Author Overcomes Money Fears In 'Bag Lady Papers'

Alexandra Penney i i

Author Alexandra Penney says she lost all of her savings in Bernard Madoff's investment scheme. Donna Svennevik/ABC hide caption

itoggle caption Donna Svennevik/ABC
Alexandra Penney

Author Alexandra Penney says she lost all of her savings in Bernard Madoff's investment scheme.

Donna Svennevik/ABC

Journalist and author Alexandra Penney started working when she was 16 and had saved all she could since then.

Then there was an arrest, and her phone rang.

"I received a phone call from my best friend, and she said, 'Bernard Madoff's just been arrested. Isn't your money with him?' The phone then rang again, and it was my son, and he said, 'Mom, Madoff's been arrested. You can come live with us.' So he knew that I had lost all of my savings," Penney tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

The Bag Lady Papers
By Alexandra Penney
Hardcover, 240 pages
Voice
List price: $23.99

Read An Excerpt

Penney's new memoir, The Bag Lady Papers, chronicles her experience as a victim of the $65 billion Ponzi scheme run by the financier. The former editor of Self Magazine says she had long held a fear of being alone with nowhere to live. So she saved and invested with Madoff.

"My savings were gone, and not having a nest egg absolutely galvanized my fears of being a bag lady," she says.

Penney doesn't reveal the amount she lost because of ongoing lawsuits, but she says she did exercise some due diligence before handing her money over to Madoff.

"I had talked to people who had gone to Harvard Business School," she says. "I asked oh, 10, 12, 15 people about Madoff. One person said, 'We don't know how he does it.' The rest of them said, 'You're perfectly safe and you're lucky to be there.' "

In the months since Madoff's arrest, Penney says, she has learned to ask for things and barter. She also learned that though she, like many women, has a fear of dependence, abandonment and loss of control, now she can get through anything.

"The reality was that I can deal now with these fears, now that the worst has happened," she says.

Excerpt: 'The Bag Lady Papers'

The Bag Lady Papers book cover
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 1: December 11, 2008

The Bag Lady Papers
By Roger Rosenblatt
Hardcover, 240 pages
Voice
List price: $23.99

I am carefully placing Baccarat crystal goblets on my dining room table. The lacquered pear-wood is set for four, with starched white place mats and napkins, pretty flowered English antique plates, and a handful of white votive candles. Five small silver vases filled with white freesia and the first delicate white tulips that signal spring will be on the way—and the sooner the better. Even though it is just mid-December, it seems as if it's been forever winter here in steely gray New York, with four snowfalls and single-digit windchill factors that invade the bones and frost the soul.

I have lived in this sun-filled apartment with wide views of the East River for almost twenty years, and I love to entertain here. Good friends will arrive soon and I have dug up my ancient Julia Child cookbook to make dessert. It's so old the covers have fallen off, but the Grand Marnier soufflé is a wow and actually very easy to prepare. In the kitchen the soufflé is waiting in its mold so I can pop it into the oven as soon as everyone is here.

The phone rings and I answer it.

"I'm hoping it's a rumor," a very dear friend, Alex, says, "but Bernard Madoff's just been arrested. All your money's with him, right?"

Jesus Christ!!!! All!! Every cent I ever saved since I started working summers at Lord & Taylor when I was sixteen years old. This cannot be true!

My cell phone begins to ring. The screen shows that it's my son calling from California. I hang up with Alex and my son repeats the news: "Don't worry, Mom, everything will be okay. We love you and you can always stay in our guest house."

I am grateful to the point of tears for the offer. But I am not going to be a burden to anyone. I never have been and I never will be.

I call Paul, my closest friend and on-and-off longtime companion, who's on his way to my place for dinner, and tell him what's happened.

"Please take a taxi and get here as fast as you humanly can. I can't be alone. I'm beyond physically terrified. And would you call Will and Jae and tell them not to come over? They'll understand."

I phone my lawyer and leave a message that I've lost all my money with Bernard Madoff and that I need to see him ASAP.

Whenever anxiety avalanches over me, I am compelled to clean whatever is in sight, to collect things and put them into tidy piles. This is one of those moments.

The soufflé has fallen in its mold. How fitting! My world is collapsing as well. I take the silver, linens, and candles off the table and place them precisely back in their drawers and cabinets.

I pause at the flowers. I bought them late this afternoon, as I usually do before a dinner party. Will I ever be able to afford fresh flowers again? Since college days, when I hung out in the musky, humid botany conservatory to escape the freezing New England cold, I have loved flowers. To see a magnificent rose unfurl its petals and reveal its fragrance freely to the world, and then to give itself quietly back to nature, has always been a wonder to me. So, instead of tossing the freesia and tulips, I take them out of the silver vases and place them carefully in a couple of drinking glasses and add some water. The little vases go into their corner cupboard, the remains of the soufflé are emptied into the garbage, and the soufflé mold is scoured.

Oh god, there's the meat loaf still cooking in the oven. I scoop it out of the pan, and even though it's too hot, I wrap it in foil with neat corners and put it in the refrigerator alongside the caramelized walnut and arugula salad I've made for an appetizer. I scrub that pan, too, wash it, dry it, and store it under the counter alongside the other organized rows of pots and cookware.

The last thing on the table is the crystal. I carry each heavy goblet to the glass-fronted cabinet where their lovely facets catch the light. I bought the Baccarat piece by piece because, twenty-five years ago, I didn't have the money to buy more than one glass at a time. As I'm putting the last one away, Paul flies in the door and gives me a huge hug, which has the unintended effect of physically reassuring me that I am not in some sort of weird dream state. He's canceled the other two dinner guests.

