Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Bag Lady Papers

Publisher's Summary. 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.”

Alexandra Penney lost her life savings in the Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme. How much did she lose? Why do you want to know Penney asks? Umm, maybe because she is publically selling her story? Well, too bad because Penney can’t give exact amounts (or even a ball park idea) because of “legal reasons.” So have fun speculating on the enormity of her loss! And how old is Penney? Is she able to mitigate her losses as she has many years of career life ahead or is she in the retirement stage of life? Her age, Penney retorts, isn’t any of your business either because “the surface facts of chronological age are meaningless . . . you are what age you think you are.” Okay so forget about facts and indulge in vanity seems to be Penney’s modus operandi.

So what exactly does Penney share in The Bag Lady Papers? Her fear of becoming a bag lady ala Park Avenue style. Apparently, in certain monetary circles, being a bag lady means selling the “cottages” in Florida and Long Island, contemplating releasing one’s housekeeper (who will iron the white shirts, change the Frette sheets, and polish the wood floors to dark gleam?!), giving up premier cable and terminating the New York Times subscription. Thankfully, Penney gets by with a little help from her friends with the necessities in life such as highlights from Kyle the hair colorist; a lift on a private jet to warmer climes during the winter; gratis dinners featuring $200 bottles of Cristal; and new Brooks Brothers white shirts.

Penney has suffered a significant and unanticipated monetary loss at the hands of the greedy and unscrupulous investment guru Madoff. Moreover, the lost money was earned through years of hard work. For this Penney has my sincere sympathy. However, she is as close to becoming a bag lady as I am to winning the Powerball lottery (and I don’t buy lotto tickets). Penney’s whining of losing it all is disingenuous as she still has a fair amount of assets (the proceeds from the Florida “cottage,” not to mention the luxury personal property including fine china, crystal, sterling silver crockery and Hermes handbags). While she may not be able to afford overseas travel and the rent on her SoHo art studio, she may develop an appreciation for the “simpler” things in life that satisfy most Americans.

The Bag Lady Papers is heavy on the histrionics and light on substance.

Publisher: Voice (February 16, 2010), 240 pages.
Review based on borrowed public library copy.


  1. I think I'd have trouble feeling sorry for Penney too. Thanks for your review.

  2. Would not have felt sorry for her either, but glad she developed a liking for "simpler" things

  3. Great honest review.. I don't like overdramatization!

  4. Your reviews as always are appreciated for their honesty; thanks so much Kim, as I was curious about this one.

  5. What a shame then she didn't write it as a farce.

  6. And I just feel so bad for her.

    Definitely one I'll be skipping.

  7. I was looking forward to this one but appreciate your honesty - perhaps I will give it a pass!

  8. I had such high hopes for this one. I don't think I could deal with the whining when it sounds like she's living better than I am!

    Diary of an Eccentric