Madoff: The Final Word by Richard Behar

“There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man.” So writes Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, and it’s a fitting quote for Richard Behar’s new book, Madoff: The Final Word. Bernie Madoff was, of course, a madman, but he has also become a modern-day white whale for the myriad journalists, prosecutors, bankruptcy experts, victims, enablers, and many others who are still trying to wrestle the thick web of incomprehensible deceit that was Madoff, who died in prison in 2021, into something ordinary human minds can understand.

Behar’s quest to do just that occupied a sizable chunk of his life. At the start of the book, he tells us that he first requested an interview with Madoff in early 2009, just months after the revelation of his $68 billion fraud stunned the world. Behar stayed on the case for 15 years, through more than 300 incoming e-mails and dozens of handwritten letters from Madoff, roughly 50 phone conversations between the two, more than 100,000 pages of documents, and over 300 interviews.

Behar recounts telling former S.E.C. chairman Arthur Levitt, “Bernie and I are apparently both in prison for life.” He writes, “This book marks my escape. At least one of us made it out.”

Call him Ishmael.

But at this late date, does anyone care? To Behar’s great credit, given how endlessly and skillfully Madoff has been chronicled, he does pull off some feats of reporting and thinking that make the book a valuable addition to the Madoff pantheon. Although the U.S. Attorney’s Office ultimately agreed to date the start of Madoff’s fraud to 1992, Behar leaves no doubt that Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme basically from the start. Behar got the interviews that Madoff’s former right-hand man, Frank DiPascali, who died in 2015, did with the F.B.I., in which he told them, “The whole business has been a scam.”

Madoff himself initially confessed the same thing—that is, before he fabricated a fresh story that the scheme had started much later. Why lie? Perhaps to shield some of his wife Ruth’s assets, or perhaps because he wanted to go down in history as a genuinely genius trader who just made one mistake from which he could not recover, rather than as the out-and-out fraudster that he was.

The book is worth reading just for the scene of the almost slapstick comedy that ensued after Madoff told his sons that it had all been a fraud. As S.E.C. lawyers frantically called F.B.I. investigators, each one in turn initially shrugged his shoulders, because it sounded small, because they simply couldn’t hear the right first letter of the word. As one F.B.I. chief yells to a prosecutor, “Pat, listen to me! ‘Billion,’ not ‘million’! ‘Billion’! With a B.

Behar’s explorations of the darker parts of the human psyche are also required reading for anyone interested in white-collar crime. How could Madoff live with himself? He tells Behar, “Oh, yeah. After a while, you start bullshitting yourself to believe what you want to believe. ‘I’m gonna get out of this mess.’ And then you just block it out of your mind.”

“Listen to me! ‘Billion,’ not ‘million’! ‘Billion’! With a B.

Why didn’t clients ask more questions, or, as Behar asks, “Why are the clients who lost money when they knew better (or should have known better) called ‘victims’”? And what about the supposedly sophisticated funds such as Fairfield Greenwich, which raised billions from investors and pumped it into Madoff’s funds? Behar cites a transcript of a call in which Madoff told the Fairfield Greenwich chief risk officer, “The less that you know about how we execute, and so on and so forth, the better you are.” In turn, the chief risk officer was too intimidated—and too greedy—to risk asking a question. And therein lies a great truth about how the world too often works.

There was also the rest of Wall Street, where rumors about Madoff were rife, and yet no one with real clout ever used the strings they pulled all the time to call a prosecutor. “So many key players in the securities markets were highly suspicious of Bernie Madoff, and there were rumors in the industry that he was ‘no good,’” says the F.B.I.’s Pat Carroll in the book. “And not one of them came forward.”

Maybe the answer is that no one on the Street actually thinks about investors as real human beings. We’re just grist for the money mill. Exhibit A: JPMorgan, which got itself disinvested from Madoff before the collapse but left its private-banking clients to take the losses.

Ultimately, though, Behar seems to have gotten exhausted by the endlessness, and perhaps fruitlessness, of his quest, and his exhaustion makes readers exhausted, too. He begins to quote endlessly from transcripts of his interviews, and to get lost in the minutiae of courtroom details, sure signs of a writer who has gotten desperate.

More importantly, while his book might be the final word—let’s hope so—even Behar can’t answer some of the questions he raises. He writes, “Solved: who knew what in the Madoff family.” But the cutesy rhetoric can’t mask the fact that it isn’t solved. When Behar asks one of the prosecutors, “Are you willing to say that Peter [Bernie’s brother] and the sons should have known?,” the prosecutor responds, “I don’t know what that means, ‘should have known.’ A lot of people should know things that they don’t know. That’s not even something I speculate about.” With Madoff and his sons both dead, and Ruth in an assisted-living facility, so it ends.

Behar knows that there could have been a true final word only if Madoff had finally allowed himself to be captured. In the book’s beginning, he quotes a prosecutor who says, “You could investigate this case for fifty years and not be done … and not get to all the truths. You could do this for fifty years and still leave a lot on the table.”

At the book’s end, Behar writes, “There was never a full confession … there was no admission about the moment he became a criminal, the first dirty trade, the real role of his bankers and their underlings, and his family members, the full scope of the complicity that allowed him to do what he did. It broke my heart that I could never get Bernie to come clean.”

In the very last conversation that Behar has with Madoff, he tries one last time. “He replied that he’d always been honest with me,” Behar writes. Maybe Ahab was the lucky one, because at least the white whale couldn’t use words, slippery things offering nothing but misdirection in the hands of a master liar like Madoff, to elude his hunters.

Bethany McLean is a journalist and the author of several books, including The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (co-authored with Peter Elkind) and, most recently, The Big Fail: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind (co-authored with Joe Nocera)