Getting Over Bernie Madoff

A writer and mom talks about what happened when her fear of losing it all came true

Two years ago, Alexandra Penney was a well-to-do artist and author living the good life in New York. And then, courtesy of Bernie Madoff and his massive Ponzi scheme, she lost everything.

"Oh, boo-hoo!" cried many commenters as the former editor-in-chief of Self magazine chronicled her come-down for The Daily Beast, describing her first subway ride in 30 years and letting her three-times-a-week housekeeper go.

However much sympathy you can muster for a well-heeled woman who's suddenly forced to live like the rest of us, one thing's certain: Penney's is a gripping story, and her new book, The Bag Lady Papers, tells it all in heartbreaking—sometimes even inspiring—detail. Here is an excerpt...

(Excerpted with permission from The Bag Lady Papers by Alexandra Penney. Copyright 2010. Published by Voice. Available wherever books are sold February 16, 2010. All rights reserved.)

December 11, 2008
I am carefully placing Baccarat crystal goblets on my dining room table. The lacquered pearwood is set for four, with starched white placemats and napkins, pretty flowered English antique plates, a handful of white votive candles. Five small silver vases filled with white freesia and the first delicate white tulips signal spring will be on the way—and the sooner the better. Even though it is just mid-December, it seems as if it's been a forever-winter here in steely gray New York, with four snowfalls and single digit wind-chill factors that invade the bones and frost the soul.

I have lived in this sun-filled apartment, with wide views of the East River for almost twenty years, and I love to entertain here. Good friends will arrive soon and I have dug up my ancient Julia Child cookbook to make dessert. It's so old the covers have fallen off but the Grand Marnier souffle is a wow and actually very easy to prepare. In the kitchen the souffle is waiting in its mold so I can pop it into the oven as soon as everyone is here.

The phone rings and I answer it.

"I'm hoping it's a rumor," a very dear friend, Alex, says, "but Bernard Madoff's just been arrested. All your money's with him, right?"

Jesus Christ!!!! All!! Every cent I ever saved since I started working summers at Lord & Taylor when I was sixteen years old. This cannot be true! And then, with alarming speed, I realize that, Yes, of course it's true. I know it in my bones.

My cell phone begins to ring. The screen shows that it's my son calling from California. I hang up with Alex and my son repeats the news, "Don't worry, Mom, everything will be okay. We love you and you can always stay in our guest house."

I am grateful to the point of tears for the offer. But I am not going to be a burden to anyone. I never have been and I never will be.

I call Paul, a very close friend, my on and off longtime companion who's on his way to my place for dinner and tell him what's happened.

"Please take a taxi and get here as fast as you humanly can. I can't be alone. I'm beyond physically terrified. And would you call Will and Jae and tell them not to come over. They'll understand."

I phone my lawyer and leave a message that I've lost all my money with Bernard Madoff and that I need to see him ASAP.

Whenever anxiety avalanches over me, I need to clean whatever is in sight, to collect things and put them into tidy piles. This is one of those moments.

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