The criminal genius who couldn’t calculate London time

Speaking of puzzles crying out for explanation, to pull off the biggest financial fraud in history, Bernard Madoff had to be fiendishly clever, yes?

But now read this from Jerry Oppenheimer’s new book, Madoff with the Money, excerpted in yesterday’s New York Post:


Bernie’s high school performance was unexceptional, and at best he was a C student.

“Bernie was not the brightest bulb,” recalls Far Rockaway classmate Mike Gandin, who became an attorney and a Madoff victim.

Fellow high school friend and current businessman Peter Zaphiris adds: “We’d carry on in school about how he was the dumbest white man we ever met in our lives—excuse me for the pejorative. It’s not fair to say he wasn’t bright. The guy was a dummy in high school. If you said, ‘Hey, Bernie, how are you?’ his head would tilt to the side—he had a nervous tick—he’d squint, one eye would flutter, and he’d grunt, ‘Hello.’ He was rather laconic, didn’t have much to say, never told a joke or said, ‘Look at her—she’s some piece of ass,’ or anything like that. That was pretty much Bernie. He was just no place.”

Or so it seemed.

Fast forward to one afternoon in the summer of 2008, as Bernie was scrambling to raise big money in a last-ditch effort to avoid getting caught. Zaphiris ran into him strolling in Central Park.

“I said, ‘Bernie, how’re you doing?’ And he pulled up his sleeve and he’s got two gold Rolexes on his wrist—the same wrist—and I said, ‘Bernie, how come you’re wearing two watches?’

“So he still blinks like hell and he leans over and he talks out of the side of his mouth and he says, ‘I gotta know what time it is in my London office.’ Think about that. He couldn’t do the addition and the subtraction” to determine the time.

- end of initial entry -

Mark Jaws writes:

I think we ought not confuse lack of social grace with lack of intelligence. So I am not yet buying this line that Madoff is a dummy. I am doing work right now for Department of Defense involving social scientists and cultural anthropologists. All with PhDs and distinguished in their fields, yet some are simply pathetically peculiar putzes.

LA replies:

The reason I quoted the passage from Oppenheirmer’s book was not that it showed Madoff lacking social grace, but that it showed him needing a watch to tell him London time. That’s just plain peculiar for the man who carried off the most complex and audacious financial fraud in history.

Karen writes from England:

Madoff was just a front man. He could not have done all that fraud himself even if he was a genius. If he was smart, he would have left the USA before he got arrested. He could have flown to Tel Aviv and confessed from there or just kept quiet. Israel doesn’t allow extraditions and so there would have been nothing anyone could have done, unless he left the country and went somewhere else where he could be arrested. He could have lived out his last years in comfort in the sun instead of in a cold New York jail. He wouldn’t have been able to leave Israel (except for some of the African and South American countries) but its better being confined to a small state rather than a small cell.

I always thought someone else devised the scheme and Madoff was the dupe who carried it out. If he was really bright he would never have been arrested.

LA replies:

I agree that the world’s greatest genius could not have carried off an operation of such complexity by himself, but needed a network of helpers. But the notion that Madoff is nothing but a front man (front man for whom?) is without foundation. He was the man.

Mark Jaws writes:

To be fair to the intellect of Mr. Madoff, I know it can be confusing at times, given Daylight Savings Time, to figure out whether London Time is five or six hours ahead of us. Maybe Madoff once lost out on a deal because he had simply assumed the wrong time. Geniuses can be peculiar.

LA replies:

Fair point. The difference between Greenwich time and Eastern time varies during the course of the year. He may not have wanted to deal with that and have to figure it out each time, so he carried the extra watch. Still, it’s odd.

D. from Seattle writes:

Very interesting observations from the Madoff with the Money book, however I wonder if they are true. I’ve read about Madoff and I have a very hard time believing that he was as stupid as Jerry Oppenheimer now claims. Madoff started his own Wall Street firm at age 22, then the firm developed computer IT that eventually became NASDAQ, at one time the firm was the largest market-maker on the NASDAQ and Madoff was non-exec chairman of the NASDAQ, and a lot more. What I’m trying to say is, those are not accomplishments typical of a stupid person and I think anyone would have a hard time finding a comparable example, i.e. a below-average intelligence person who accomplished so much, and all that without having any social skills. It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

As far as wearing two wristwatches, that is odd, and I say that as a wristwatch aficionado. There are watches that show a different time zone by virtue of having another hour hand; they are usually called GMT watches (for Greenwich Mean Time).

August 11

Dan R. writes:

25 years ago I was working for a major advertising company (in a minor capacity) and noticed one of our client’s representatives wearing a wristwatch with two analog faces. I thought of this as yet another depressing example of a yuppie’s pretentiousness about her job, especially given that the time difference on the two faces was merely between NY and Texas! This aspect of Madoff is benignly odd and, I think, largely insignificant.—Dan R.

LA replies:

I think you’re right. I think I probably overstated the significance of it in the initial post and comment. Such is blogging. It’s a conversation, not a book. :-)

LA continues:

By the way, when I said “conversation,” I didn’t mean it in the way that liberals use the word, that is, an implied relativistic process in which it turns out that there is only one permitted truth which is the liberals’ own truth, a truth that is not relativistic at all when it comes to the things the liberal cares about. Thus, for example, Obama’s and Holder’s proposed “national conversation” on race is really just a front for them to impose their view of race on us. No, what I mean by conversation is a dialectical process, a back and forth in which, by taking one position, then correcting it with a further position, and so on, we get closer and closer to the truth.
Dan replies (in response to LA’s first reply to him):

And this blog has the best conversations around!

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 10, 2009 12:42 PM | Send

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