Inside The Mind of Madoff: NYT's Diana Henriques Discusses New Book 'Wizard Of Lies'
This post has been corrected.
Perhaps the only individual more qualified than veteran New York Times financial reporter Diana Henriques to write the book on Bernard Madoff’s epic Ponzi scheme is Madoff himself. Hardly a stranger to the devastation wrought by white-collar crime, Henriques covered the Enron aftermath and a host of financial misdeeds and foul-ups and twice has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Henriques was born in Texas, grew up in Virginia and has lived in Hoboken, N.J. with her husband since 1988. Over tea in the study of her Hoboken brownstone, she discussed her experience writing “The Wizard of Lies.” She said the book, for which she interviewed over 100 sources, was the most difficult project she’s ever undertaken. Unflinchingly cordial, Henriques speaks with a measured, authoritative tone, occasionally pausing to contemplate her answers. Every now and then, for a fleeting syllable or two, the remnants of a southern accent make their presence known.
In “Wizard of Lies,” out today, she describes her prison meetings with the disgraced financier in detail, identifying what she calls the “Madoff magic,” and attempts to uncover what Madoff's wife Ruth and his two sons knew about his decades-old scheme. She said the family made characters “straight out of Shakespeare.”
You were the first reporter to visit Madoff at Butner Federal Correctional Complex and interview him face-to-face.
I was. The Financial Times reporters visited him in March, but I was the first. It took about 18 months to set it up.
Tell me about how you got the interview.
Well, I started asking for the interview when he was at MCC [Metropolitan Correctional Center] in Manhattan, right after he pleaded guilty. I had a mailing address for him. I wrote him my first letter requesting it and I just kept after it. Note to young reporters: never give up.
I kept asking and then he was moved to North Carolina, and I kept asking again. I didn’t even get an answer back for months. Then, I got a letter in September ’09, handwritten from the prison, full of flattery, saying that he’d followed my career, admired my professionalism -- all this stuff. He wasn’t free to talk right now, he said. But when he was, I would be at the top of his list. So I folded that up and continued research on the book, assuming I was going to have to write this book without Bernie Madoff. So I interviewed everybody in the world that I could.
Finally, in the early summer of 2010, his lawyer reached out and suggested to me that it was looking a little more promising that he would talk to me. He eventually agreed and then it took a month to get the prison paperwork done because the warden has to approve any media visit.
Eventually the warden approved it; I got a call that gave me six days notice to be down there on the particular day. That was in August 2010 and that was my first visit. It was a little over two hours and I still had pages of questions. And he volunteered -- he said, “Write them out and I’ll answer them by letter.” And he did. I exchanged letters and then emails and a phone call or two between that visit and my visit in February, which was my second visit. And we continue to trade emails. I just got one from him yesterday.
Have you given him an advance copy of the book?
So he has no idea.
He hasn’t seen it yet.
And do you expect that he’ll read it?
He says he wants to. He’s asked if the publisher can ship him one. They have restrictions in prison on what they can receive through the mail. But he certainly wants to get one. He didn’t like the title, though. He did tell me after the interview in February he thought the title was “too sensationalistic.” [Laughs]
Come on? A Times reporter sensationalizing the title?
I didn’t pick the title, but, you know, we changed the title actually, after the first visit. It was originally going to be called “A World of Lies” to reflect this global Ponzi scheme, this web that he had stretched from Palm Beach to the Persian Gulf.
But after I visited him that first time and really got a taste of the Madoff magic, and began to see how he tried to manipulate people and how he dealt with selling his story, it was clear to me and my editor that he belonged at the center of the title, because he kind of shifted the center of gravity for the book. So that’s when we changed the title to “The Wizard of Lies.” And once I heard it, I knew it was the right one. I like it even if he doesn’t.