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Charles Ponzi was hardly the first person to operate a Ponzi scheme, and he didn’t add any radical innovations to the “rob Peter to pay Paul” scenario. Why, then, is his name synonymous with the kind of fraud he perpetrated in Boston in 1919 � 20? Mitchell Zuckoff’s engaging new biography suggests that Ponzi’s name remains tied to the scheme because Ponzi himself would not give it up. Long after he could and should have fled the country, Ponzi stayed in Boston, hoping that he could create a perpetual moneymaking machine. A former reporter at The Boston Globe, Zuckoff’s previous effort, “Choosing Naia,” described how a local couple came to terms with having a child who has Down syndrome. Zuckoff displays the same fact-finding talents and storytelling skills in “Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend.” In the process, the author brings a powerful personality back to detailed life, capturing even the mellifluous roll of Ponzi’s voice. The book isn’t perfect, however. Zuckoff tends to get distracted by side characters, and he has little to say about the larger history of Ponzi schemes. Zuckoff appears to have read, and cites, virtually every contemporary account of Ponzi in existence (including a wealth of autobiographical statements from Ponzi, who liked to talk about himself). Ponzi’s irrepressible personality, his adoration of his wife, and his pride in his success shine through in Zuckoff’s book. But any suspicions that the author is romanticizing his villain dissipate when Zuckoff provides painful details about the poorer people who lost their savings. A Ponzi scheme is a fraud so simple that it requires relatively little explanation. Participants are promised an extravagant return on their investment. Early investors are paid from newer investors’ cash (minus the portion taken by the scheme’s organizer). Everyone’s happy until the returns due exceed the money available, which is when the scheme collapses. Ponzi, who immigrated to the United States from Italy by way of Canada, was a very successful criminal. His Boston scheme took in approximately $13 million at a time when the average annual income in the U.S. was around $200. He also courted publicity. To contemporary readers unfamiliar with Ponzi, the extent of his fame is startling. He was celebrated in fawning newspaper profiles and dance hall songs, talked about as a political candidate, and even promoted as a buyer for the Boston Red Sox after the Babe Ruth trade debacle in 1919. Only continued expos�s by The Boston Post, spearheaded by editor Richard Grozier, ended Ponzi’s charmed run. It was Grozier who uncovered Ponzi’s criminal past in Canada, thus setting off the chain reaction that ended with his conviction for fraud, a five-year prison sentence, and subsequent deportation from the U.S. Zuckoff sets up Grozier as an adversary to Ponzi early on, but in so doing, the author creates expectations he doesn’t fulfill. He apparently intends to draw a contrast between Ponzi’s hardscrabble origins and Grozier’s wealth and privilege, but fails to develop the comparison. The book has other flaws. Zuckoff’s sprightly depiction of life in early-twentieth-century America sometimes takes a turn toward the condescending, as though people who bought a luxury Locomobile in 1919 were swept up in consumer giddiness that we’ve outgrown in the wiser age of the Humvee. Readers hoping for a larger historical perspective on banking, fraud, and governance will also be disappointed. And not even Zuckoff’s considerable narrative skill entirely makes up for the book’s anticlimax. Ponzi went to jail and — the story trails off. After his sentence and deportation, he was separated forever from his devoted wife, and lived in Italy for two obscure decades during which he appears to have swindled no one. Ponzi’s Scheme remains worth reading, however. Ponzi was a personality more complex and interesting than many characters in fiction. A photograph showing him at the courthouse perfectly captures his allure. He’s surrounded by a crowd of supporters, all sleek businessmen — proving that there’ll always be those who believe in get-rich-quick schemes, even when they should know better. Amy Vincent is a former staff reporter at The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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