I stand in my spotless kitchen and haven't the faintest idea of what to do. He gives me another hug, then clicks on the television and the computer. He's scanning the channels and Googling Madoff. Apparently, the MF confessed to his sons and to the FBI that he has put all his investors into a giant Ponzi scheme. Nothing much else is clear, but I have a gut certainty that I have lost it all.

Terror snakes through my veins. The phone rings again. I'm still standing, dumbstruck, in the kitchen. It's another friend, Gayle, who says, "I had money in Madoff, too. What are you going to do?"

I don't know what to tell her. She doesn't know what to tell me. All we can do is agree to stay in close touch and hang up.

The call, at least, has broken the spell that seemed to have cemented my feet to my black-and-white-tiled kitchen floor. I make my way to my desk in the library and take out all the MF's statements, which have appeared so real and reassuring to me over the past years. There were the stocks he'd bought: Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, ExxonMobil, Bank of America, and many others, all familiar names to me. I look more closely. On the bottom line I see that he had put all my money into United States Treasury bills at the end of October.

In my panic, I'd forgotten about the Treasury bills. A few weeks ago, in the beginning of November, I had not received the MF's usual financial paperwork, which unfailingly arrived in the first week of the month. I had wondered why. I wanted to redeem my retirement money and have it in cash, out of the fund. The market was going crazy and I was at least smart enough to know it was no time to be in any kind of stock market investment, legendary or not.

I had waited a couple of days more for the statement to arrive, just to make sure there wasn't a post office delay, then I phoned Madoff headquarters on November 11; I remember the day because it was my father's birthday. Over the ten years that my savings were with the MF, I had called the office only two or three times about some procedural matter, in each instance speaking to a different person who appeared knowledgeable when I gave my name and account number.

The woman who took my call on November 11 told me that the statements were to be mailed out "tomorrow" and that someone would get back to me about redeeming my money.

"You have no worries," she said that day, "you're in United States Treasuries."

I called again a few days later and was informed that the statements "had gone out" and, once more, all was well, I was in Treasury bills, which were "one hundred percent safe." Still, I replied that I wanted to take my money out of my account. Someone would get back to me as soon as possible, she said.

I was momentarily lulled because the last paperwork had been issued a few short weeks ago, in October, and because the woman at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities had repeatedly reassured me that I was in United States Treasury bills.

As I now check the computerized pages of the October statement, I feel a tendril of hope. My money is backed by the American government! Maybe I haven't lost it all.

I call Gayle back excitedly, and we compare statements. She has Treasuries, too. But when we examine the paperwork closely, we realize that the numbers of the bills are exactly the same. Motherfucker! These are fake, too.

Gayle and I hang up again and I start pounding the computer keys to find the number of the United States Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C. I locate the number, dial, and a machine asks me to leave a voice message.

I say my name and explain, "I am a client of Bernard Madoff. I understand he's been arrested for fraud and I would like to check on a Treasury bill number. If someone could please call me back, I would be most appreciative."

I know it is ridiculous to phone the United States Treasury at this hour. But what else can I do? The apartment is spotlessly clean. I need activity to help alleviate my anxiety. Suddenly I remember that I have stashed away one very strong tranquilizer in the bathroom medicine chest in case there should be a death in the family. Well, there it is. My money has passed away. I pop the pill in my mouth.

Alex's husband, Byron, rings up to remind me of Emerson's line, "I am defeated all the time, but I am born to victory."

I am thanking him when the other line rings. "This is Mr. W, from the United States Department of the Treasury," a deep voice says.

It's past eight at night, and the U.S. Treasury is returning my call? I am now even more horribly certain that this Madoff thing is real and that I am standing in the middle of a nightmare.

I tell him that I have a Treasury bill and want to check the number to see if it is real.

"I've heard from about fifteen Madoff clients," he says before asking me the bill number.

"That is indeed a Treasury offering. And there are many entities that would buy that offering."

"How can I find out if Madoff is one of them?" I ask.

"I don't think there is any place where you can find out who bought what," he responds.

"There must be a way," I plead. "Do you have any idea how I could go about it?"

"It sounds like a bad situation and I am sorry but I can't offer advice," he says with finality.

The tranquilizer is hitting me like a tsunami. Paul tells me he'll spend the night, since he doesn't think I should be alone. I'm so groggy that I don't know how to tell him how grateful I am, so I give him one last hug and head for bed. He stays glued to the TV, scanning the channels for more news and details on the situation. All the cable stations are covering the story.

I don't turn out the lights. I start up the laptop that's on my night table. A thought has been hovering in my mind since Alex and my son called, and it's a thought that many before me have had upon receiving devastating news. It's the universal out, the final option, that, like it or not, exists for everyone. I Google the Hemlock Society. I want to know a painless way to die. The Hemlock Society Web site, it turns out, has been dismantled; it has gone to cyber heaven. If I weren't in such a morbid state, I'd have a good laugh about that.

I check out a few more sites that pop up after I search for "self-inflicted death." I learn that, unfortunately, it takes a while to cross the Styx to get to the otherworld, such as it may be. If you're in a major hurry, guns work fast, as does jumping out of windows, and cyanide, which is used in making jewelry, seems to work best and is speediest. I love jewelry, especially pearls, so this link to the chemical that could end it all seems to reflect perfectly the irony and absurdity of what is happening to me. Before I can find out more, the tranquilizer takes over and, mercifully, I pass out.

From The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney. Copyright 2010 by Alexandra Penney. Reprinted by permission of Voice. All rights reserved.

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