The Bag Lady Papers

The Priceless Experience of Losing It All


By Alexandra Penney

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In December 2008, my worst nightmare came true . . . How do you pick yourself up after the one thing you most feared happens to you? Alexandra Penney’s revealing, spirited, and ultimately redemptive true story shows us how. Throughout her life, Alexandra Penney’s worst fear was of becoming a bag lady. Even as she worked several jobs while raising a son as a single mother, wrote a bestselling advice book, and became editor in chief of Self magazine, she was haunted by the image of herself alone, bankrupt, and living on the street. She even went to therapy in an attempt to alleviate the worry that all she had worked for could crumble. And then, one day, that’s exactly what happened. Penney had taken a friend’s advice and invested nearly everything she had ever earned–all of her savings–with Bernie Madoff. One day she was successful and wealthy; the next she had almost nothing. Suddenly, at an age when many Americans retire, Penney saw her worst nightmares coming true. Based on her popular blog posts on The Daily Beast, this memoir chronicles Penney’s struggle to cope with the devastating financial and emotional fallout of being cheated out of her life savings and illuminates her journey back to sanity, solvency, and security. “I will work harder than I ever have before–which was pretty hard indeed–and see what happens. I have the feeling something good will come of it: tough, challenging work and laserlike focus have always paid off for me. . . . Was it better to have it and then lose it? Yes, yes, yes! Even though I lived with horrible bag lady fears of losing it all, now that those financial fears have materialized, I’m in pretty good shape and looking to what’s next. Experiences — good and bad, exciting and boring, tragic and absurd — make up a life. Not to have lived to the fullest is the saddest, most irresponsible life I can think of.”
— from The Bag Lady Papers





Some of the names in this book have been changed to protect the privacy of friends and family.


MF Bernard Madoff, aka MotherFucker

BMF Before MF, life before Madoff

AMF After MF, life after Madoff

MLS Major Life Savers, friends who helped big-time

AAA Activity Alleviates Anxiety, a tactic to ease panic attacks

PJ Private Jet

PoRC Person[s] of Reduced Circumstances

SNT Stop Negative Thinking!

NSP No Self Pity!

WoCA Woman of a Certain Age


For many years, I’ve feared that one day I’ll wake up and be destitute and alone. I won’t have enough money to feed myself or to pay the medical bills. I will have to hole up in a rusted-out car or in a closet-size room with peeling green paint and a single lightbulb swaying from a frayed greasy cord, or I will end up trudging the streets, cold and abandoned, with a shopping cart filled with tattered bags full of god knows what.

If you Google “bag lady fears” or “bag lady syndrome” you will quickly learn that it isn’t in the DSM, the psychiatrist’s bedside reference book, but that it has affected Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine, and many other accomplished, well-known women, who all admit to being haunted by the fear of becoming a bag lady. In the past months I have talked with dozens of women of all ages and backgrounds who have revealed their own dark bag lady visions. The fear cuts across social and economic groups, and it is felt mostly by women. You can be making millions of bucks and still harbor scary images of yourself as a bag lady.

In December 2008, my worst nightmare came true. I found out I was dead broke. I had lost all my savings in the colossal Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff, forthwith to be known as the MF, which in plain English stands for “motherfucker,” the worst name I can think of.

I am a visual artist and have no aspirations to be a full-time writer or a memoirist. For several years I was a journalist reporting other people’s stories. Writing in the revelatory first person is an uneasy task for me, but I decided to tell about what happened to me by writing a blog. I needed to earn money immediately and the blog, although it paid very little, was a start. I wrote that I had worked hard from the time I was sixteen and made good wages for that work. I married, divorced, and raised a precious son on my own.

I admitted that I love luxurious things. I admitted to owning forty white shirts (they add up when you keep them from college days). I confessed that I had a housekeeper who came three mornings a week; elegant china; a 1995 dented Mercedes station wagon; a white, tenth-hand, twenty-year-old Chrysler LeBaron convertible that cost less than a Chanel jacket and is too dangerous and broken down to drive (thanks, GM).

I was both frustrated and heartened by readers’ reactions; frustrated because many people felt I was a privileged, greedy, and uncaring elitist who deserved to lose my money. And heartened because many people voiced their own fears and anxieties in response to my story.

It is curious that the bloggers who responded seemed obsessed with a few particular details. There was a huge guessing game about how old I am. According to the bloggers I’m somewhere between forty-five and eighty-nine. I left out my age purposely. Ever since I was a beauty editor at Glamour magazine and saw firsthand that the surface facts of chronological age are meaningless, I’ve believed that you are what age you think you are. Right now I’m starting all over and I would guess my age to be pretty damn young. But why does it matter so intensely? No matter how old you are, serious loss is a catastrophic experience.

