So this guy says to give him ten bucks to invest, and he'll give you back $15 in 45 days. Guaranteed. Or give him $100, or $1,000. Don't worry, he says. It's legit, has something to do with buying and selling coupons for postage stamps, and besides, you've seen the line of lawyers and tailors, policemen and grocers waiting outside the Securities Exchange Company in Boston to give their hard-earned money to his boss, Charles Ponzi, to invest. And Ponzi, short, dapper, cocky, and charismatic, with a "million-dollar smile," is rich, riding in an expensive limo and living in a swank suburban mansion. Mitchell Zuckoff brings the wild spring and summer of 1920 alive in his exhaustively detailed biography, Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend (Random House). It's overwhelming at times and crammed full of minutiae about Ponzi's journalistic and legal adversaries--there are eight pages devoted to the checkered college career of the Boston Post editor who helped take the wheeler-dealer down. Mostly, though, Zuckoff presents a readable story about the rise and fall of a ne'er-do-well Italian ex-con, profiling as well the giddy cusp of the roaring 20s, when greed was the great equalizer. Ponzi served 11 years in state and federal prison and was deported in 1934, leaving his beloved wife behind. He died in a Rio de Janeiro charity ward in 1949, but whenever Peter is robbed in order to pay Paul, wherever there's a parcel of prime land that just happens to have a little bit of swamp water in it, Ponzi lives on. Tue 3/29, 5:30 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Authors Room, 400 S. State, 312-747-4050.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Kreiter.