three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
user_rating: 
0

The True Story of a Financial Legend

A-PonzisSchemeWhen Carlo "Charles" Ponzi (1882-1949) left Italy for America in 1903, he envisioned gold and riches for the taking. In this biography of the man behind the Ponzi Scheme, Zuckoff recounts the story of how Ponzi found his gold—and bilked 30,000 Bostonians, many of them immigrants like himself, in the process. His scheme sounded simple enough: to "rob Peter to pay Paul," or pay early investors large returns with capital from later investors. In 1920, Ponzi went public. Boston investors (many local policemen) doubled their money, and Ponzi, who became a much admired businessman, struck it rich. When the Boston Post uncovered his graft, Ponzi’s life fell apart—a sad end to the life of a charismatic schemer and immigrant dreamer.
Random House. 416 pages. $25.95.
ISBN: 1400060397

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… a snappy, diligently researched account of Ponzi’s rise and rapid fall, and the scheme that seems, in retrospect, like the financial equivalent of flagpole-sitting or goldfish-swallowing. … Ponzi is a great American character, and Mr. Zuckoff does him full justice." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There is another particular subtlety to the classic Ponzi scheme: not just anyone can pull one off; doing so requires cleverness, charm and charisma. … More serious is [Zuckoff’s] excessive reliance on Ponzi’s autobiography. Since so little else of what Ponzi said can be believed, why trust his own version of events?"
David Margolick

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ponzi’s story is compelling enough to let readers ignore the author’s occasional foibles, and it’s a good lesson for anyone who dreams of getting rich quickly." Bill Day

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Every once in a while his grasp of narrative gets a bit unsteady … but for the most part he moves Ponzi’s story along briskly, eschewing psycho-biographical nonsense and sticking to the facts as best he has been able to discover them." Jonathan Yardley

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Zuckoff does little to use Ponzi’s incredible story to illuminate the larger social and political dynamics of his era. What he does do is tell a good story, larded with intriguing personalities like lawyer and sexual blackmailer Dan Coakley and spiced up with twists of fate." Alex Lichtenstein

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"There is certainly a point at which the book becomes a page-turner, as Ponzi desperately tries to avoid exposure and set his business on the straight before his deceptions catch up to him."
Rachel Laing

Critical Summary

A journalism professor at Boston University, Zuckoff has written a solid biography of a great American legend. Zuckoff, who mined archival newspapers, almanacs, letters, and photographs, recreates intriguing characters. Greed may have driven Ponzi, who led a comfortable life in Italy, and yet the great schemer emerges as charismatic, clever, and even strangely lovable. The efficient narrative, despite some digressions, focuses on Ponzi’s story and largely ignores the era’s social and political milieu. At the same time, a parallel tale of young Boston publisher Richard Grozier competes for attention. Flaws aside, Ponzi’s Scheme captures a compelling story. After all, wrote the Boston Post at the time, "Of all the get-rich-quick magnates … Ponzi is the king." In this day and age, that is quite an accomplishment.