The bloggers also want to know exactly how much money I entrusted to Madoff. Why? Why do they care so much? What does it mean? Well, I can’t give exact amounts for legal reasons, but my point is that I lost everything I worked for over many years.

I am not writing this book to whine or to complain, but in the first couple of months I was so panicked that I found myself constantly groaning about what had happened. It may sound tiresome now but that was the unvarnished reality of the way I felt. I am always deeply aware that others confront far more dire situations than mine. As I heard from many men and women from across America, Europe, and even Asia, who wrote me with their own stories, I felt that it might be helpful to tell about what it is like to have your worst fears realized and how it is possible to get on with your life when it seems in total ruin.

I believe the landslide of responses to my blog also signaled that something enormous is going on here and now in America—a reckoning and recalibrating of money, class, status, and society. We’ve all had to make adjustments and transitions. Estimates suggest that the 2009 economic meltdown will last for as long as five years, perhaps even longer. We are living in a new world that is careening in unknown directions at an undreamed of speed.

Change is scary and daunting and exciting at the same time. It has the power to paralyze or galvanize. Change unnerves. Disorients. Distorts. In one minute my life and my hopes for the future changed completely. I could cower under my covers for god knows how long, or I could face the fears and challenges of my new situation and survive with humanity and grace and humor.

When you experience loss or change you will surprise yourself. I am definitely getting through; I am moving on—and up. I’m welcoming new experiences, I’m off on new adventures, I’m finding out what’s important and what’s not worth a second glance. Most of all, I have surprised myself by actually having a great time even in the few months right after the debacle. I lost it all, but I am coming out on top, and I now realize that in many ways this is because of the life I’ve led and the significant lessons I’ve learned along the way.


December 11, 2008

I am carefully placing Baccarat crystal goblets on my dining room table. The lacquered pear-wood is set for four, with starched white place mats and napkins, pretty flowered English antique plates, and a handful of white votive candles. Five small silver vases filled with white freesia and the first delicate white tulips that 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 forever winter here in steely gray New York, with four snowfalls and single-digit windchill 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 soufflé is a wow and actually very easy to prepare. In the kitchen the soufflé 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!

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, my closest friend and 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 am compelled to clean whatever is in sight, to collect things and put them into tidy piles. This is one of those moments.

The soufflé has fallen in its mold. How fitting! My world is collapsing as well. I take the silver, linens, and candles off the table and place them precisely back in their drawers and cabinets.

I pause at the flowers. I bought them late this afternoon, as I usually do before a dinner party. Will I ever be able to afford fresh flowers again? Since college days, when I hung out in the musky, humid botany conservatory to escape the freezing New England cold, I have loved flowers. To see a magnificent rose unfurl its petals and reveal its fragrance freely to the world, and then to give itself quietly back to nature, has always been a wonder to me. So, instead of tossing the freesia and tulips, I take them out of the silver vases and place them carefully in a couple of drinking glasses and add some water. The little vases go into their corner cupboard, the remains of the soufflé are emptied into the garbage, and the soufflé mold is scoured.

Oh god, there’s the meat loaf still cooking in the oven. I scoop it out of the pan, and even though it’s too hot, I wrap it in foil with neat corners and put it in the refrigerator alongside the caramelized walnut and arugula salad I’ve made for an appetizer. I scrub that pan, too, wash it, dry it, and store it under the counter alongside the other organized rows of pots and cookware.

The last thing on the table is the crystal. I carry each heavy goblet to the glass-fronted cabinet where their lovely facets catch the light. I bought the Baccarat piece by piece because, twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have the money to buy more than one glass at a time. As I’m putting the last one away, Paul flies in the door and gives me a huge hug, which has the unintended effect of physically reassuring me that I am not in some sort of weird dream state. He’s canceled the other two dinner guests.

I stand in my spotless kitchen and haven’t the faintest idea of what to do. He gives me another hug, then clicks on the television and the computer. He’s scanning the channels and Googling Madoff. Apparently, the MF confessed to his sons and to the FBI that he has put all his investors into a giant Ponzi scheme. Nothing much else is clear, but I have a gut certainty that I have lost it all.

Terror snakes through my veins. The phone rings again. I’m still standing, dumbstruck, in the kitchen. It’s another friend, Gayle, who says, “I had money in Madoff, too. What are you going to do?”

I don’t know what to tell her. She doesn’t know what to tell me. All we can do is agree to stay in close touch and hang up.

The call, at least, has broken the spell that seemed to have cemented my feet to my black-and-white-tiled kitchen floor. I make my way to my desk in the library and take out all the MF’s statements, which have appeared so real and reassuring to me over the past years. There were the stocks he’d bought: Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Exxon-Mobil, Bank of America, and many others, all familiar names to me. I look more closely. On the bottom line I see that he had put all my money into United States Treasury bills at the end of October.

