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08.25.09

Madoff's Sex/Money Paradox

Sheryl Weinstein, the Ponzi victim who slept with Bernie—and just wrote a tell-all about it—might just be an Emma Bovary for the 21st century.

Sheryl Weinstein, who had a 20-year relationship with Ponzi king Bernie Madoff, is the latest incarnation of Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary.

What could an Upper East Side baby boomer and former CFO of a wealthy charity have in common with the 19th century’s original Desperate Housewife? Emma Bovary certainly didn’t have a career, while Sheryl Weinstein, according to her hastily written tell-all, sometimes out-earned her husband Ronnie. And where Madame Bovary’s feckless financial behavior is partly explained by not having a day job, nobody could say that about Mrs. Weinstein, a Wharton-educated CPA who was controller of Lincoln Center before her 13-year stint at Hadassah, the well-endowed charity that invested millions of dollars with Bernie Madoff on her watch (and during her affair.)

Sheryl gave this man her life savings more easily than she gave herself physically.

Like Flaubert’s Emma, on the other hand, Sheryl is a product of the new middle class. She discovered Dijonaise sauce late in life and says she didn’t learn about “medium rare” until she went to college. There will be no arsenic for Sheryl, though—unlike Emma, she has a book deal.

You might think Weinstein’s memoir, released today to great fanfare by St. Martin’s Press, was too quickly produced to deserve high-culture comparisons. But Madoff’s Other Secret is a surprisingly good read, and even though it’s been dismissed as trash, any woman who has stepped out on a long-term relationship should be able to rise above literary snobbery. Those who snipe at Weinstein for being frank about adultery (yet so calculating and mum pre-publication!) may prefer that she copy Anna Karenina and throw herself onto the tracks. But I suspect some critics ( Ira Sorkin, for example) are pretending not to understand. A breadwinner like Weinstein who creates a financial predicament often feels an obligation—and has every right—to try to correct it.

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Madoff's Other Secret. By Sheryl Weinstein. 224 Pages. St. Martin's Press. $23.99. ()

Still others have implied that Weinstein, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, ought to be wearing the scarlet “A” for adulteress, but Weinstein isn’t buying into the sexual shame game. She has apologized rather publicly to her husband for revealing so much about their marriage while offering useful tips to the rest of us about how to handle a sticky private confession. (When there was no plausible way to continue hiding her past affair from her husband, she told him her confession “was going to be a one-way conversation.” She didn’t want Ronnie to divulge “anything that may have happened in his life.”)

True confession: I hated Madame Bovary, sacrilegious as that sounds. I despised Emma Bovary for screwing up her life so thoroughly. From an early age, my role models were intelligent, diplomatic, and self-preserving cheaters who knew how to have their cake twice a day without destroying everyone they had ever lived with. Mistakes do happen, but a wise cheater sees each blunder as a teachable moment, treating adultery as a skill rather than a weakness or a sin.

Ever tried it? Then you’ll know how simple it isn’t.

It’s easier to be lured by cheap solutions or delusions while scattering the boundaries that once kept domestic harmony intact. You needn’t imbibe arsenic to realize that the most irritating thing about Madame Bovary is the fear you might become her, even a little bit, and screw things up quite a lot.

Like Bovary, Weinstein was seduced by a wealthier lover—and longed to travel with him, impossible though it was. She did not, however, believe they would elope, which is a great relief. It’s also a relief that Weinstein’s son won’t suffer the fate of Bovary’s child, sent to work in a cotton mill as a result of her mother’s self-destruction.

Why should we care about Bernie and Sheryl? There are countless reasons not to emulate either party, two of which come immediately to mind after devouring Weinstein’s 208-page memoir.

Bernie’s a failed con artist, while Sheryl chooses to belabor—repeatedly—some unkind revelations concerning his anatomy, a move that is hardly gallant. Perhaps she can be forgiven for this since she freely admits to a grand total of three sex partners, Bernie being her third. She simply doesn’t know any better. She may also feel symbolically castrated by the loss of her life savings—a situation that would make anyone rabid.

Was she in love? Though she claims the L word was spoken by Bernie and never by her, it sounds and reads like love on her side as well as his.

...His? Yes, well, con artists and monsters are capable of love too. In Weinstein’s memoir, Madoff comes across as human, more petty than monstrous, despite the inclusion (toward the end) of her victim-impact statement. Referring to him as “a beast” who “walks among us” raises a question: Is it possible that a person we label beast or monster has awoken some of our own private demons? During hot sex or a financial transaction—never mind a combination of the two—it’s hard to control the human appetite. We become irrational, greedy, and perhaps more monstrous than we realize.

When telling the rest of her story, Weinstein does a better job of showing us how she got scammed by a mere mortal. It was partly a result of her emotional priorities. Women are very stubborn about those: I know because I’ve got a few of my own.

In 1988, after meeting Bernie for the first time on the 18th floor of the Lipstick Building, Sheryl was instrumental in delivering a “very small part” of Hadassah’s overall portfolio—“a few million dollars”—to Bernie’s Ponzi scheme. After five years of lunch-hour flirting, which escalated into dinners and more, Weinstein persuaded Bernie to handle her family’s personal savings. Their financial arrangement was sealed with a memorable kiss, followed by six months of prolonged cuddling and yet more kissing.

Now I don’t think Weinstein was in the business of rationing sex, but she was as careful and measured about consummating that affair as she was about releasing details of her book to the public. She probably wasn’t ready for the explosive impact of intercourse with a new guy. In some relationships, not having sex is as erotic as having it, while protecting the body from intimacy is a good idea.

However, Sheryl gave this man her life savings more easily than she gave herself physically. It’s ironic that, having given $70,000 to Bernie for safe-keeping, she waited months to give her body to him. Some women, who are casual about sex, are more careful with their money. What if Sheryl’s priorities had been reversed? Would she still have her savings today?

Those who continue to attack Sheryl Weinstein for her sexual behavior are completely missing the point.

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Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.