A Madoff makes over her life by giving makeovers

Stephanie Madoff had to rebuild her life after her husband, Mark Madoff, committed suicide.
Stephanie Madoff (above) had to rebuild her life after her husband, Mark Madoff, committed suicide.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Stephanie Madoff had to rebuild her life after her husband, Mark Madoff, committed suicide.
Stephanie Madoff had to rebuild her life after her husband, Mark Madoff, committed suicide.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Determined to turn her life around, Stephanie Madoff, daughter-in-law of convicted financier Bernard Madoff, is starting over as Mack the stylist

NEW YORK • In the Tribeca neighbourhood of Manhattan, several boutiques - the kind frequented by women of not just means, but considerable means - have a stack of thick gold-bordered cards next to the register.

They are as large as cocktail napkins, but they are business cards: too big to be slipped into a wallet, though perfectly sized to be slipped into a calfskin shoulder bag that costs more than US$1,000 (S$1,360).

They advertise the services of stylist Stephanie Mack: aka Stephanie Madoff, daughter-in-law of financier Bernard L. Madoff and widow of Mark Madoff, who committed suicide in 2010 - on the second anniversary of his father's arrest.

She recently started a styling business with a list of clients who are often going through their own dramas.

She has a good eye for fashion. She also has something perhaps more valuable: intimate knowledge of loss, grief and starting over, and a determination to be something other than just a footnote in the Madoff saga.

"I don't want to get defined by Bernie Madoff and his crimes. I don't want to be defined by the fact that my husband killed himself," Mack, 43, said recently, sitting at the kitchen counter of her apartment in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, where she and her two children, aged 10 and eight, have lived since last year.

Somebody gets set up on a date with me, they can find out everything about me. Literally everything. To become less nervous, I needed to feel like I looked good.

STYLIST STEPHANIE MACK, on how fashion is protection

"There are thousands of other stylists and personal shoppers who do the same thing I do, but I wanted to get back out there again."

For US$200 an hour, with a three-hour minimum, she helps clients choose simple pieces such as the best jeans (her own, on this day, were by Mother, worn with a white Hanes T-shirt and black Converse sneakers) and the kicky accessories to go with them.

She loves a good beanie. She sits in closets, making notes on Post-its, listening and nodding. Sometimes, clients will talk about their recent break-up or divorce.

"That's when I'm like, 'Listen. Don't think that you're staring at some girl who has it all because let me tell you what happened to me,'" she said.

"When you're in that position, of something bad that's happened to you, you feel very alone. I felt very alone in my crisis. In my family disaster. You feel like you're the only person it's happening to."

Where Bernard Madoff focused his career on obscuring as much as possible, Mack's approach is the opposite.

"I wasn't going to hide," she said. "I have nothing to hide."

Until December 2008, her story read like a spec script for Sex And The City.

The older of two children, she was raised on the Upper East Side, mostly by her mother, a specialeducation tutor, and her stepfather, a litigator (both now retired). Her father, a management consultant, died when she was 18.

Mack attended the private school Nightingale-Bamford.

After double-majoring in art and art history at Franklin & Marshall College, she moved back to the old neighbourhood. She lived in a tiny studio apartment, worked as an assistant photo editor for George, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s magazine, then as a fashion assistant to Narciso Rodriguez, who designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's wedding gown.

A blind date with an older, divorced man named Mark Madoff led to a second date, then a third. In 2004, in a Narciso dress of her own, she married him on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket.

They lived in an apartment in SoHo, a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and in another on Nantucket. They added one child to Mark's two from his previous marriage, and Mack was pregnant with another.

"We had a really, really nice life," Mack said. "We had the means to have beautiful homes and to do what we wanted when we wanted."

In December 2008, the fairy tale took a dark and lurching twist when Bernie Madoff confessed to his sons, Mark and Andrew, that he had spent the better part of his career in finance carrying out a massive Ponzi scheme. His sons, who had worked for their father's firm for their entire careers, turned him in to the authorities, who soon arrested Madoff.

The fraud devastated families, hedge funds and non-profit organisations from Manhattan to Palm Beach, Florida to Europe and beyond.

Mack's mother and stepfather had investments with Madoff, as did many of her and Mark's close friends.

Mark, Andrew and Ruth, their mother, said they knew nothing of the scheme. Mack believed them. Others were not so sure, including the bankruptcy trustee. But they were never charged and, in June 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Overnight, Mack had entered a circus of lawyers, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, paparazzi and tabloid headlines.

After considering changing her last name to Morgan, she decided on Mack, after ACK, the airport code for Nantucket.

"I just didn't want to hear it anymore," she said, adding that Mark planned to change his name once his lawyers gave the OK.

But with constant news coverage of the scandal and multiple civil suits, he seemed to be spiralling emotionally.

In October 2009, he attempted suicide, swallowing pills and landing in a psychiatric ward.

Over the next year, he worked on a new business, a real estate newsletter.

Things seemed to be looking up, Mack said, but then Mark attempted suicide once again, this time, successfully, with his two-year-old son sleeping in an adjacent bedroom.

Mack was in Walt Disney World with her four-year-old daughter and awoke to two e-mail messages from Mark, one asking her to send someone to care for their son, the other blank, with the subject line: "I love you."

His suicide, many surmised, was an indication of his guilt. In 2011, she published The End Of Normal, a memoir in which she wrote about her steadfast belief that Mark was clueless about his father's fraud.

She got the idea to become a stylist over dinner with a friend, after starting to date again, tentatively, in 2012 and realising that a good outfit was a kind of protection.

"Somebody gets set up on a date with me, they can find out everything about me," Mack said. "Literally everything. To become less nervous, I needed to feel like I looked good."

She wonders, sometimes, what Mark must have been thinking when he made the decision to commit suicide, to abandon her. She thinks he simply could not imagine a bright future.

Initially, Mack changed her last name out of the same fear - that the Madoff name might forever brand her a pariah. She now knows infamy can be as fleeting as fame.

The scandal has moved off the front pages of the tabloids. The paparazzi have moved on. And Mack has resumed using her married name in her personal life and on her FreshDirect boxes.

As her clients try on jeans, dresses and beanies, and they share the trauma of their own loss, she tries to convince them of the same thing she wanted Mark to believe: It will not always be quite this hard, this raw.

"I'm like, 'You know what? It's not going to get better by Friday. It's not going to get better in two weeks. It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of time,'" she said.

"I'm actual living proof. I don't have what I used to have, but I have more than a lot of the rest of the planet. And I'm grateful for that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'A Madoff makes over her life by giving makeovers'. Print Edition | Subscribe