In my panic, I’d forgotten about the Treasury bills. A few weeks ago, in the beginning of November, I had not received the MF’s usual financial paperwork, which unfailingly arrived in the first week of the month. I had wondered why. I wanted to redeem my retirement money and have it in cash, out of the fund. The market was going crazy and I was at least smart enough to know it was no time to be in any kind of stock market investment, legendary or not.

I had waited a couple of days more for the statement to arrive, just to make sure there wasn’t a post office delay, then I phoned Madoff headquarters on November 11; I remember the day because it was my father’s birthday. Over the ten years that my savings were with the MF, I had called the office only two or three times about some procedural matter, in each instance speaking to a different person who appeared knowledgeable when I gave my name and account number.

The woman who took my call on November 11 told me that the statements were to be mailed out “tomorrow” and that someone would get back to me about redeeming my money.

“You have no worries,” she said that day, “you’re in United States Treasuries.”

I called again a few days later and was informed that the statements “had gone out” and, once more, all was well, I was in Treasury bills, which were “one hundred percent safe.” Still, I replied that I wanted to take my money out of my account. Someone would get back to me as soon as possible, she said.

I was momentarily lulled because the last paperwork had been issued a few short weeks ago, in October, and because the woman at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities had repeatedly reassured me that I was in United States Treasury bills.

As I now check the computerized pages of the October statement, I feel a tendril of hope. My money is backed by the American government! Maybe I haven’t lost it all.

I call Gayle back excitedly, and we compare statements. She has Treasuries, too. But when we examine the paperwork closely, we realize that the numbers of the bills are exactly the same. Motherfucker! These are fake, too.

Gayle and I hang up again and I start pounding the computer keys to find the number of the United States Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C. I locate the number, dial, and a machine asks me to leave a voice message.

I say my name and explain, “I am a client of Bernard Madoff. I understand he’s been arrested for fraud and I would like to check on a Treasury bill number. If someone could please call me back, I would be most appreciative.”

I know it is ridiculous to phone the United States Treasury at this hour. But what else can I do? The apartment is spotlessly clean. I need activity to help alleviate my anxiety. Suddenly I remember that I have stashed away one very strong tranquilizer in the bathroom medicine chest in case there should be a death in the family. Well, there it is. My money has passed away. I pop the pill in my mouth.

Alex’s husband, Byron, rings up to remind me of Emerson’s line, “I am defeated all the time, but I am born to victory.”

I am thanking him when the other line rings. “This is Mr. W, from the United States Department of the Treasury,” a deep voice says.

It’s past eight at night, and the U.S. Treasury is returning my call? I am now even more horribly certain that this Madoff thing is real and that I am standing in the middle of a nightmare.

I tell him that I have a Treasury bill and want to check the number to see if it is real.

“I’ve heard from about fifteen Madoff clients,” he says before asking me the bill number.

“That is indeed a Treasury offering. And there are many entities that would buy that offering.”

“How can I find out if Madoff is one of them?” I ask.

“I don’t think there is any place where you can find out who bought what,” he responds.

“There must be a way,” I plead. “Do you have any idea how I could go about it?”

“It sounds like a bad situation and I am sorry but I can’t offer advice,” he says with finality.

The tranquilizer is hitting me like a tsunami. Paul tells me he’ll spend the night, since he doesn’t think I should be alone. I’m so groggy that I don’t know how to tell him how grateful I am, so I give him one last hug and head for bed. He stays glued to the TV, scanning the channels for more news and details on the situation. All the cable stations are covering the story.

I don’t turn out the lights. I start up the laptop that’s on my night table. A thought has been hovering in my mind since Alex and my son called, and it’s a thought that many before me have had upon receiving devastating news. It’s the universal out, the final option, that, like it or not, exists for everyone. I Google the Hemlock Society. I want to know a painless way to die. The Hemlock Society Web site, it turns out, has been dismantled; it has gone to cyber heaven. If I weren’t in such a morbid state, I’d have a good laugh about that.

I check out a few more sites that pop up after I search for “self-inflicted death.” I learn that, unfortunately, it takes a while to cross the Styx to get to the otherworld, such as it may be. If you’re in a major hurry, guns work fast, as does jumping out of windows, and cyanide, which is used in making jewelry, seems to work best and is speediest. I love jewelry, especially pearls, so this link to the chemical that could end it all seems to reflect perfectly the irony and absurdity of what is happening to me. Before I can find out more, the tranquilizer takes over and, mercifully, I pass out.


AAA—Activity Alleviates Anxiety

Something terrible has happened but I can’t remember what it is. I stumble out of bed, turn on the TV, step into the shower, and stay there for almost half an hour with hot water streaming over me, hoping the negative ions will help lessen the head-to-toe panic.

