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12 April 2024

Feel sorry for this poor little rich girl?



Alexandra Penney says she lost all her money to Bernard Madoff, but please don't call her a victim.

"I prefer the word 'casualty,' she writes in her memoir, The Bag Lady Papers, "because it implies wounds that all of us have sustained."

Not many Madoff casualties were left with Penney's resources. Besides her posh Manhattan apartment with East River views, she had a "shack" in the Hamptons and an investment "bungalow" in Florida. Most important, she had priceless connections from her years as editor of Conde Nast's Self magazine and author of mega-selling books like How to Make Love to a Man.

By the morning after the fateful phone call ("I'm hoping it's a rumour, but Bernard Madoff's just been arrested," said a friend), Penney had already hooked herself up with a blog about her new life on Tina Brown's Daily Beast website. It didn't pay much, but led to a deal for this book. Not bad for a day's work.

It can be hard feeling sorry for someone who mentions her Baccarat crystal goblets and 40 white shirts as often as Penney does, though she's careful to tell us she bought the glasses one at a time and has been hoarding the shirts since college.

Her son immediately offered her a spot in his guesthouse, so she was never going to be homeless, even if she lost all three of her homes.

That didn't stop the dread. Like many successful women, she had vivid fears of becoming a bag lady, "trudging the streets, cold and abandoned, with a shopping cart filled with tattered bags full of god knows what."

More immediately, she worried about how she would get her highlights done.

The reaction to her blog was fierce. "So, you're going to have to learn how to iron until your back hurts, like most people," wrote one commenter. "That's life."

This was understandable, but not entirely fair. Penney turns out to be a surprisingly likable character. She has made quirky moves like quitting her job as beauty editor at Glamour magazine in the 1970s to study painting, supporting herself as a cashier in a fish market for a time. She worked hard and saved her money, and was finally able to make a living as an artist.

I do wish she had written a better book, though. It's not stupid or venal; just slick and shallow. The book is frustratingly short on essential information. Penney never tells us how much money she lost or exactly how she survived, financially. In a publicity interview, she revealed that she had $4,000 in the bank when her Madoff money disappeared. She never says that in the book.

It feels as if she is on her best behaviour here. Now that she's dependent on the kindness of strangers, she wants everyone to like her. In her initial post for the Daily Beast, she mentioned taking her first subway ride in 30 years, eliciting hoots from the internet's anonymous commenters. Penney left that detail out of the book.

- The Bag Lady Papers. Out now from Dh125


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