Charles Ponzi, the Dreamer and Schemer Whose Name Lives On

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sorry, Mr. Madoff. Despite your prodigious alleged accomplishments -- $50 billion of investors' money, vaporized! -- you're no Charles Ponzi.

The feds, in their complaint, allege that you, Bernard L. Madoff, admitted to colleagues that you've "been conducting a Ponzi-scheme" through your investment advice business. Some Wall Street experts, struggling to convey the scope, say it's perhaps "the biggest Ponzi scheme in history."

Wow! And there have been so many.

But for all your Palm Beach Country Club connections and your sterling Wall Street résumé, you're still just walking in the shadow of the great Charles Ponzi. Same with all the get-rich-quick guys, the pyramid schemers, land-deal scammers, penny-stock preachers and high-roller hustlers who have risen and fallen over the years.

It's Ponzi's corner everybody's working. He got the patent, so to speak. He put his name on the racket. Everyone else is just a franchisee.

Now, if you, Mr. Madoff -- sounds like "made off" -- were made of a little of Ponzi's stuff, first of all, you wouldn't have allegedly admitted anything to anyone. Show some moxie, man! You'd have kept up appearances for the sake of the game -- as if you really believed in it.

Second, since you're free on $10 million bail -- albeit with a nightly curfew in your Upper East Side apartment -- if you were anything up to Ponzi's standard, you'd go out in public more in your winter of discontent.

As Ponzi's world was collapsing in Boston that wild summer of 1920, his notorious deeds splashed all over the front pages and the authorities hounding him, he would put on a sharp suit and a big smile, grab his fine walking stick and go mingle with the public. Some would jeer -- but others would cheer! A platoon of reporters followed him everywhere. He'd banter with the scribes and give long, good-humored quotes. He'd keep his lunch date at the Kiwanis Club, and at night he and his wife would sit in their box at the movies. The lights would go down and newsreels about him would come on the screen. The audience would cheer some more.

But Mr. Madoff, we see little more of you, sir, than that photo with your cap pulled low after your trip to the courthouse. You had a seasick sort of smile, and no comment.

Someday, someone may memorialize you with a concept called "a Madoff scheme." But we think not.

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From the Oxford English Dictionary:

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