I am paralyzed by the early-morning news bulletins. More terrifying thoughts assault me, horrid visions of state-run institutions for sick old people where sloe-eyed attendants drug you and strap you to wheelchairs.

Paul has left a note on my mirror saying that he had to leave for his studio and to call him right away if I need anything. He’ll check in with me later. I open the front door and The New York Times, as usual, is right there. I can bear only to glance at the headlines. It’s all there: the MF’s confession, the Ponzi scheme, his admission that everything was a lie.

I’m close to nauseous with anxiety, but, once again, I must do something. I can’t sit here alone. Then an idea hits me: I will go to the MF’s offices. They are just two blocks away.

I dress as I would for any other day of working in the studio—jeans, freshly ironed white shirt, Hermès Kelly bag (purchased when I was an editor at Condé Nast—how much can I get for it on eBay, I wonder?), goosedown jacket with a fur collar, and small gold earrings from my mother. Dressing carefully in my normal clothes puts a bit of consoling distance between me and my bag lady fears.

It’s not even eight a.m. when I get to Madoff’s building, but already people are milling around in the lobby. I am not the only one who has dressed for the occasion—fur coats abound. One older woman who is perfectly groomed and swathed in golden sable is leaning on the arm of her husband, whose face is the color of green-gray bread mold.

I approach the lobby guard and say, “We are Madoff clients and we need to go up to his office please.” Part of me knows this will never happen, but part of me thinks that as of yesterday, anything can happen.

When people hear me politely but firmly asking to be let upstairs, they all chime in. The blond woman in sable says to me, “You’ve got the right attitude. Let’s get up there! I’ve lost everything, everything.”

I wonder how much “everything” means. Does she still have a huge Park Avenue apartment, a silvery Maybach, a villa in Tuscany?

I don’t, but I’m certainly a lot better off than many of these victims. I have a modest one-bedroom getaway house on Long Island that I bought ten years ago. I thought owning real estate would always be a good investment. I had a mortgage on the house and recently took out a home equity loan on it as well, after listening to the advice of two different financial and tax planners who had been highly recommended by smart friends. Madoff was generating a steady ten percent return and the loans on the house were around six percent, so, as the planners explained, the four-percent margin was meaningful.

I kept upping the home equity loan and taking out money from it to pay for living and my photography studio expenses rather than depleting my Madoff money so that my savings with him would continue to grow. This morning I know that the Long Island shack, as I call it, will have to be sold ASAP. I have no money to cover the loan costs. Or even the gas and electricity bills. I’ve been living off the proceeds from my photographs and small withdrawals from my Madoff account every quarter since I started renting my photography studio two years ago.

I also bought an inexpensive one-bedroom bungalow in Florida a couple of years ago with some of the money I’d made from writing and several of my photographs. The Florida place was part of a pension plan that was set up by an accountant years ago when I first started to save money. I couldn’t live or vacation in the Florida house because of my pension plan’s legal restrictions, but I always hoped it would be a good investment. I painted the floors, walls, ceilings, and everything in sight in white, found some stylish white furniture at Ikea so that it would be an attractive place and I could rent it out to cover its costs. Now I’ll have to sell it, too. Whatever I can make on it won’t even come close to covering half the loans I owe for the house on Long Island—that is, if I can make anything at all. Home values in Florida have plummeted to the worst lows in the nation. And from what I’ve read it doesn’t look as if this will change anytime soon, but I have no time to wait for a real estate upswing.

And of course there’s my apartment. I am hoping that if I can sell the rest I can stay in this place where I have lived for so long. If I can just remain in my home I will have some peace of mind, even if I have no more than a pittance to live on. Staying in my home would help me to get my bearings again and give me some sense of continuity. But who knows if anything will sell—or when? Every single aspect of my life is uncertain at this moment. Not knowing is hell. The worst kind of emotional hell.

Right now, standing in the expanding crowd in the MF’s lobby, I will myself not to think about the apartment or I will have some sort of epic panic attack.

The group is young, old, in between. Some people look like bicycle messengers, others could be pharmacists and librarians, and a good percentage look as if they go to the right barbers and have had subtle but expensive Botox jobs and minilifts.

Finally, a man descends from the upper reaches of the MF’s establishment. He informs us that he is a lawyer and his name is Lee Richards. He is the interim “receiver” for bankruptcy proceedings. He states coolly that it will take days or even months to establish any real facts. The crowd asks: “Is there any money there?” “Can we get insurance?”


On Sale
Feb 16, 2010
Page Count
240 pages
Hachette Books

Alexandra Penney

About the Author

Alexandra Penney is an artist, best-selling author, and former editor-in-chief of Self magazine. She had a one-person show at Galerie in Berlin and her work was shown at Miami’s Art Basel. She lives in New York.

Learn more about this author