Within weeks of Bernard Madoff’s arrest last December, Andrew Kirtzman had signed a deal with Harper Collins to tell the story. The veteran New York journalist, who has worked for the Daily News, NY1 and most recently WCBS News, spent the next seven months sifting through the wreckage of the con man’s life, from his childhood neighborhood of Laurelton, Queens, to Palm Beach, Fla., which became a feeding ground for Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Kirtzman, 48, spoke to N.Y. Minute about “Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff,” which was No. 30 this week on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
Q: There are several books about Madoff. What sets yours apart?
A: I come from the Lower East Side.
My grandfather was one of the founders of the ILGWU [the garment workers union]. My late father helped build the Hillman Housing Cooperatives on Grand Street where I spent the first 12 years of my childhood. The people I interviewed kind of came from my universe.
You mention Madoff’s Jewish ties on almost every page. Is there ever a point where it’s too much, or is it part and parcel of the story?
It is part and parcel of the story. Bernie Madoff’s grandparents came up from Poland to escape the pogroms and so did [his wife] Ruth’s parents. Her father owned a bathhouse on the Lower East Side. Bernie grew up in Laurelton, which in the ‘50s and ‘60s was basically an all-Jewish middle-class neighborhood. His background was thoroughly steeped in the Jewish community … He chose his own world to loot and that’s an inescapable part of the story. Whether some media outlets have handled that angle accurately is another question.
Did you ever feel discomfort because of your own background?
Honestly, it didn’t give me as much trepidation as it has given so many other people who have watched this story from a distance with horror and with concern about what it’s doing to the reputation of the Jewish community. I had enough confidence in my own ability to tell the story correctly and to know it would not feed any additional anti-Semitism.
You report that Madoff’s parents were running an illegal stock-trading operation out of their living room when Bernie was a boy.
There were scattered reports of the [Securities and Exchange Commission] shutting down a company his mother ran. We did a huge amount of research about what was going on inside that living room in Laurelton. We found people who had contemporaneous accounts of a young Bernie Madoff playing the stock market even before he had a license.
In another book, Sheryl Weinstein says she had an affair with Madoff while investing with him on behalf of Hadassah. Did you know about this?
In my book I write that Ruth Madoff confided to a friend that Bernie had cheated on her. It’s really sad that [Weinstein] needed to make money by revealing something so sordid.
Do you believe his claims of remorse?
I think he had remorse that he got caught. But you’re talking about a guy who bankrupted his own sister.