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,” Ms. Mack, 43, said recently, sitting at the kitchen counter of her apartment in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, where she and her two children, 8 and 10, have lived since 2016. “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.”
She’s not in the market mainly for ball gowns, either. For $200 an hour, with a three-hour minimum, Ms. Mack helps clients choose simple pieces like 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 breakup, 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,’” Ms. Mack 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, Ms. Mack’s approach is the opposite.
“I wasn’t going to hide,” she said. “I have nothing to hide.”
The Young Widow
Until December 2008, Ms. Mack’s story read like a spec script for “Sex and the City.”
The oldest of two children, she was raised on the Upper East Side, mostly by her mother, a special-education tutor, and her stepfather, a litigator (both now retired). Her father, a management consultant, died when she was 18. Ms. 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 neighborhood. She lived in a tiny studio apartment, working 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, Conn., and in another on Nantucket. They added one child to Mark’s two from his previous marriage, and Stephanie was pregnant with another.
“We had a really, really nice life,” Ms. Mack said. “We had means to have beautiful homes, and do what we want 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 authorities, who soon arrested Mr. Madoff.
The fraud devastated families, hedge funds and nonprofits from Manhattan to Palm Beach, Europe and beyond.
Ms. Mack’s mother and stepfather had investments with Mr. Madoff, as did many of her and Mark’s close friends.
In March 2009, Mr. Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 counts, including theft, fraud and money laundering. Mark, Andrew and Ruth, their mother, said they knew nothing of the scheme. Ms. Mack believed them. Others weren’t so sure, including the bankruptcy trustee. But they were never charged, and in June 2009 Mr. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
Overnight, Ms. Mack had entered a circus of lawyers, F.B.I. 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 O.K.
But with constant news coverage of the scandal and multiple civil suits, Mark seemed to be spiraling 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, Ms. Mack said, but then Mark attempted suicide once again, this time successfully, with his 2-year-old son sleeping in an adjacent bedroom. Ms. Mack was in Walt Disney World with her 4-year old daughter, and awoke to two emails from Mark, one asking her to send someone to care for their son, the other blank, with the subject line: “I love you.”
Her stepfather rushed to the couple’s SoHo apartment, where he found Mark’s body.
Ms. Mack said the months after were a blur of heartbreak, anger, financial uncertainty and shame. “I am somebody who cannot stand waiters singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in a restaurant. Can you imagine your life being plastered everywhere?” she said. “And then, your husband taking his own life two years later is shameful. It’s just shameful.”
Mark’s suicide, many surmised, was an indication of his guilt.
“I was like, ‘No way. He’s not going down like this. I’m telling the truth,’” Ms. Mack said. In 2011 she published “The End of Normal,” a memoir in which she wrote at length about her steadfast belief that Mark was clueless about his father’s fraud.
She finished a graduate school program at Bank Street College of Education, hoping to work with pediatric patients and their families in hospitals, but found it too much to manage with her two young children.
“That word is a very difficult word to say. To be a widow? You just think of that old lady,” Ms. Mack said. “It just sounds old and depressing and sad to me. Look, I’m not old-old. I’m not 25, but I’m not old. And I’m not depressing.”
She got the idea to become a stylist over dinner with a friend, after starting to date again, tentatively, in 2012 and realizing 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,” Ms. Mack said. “Literally everything. To become less nervous, I needed to feel like I looked good.”
She contacted several high-end matchmakers and soon found herself working with people who were also seeking romantic relationships in less than ideal circumstances.
“I learned very quickly that everyone has a story, and a bad story,” Ms. Mack said. “The only difference between me and whomever is that mine was public. It’s loss. It’s the same emotion.”
‘A Working Mom’
Her client base soon expanded beyond the dating world. A cookbook author who needed help putting together an ensemble for a book party. A woman on a very tight budget celebrating her appearance in an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Tara Roscioli, a nutritionist, author and entrepreneur, made an appointment to meet Ms. Mack not long ago at Otte, a store on North Moore Street in TriBeCa. The two women arrived early and went through the racks together before heading toward the rear of the store.
“I knew she was a single mom. And I knew that she was an author. I didn’t know anything else,” Ms. Roscioli said. “She’s very real and down-to-earth, and her style and clothes are the same way. She’s a working mom. She gives off a very ‘real woman’ vibe that resonated with me.”
When Ms. Roscioli emerged from the fitting room in a long black dress (Ulla Johnson, $750), Ms. Mack suggested adding a leather jacket (Iro, $1,200).
“Do you feel comfortable in it? Does it feel special enough? Do you feel amazing?,” she asked, making notes. “The biggest mistake is putting on something you don’t feel comfortable in.”
The expedition ended with no sale but a hug and promise of another meeting.
Veronica Miele Beard, a designer and the co-founder of the fashion line Veronica Beard, has known Ms. Mack since they attended Franklin & Marshall.
“Shoppers now want an emotional attachment to clothing,” Ms. Beard said. “They want to feel an emotional reason for buying a piece. Stephanie brings that out. She cares about how clothing makes her clients feel.”
What about how Ms. Mack feels?
Mark’s brother, Andrew, died in 2014 of lymphoma. Bernie’s brother, Peter, is serving a federal prison sentence. Bernie is scheduled for release in 2139. And Ruth has settled into a quiet life in Old Greenwich, Conn.
The surviving unincarcerated members of the Madoff family spent years split into factions, often not speaking with one another. But that has changed, Ms. Mack said, adding that she is now in regular contact with Ruth and that relations have improved with Mark’s ex-wife. (Both women confirmed this.)
“She is so much fun to be around, and I wish the public could see that side of her,” Ms. Mack said of Ruth. “I’ve urged her to have a comeback. Everyone loves a comeback.”
As for Bernie?
“He’s dead to me.”
This summer, Ms. Mack’s lawyers hammered out a settlement with the bankruptcy trustee, Irving Picard, who was sorting out the financial mess left in the wake of the Ponzi scheme, and she handed over what she says was the majority of her fortune.
By 2016, the apartment in SoHo was sold, as was the house on Nantucket and the house in Greenwich. After Mark’s suicide, Ms. Mack had moved from SoHo to TriBeCa, but she could no longer afford it, she said, and so she crossed the bridge into Brooklyn.
Yet, she knows what the public likely still thinks about her — that, as a Madoff, she was “dripping in diamonds.” That she still is.
“That was never me,” Ms. Mack said. “Even when I was a wealthy Madoff. I didn’t marry Mark Madoff, get a credit card and drop $30,000 in any store I wanted.”
“I didn’t just frivolously go out and spend just tons and tons of money,” she said.
Marybeth Gibson, a friend and real-estate agent on Nantucket, said in a phone interview: “Stephanie would rather stay home and cook a roast chicken than she would get all dressed up and go out.”
Ms. Mack wonders, sometimes, what Mark must have been thinking when he made the decision to commit suicide, to abandon her. She thinks Mark didn’t see a life where he wouldn’t be swarmed by photographers. He simply couldn’t imagine a bright future. He thought he “was toast.”
Initially, Ms. Mack changed her last name out of the same fear — that the Madoff name might forever brand her a pariah. She now knows what she is convinced Mark could not bring himself to see, that infamy can be as fleeting as fame.
The scandal that once rocked New York has moved off the front pages of the tabloids. The paparazzi have moved on, circling the apartment buildings of other people. And Ms. Mack has resumed using her married name in her personal life and on her FreshDirect boxes.
As her clients try on jeans and dresses and beanies, and they share the trauma of their own loss, Ms. Mack tries to convince them of the same thing she wanted Mark to believe: It won’t 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,” she said. “And I’m grateful for that.”