Jordan Belfort: A Big Story for the Big Screen?
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
A story now about the rise and fall of the rich and notorious. Before he was 30, Jordan Belfort had the kind of life people dream about. He had founded a brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont that made him rich. He had a beautiful wife and a big house on Long Island. Then, it all came crashing down in one of the biggest securities fraud cases of the 1990s.
Now, Belfort has written a memoir about Stratton Oakmont called "The Wolf of Wall Street."
And NPR's Jim Zarroli recently spent some time with the former trader.
JORDAN BELFORT: This is the side entrance of the building, knowing there's a concrete ramp...
JIM ZARROLI: Jordan Belfort bounds up the freight ramp of a black glass office building in the town of Lake Success, New York. This was once the headquarters of Stratton Oakmont, and in its glory days, this was how you entered the building. Going through the lobby took too long, Belfort says, and at Stratton Oakmont, time was money.
BELFORT: People who walked in for the first time will be utterly blown away, because everyone would be standing up and screaming and shouting and pacing back and forth, and everyone was on the telephone. And there's the computer monitors in every desk. The numbers skidding this way and that. And essentially, you'd walk in and you'd see a tailor fitting suits, someone shining shoes. You know, it was like a self-contained society. Everyone was bringing all their, you know, their services to fill the needs, wants, and desires of all these young stockbrokers that have these, you know, over- inflated paychecks.
ZARROLI: Stratton Oakmont was a place where traders spent their days hounding investors into buying stock.
BELFORT: They were taught to basically - the phrase was, you know, don't hang up the phone until the customer buys or dies.
ZARROLI: What customers didn't know was that Stratton Oakmont was a classic pump and dump operation. Belfort and his partners secretly held shares in the companies. They would manipulate the stock's price, sell at a big profit and leave investors with huge losses.
Alabama Securities Commissioner Joseph Borg.
JOSEPH BORG: These guys were living high and mighty - planes, boats, tons of parties, and there's a lot of folks that lost a lot of money. You know, there was just one deal could make as much as $10 or $15 million. They had tons of these deals.
ZARROLI: It took regulators years to shut down Stratton Oakmont. Belfort hired good lawyers. And he knew how to cover his tracks. He even used his mother-in- law to launder money through a Swiss bank account. When Securities and Exchange Commission investigators came in to look at his books, Belfort had them bugged.
BELFORT: I took these tiny, imperceptible steps to the dark side of the force. And before I knew it, I was doing things that years before I would have thought were like, you know, were completely illegal. Now they just seemed, nah, they were okay. So when I was up there saying buy or die, it all seemed like it was normal. Now, I look back at it and I can't even believe I said it.
ZARROLI: It finally came to an end in 1998 right here outside the 22-room mansion where Belfort used to live. He was taking his daughter to the video store when FBI agents arrested him. Belfort agreed to testify against his partners and paid $14 million to reimburse investors. He spent 20 months in jail. Today, he says he lives modestly in a rented apartment in Los Angeles. At 45, he's trim and tan - the picture of health.
But Belfort's done some hard living over the years. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a breathlessly told, often hilarious, story of epic waste and copious amounts of drugs and sex. Once high on Quaaludes, Belfort took his 179-foot yacht into the Mediterranean during a gale. He was rescued, but his boat and his helicopter had to ditched into the sea. Belfort says that in prison, he would tell stories like these to his cellmate, who happened to be Tommy Chong - the comedian. Chong was doing time for selling drug paraphernalia.
BELFORT: You know, at night, I got nothing to do, so you just tell war stories. So I would tell stories and Tommy Chong would tell stories. And by day three, he's like, you know, your stories are the funniest stories I ever heard. I - you got to write a book.
ZARROLI: Belfort says rehashing the events of his life was no easy task.
BELFORT: I'm a convicted criminal. And I'm guilty. Like I have no illusions that I was falsely accused or that I didn't do it. So to write the things that I was writing about, about, you know, committing crimes and living this life of unbridled hedonism. All of these things that I'm not proud of, I feel that are despicable now - I have to write about it and be in jail while my wife is now married to someone else. And here I am, I have two children I can't see. It was so painful. I felt like jumping off a building.
ZARROLI: It did sometime seem as though you were saying in the book that it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been doing all the drugs.
BELFORT: I would like to think that, but sadly enough, I can't say that. It would be great for me emotionally to say it was all the fault of the drugs and I'm really a good person. And I would never have committed those crimes if it wasn't for the drugs. In the absence of drugs, I still would have committed the crimes, I believe. Because that was greed, under it all, that motivated me.
ZARROLI: Belfort's book has been optioned by director Martin Scorsese. Under his plea agreement, he must surrender half of any money he makes to investors. Today, he's been in drug rehab for a decade, and he's tried to begin a new life. But one thing seems to haunt Belfort - to many people, he can never be fully redeemed. And he knows he'll carry the legacy of Stratton Oakmont wherever he goes.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.