NEW YORK (Reuters) - Writer Jordan Belfort’s debut book is about a depraved and despicable stock swindler addicted to drugs and high-priced hookers.
Belfort, 45, knows his subject well. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about him. The real-life Belfort, before drug rehab and a 22-month stretch in a federal prison camp, makes Sherman McCoy, the “master of the universe” immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities”, look like a Boy Scout.
By his own estimate, Belfort cheated investors out of as much as $200 million as chairman of the defunct brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont Inc, one of the famous boiler rooms that pumped up stocks in the 1990s.
He signed off on a midget tossing event, took turns having sex with a female subordinate and woke up in restraints on a flight to Switzerland after groping a flight attendant, according to his memoir, published by Random House Inc.’s Bantam Books.
“I‘m not going to pass the buck on what I did,” Belfort told Reuters in an interview in New York. “If I didn’t feel bad and was embarrassed, I’d be a sociopath.”
Belfort said he is not so sure he should have written the book and dreads the day when his two children might read a memoir replete with lurid, drug-induced scenes involving a Quaalude-addled Belfort and their mother.
“Maybe I should have just buried that part of my life and moved on and kept in the background,” Belfort said.
There is no looking back now. “The Wolf of Wall Street” hit bookstores on Tuesday. His original 1,200 page manuscript was cut in half after seven edits and legal vetting.
Belfort wants it to be a success, and so does the federal government. In 2003, a U.S. District Judge in Brooklyn ordered Belfort to pay $110.4 million in restitution to investors as part of his punishment. Belfort and Daniel Porush, the former president at Stratton Oakmont, also forfeited about $11 million in properties, court records show.
Half of Belfort’s monthly income goes toward restitution and U.S. District Judge John Gleeson has ordered Belfort to file an affidavit with the court detailing the financial arrangements surrounding the book and a movie deal. Belfort confirmed Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese is interested in making the movie, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Belfort.
In his twenties, Belfort made millions of dollars a year taking companies public. He said he could have made even more if he had run the Long Island brokerage legitimately.
Instead, he paid his rowdy salesmen handsomely to pump up the prices of small stocks with fraudulent pitches.
In the initial public offering of shoe company Steven Madden Ltd., Belfort pocketed some $20 million. A big chunk of the shares of the offering went into what Belfort describes as ratholes, or accounts held by his cronies at $5 or $6 a share.
Then he used the power of his boiler room operation at Stratton Oakmont to drive up the price of Madden’s stock to around $20 a share. Belfort then pounced, selling the stock stashed in the ratholes to produce most of his profit.
Belfort thought he was too clever to get caught by what he describes as bumbling investigators with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Besides, his mentors were cunning teachers. One lawyer kept pens for a dozen or so years to backdate documents so they would later pass a gas chromatography test administered by the FBI.
But when you take as many drugs as Belfort says he did, you do a lot of stupid things. For one, he was obsessed with smuggling money into Switzerland so he could skirt U.S. securities laws and expand his illegal empire.
“It was the stupidest thing I ever did,” Belfort said.
A Swiss banker busted in an unrelated case offered up Belfort to get leniency with prosecutors. In 1999, Belfort pleaded guilty to criminal charges of securities fraud and money laundering in connection with manipulating the stock prices for 34 public companies.
Belfort faced a maximum of 30 years in prison, but got a lenient sentence in exchange for his role as a witness for the government.
In prison, Belfort found that nothing burned time like writing. His bunkmate at California’s Taft Correctional Facility, Tommy Chong of the Cheech and Chong stoner comedy movies, encouraged him to write a book after they spent nights swapping stories.
Belfort didn’t know how to write, but he said he used Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” as his textbook. He now writes several hours a day. His second book will be about the aftermath of his downfall. He said he is also trying to right past wrongs.
“I believe I have a shot at being redeemed by living a good life today,” Belfort said.