two men in my life, my husband and my college boyfriend. I don’t know what you must be thinking of me, Bernie.”
“Well, that takes the pressure off,” he said, sitting back in his chair. He looked enormously relieved. Obviously, he thought I was expecting a proposition and didn’t want to disappoint me. Now we could relax and be ourselves — which we did for the next several years before our friendship took a much more intimate turn.
Bernie had been earning consistent returns of between 18% and 20% for Hadassah — nice, steady returns. I began to think about personally investing with him. Mom wanted to transfer her money, too. In March 1993, while Bernie and I were having drinks at the St Regis hotel, I bit the bullet and asked him if he’d be willing to handle my personal funds.
“It’s not much,” I said. “We only started saving money when I joined Hadassah. I’m afraid what we have will be well below your minimum.”