There’s simply no one like Steve Madden — and now the shoe mogul is opening up about his singular path in a candid and emotional new memoir out tomorrow.
Most people know that Madden built a wildly successful company while navigating many highs and lows — including drug addiction and a stint in prison. His experiences were chronicled in a 2017 documentary, and he was also portrayed in the 2014 blockbuster film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
But the book marks the first time that the highly charged founder has gone so in-depth about both his darkest days and incredible triumphs.
“It’s been such an extraordinary journey that I’ve been on,” Madden told FN last year, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the FN Achievement Awards. “It’s been unbelievable, unusual, thrilling and depressing. It’s been everything. It’s been a real ride, and most people don’t experience that.”
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Madden’s new book, “The Cobbler, How I Disrupted an Industry, Fell From Grace & Came Back Stronger Than Ever,” details his humble upbringing in Long Island, N.Y., and his complicated relationship with his family. It also gives a behind-the-scenes account of the now-shoe veteran’s earliest days in the footwear business, when he worked at local retailers Jildor and Toulouse and later pounded the pavement as a young shoe salesman after he dropped out of college.
Madden recounts how he linked up with Jordan Belfort, aka the “Wolf of Wall Street” and engineered his company’s highly successful IPO with Belfort’s brokerage Stratton Oakmont. He describes how he became entangled in the firm’s pump-and-dump practices, dealings which later resulted in his 41-month prison sentence on charges of money laundering and securities fraud.
While Madden has never been shy about sharing stories from his prison days, the memoir gives a more personal account of his dramatic experiences and the lifelong friendships formed behind those walls. Another relationship also bloomed during those years, with his now-former wife Wendy. In the last part of the book, the founder opens up about his marriage and how having children has changed him.
Here are seven exclusive excerpts from “The Cobbler.”
His formative years:
When I was fourteen, I started working as a caddy at the golf course. For five hours a day, I carried two huge bags that each felt like they were bigger than me, and for that I earned fourteen dollars. It was dreadful. Sometimes I caddied for my dad, but I always wished that I was playing with him, instead. The one thing I liked about the job was the opportunity to be around other men my dad’s age. I always loved listening to them talk about business and politics and the news of the day. I found myself uniquely situated to take in the message from the older generation to work hard and the opposite ideology from the younger generation to opt out. I’ve done both, and this duality has shaped my life and my business. In high school it seemed like I was heading more in the direction of opting out … Brian Frank nicknamed me “fog man” because I was always thinking about a thousand things at once. I was also stoned most of the time. I remember walking down the hallway of our school. It was loud and bustling with other kids heading every which way. Brian was talking to me about something, and I could barely hear him because I was too busy juggling so many other thoughts.
Painful familial bonds:
As the years passed, though, it turned out that [older brothers] John, Luke, and I had more in common than any of us would have expected. Each of us has faced our own slightly different battle as part of the same larger war with alcoholism and addiction. It’s a tough fight, one you can never really win outright. The sad truth is that to some extent both my brothers lost their battles. I’m still fighting mine a day at a time. If you had seen John at the age of twenty or even thirty, you never would have imagined that he’d end up the way he did. He was like an idealized image of a man come to life, and I often asked myself why I couldn’t be more like him. But his addiction ate away at him slowly, not fully taking hold until he hit middle age. It kills me that his kids never really had a chance to know him when he was younger. He was the best father he could be, and I know how much his kids loved him, but he was a completely different person by the time they were old enough to remember. Luke’s path may have been easier to predict in some ways because of the hippie thing, but, like John, his alcoholism didn’t take over his life until much later, long after the commune and Woodstock were in the history books. Then, despite our family’s efforts to help, he fell prey to his disease, too. I’m not judging either of my brothers. I still battle this demon every single day. In a way, it’s a blessing that I fell into the clutches of drugs instead of alcohol because they took me out much quicker than booze alone might have. I was a full decade younger than either John or Luke when I hit bottom and knew that I had to get clean or forfeit the entire war.
A relapse in the 1990s:
Soon, I was taking seven Vicodin at a time. If I took them too fast, I’d throw up, so I learned to be patient, swallowing each pill one at a time over the course of several minutes. After a few pills, it felt like someone had turned on the burner of a stove at the base of my skull, and a delicious heat rose up in my brain. As soon as it wore off, I needed to find a way to turn that burner back on. After seven years of hard-won sobriety, I was right back where I’d started, hopeless and helpless in the hands of a substance that was much stronger than I was. My initial prescription was gone in an instant, and then I was on a constant quest for pills. Addicts are resourceful creatures. Desperation will do that to a per-son. For a while, I found a pharmacist right near the Soho store who would sell me Vicodin for one dollar a pill. It was great. I was still working around the clock, and I could just run over any time when I ran out of pills. But then one day he disappeared. I wandered around downtown Manhattan for an entire day searching for him, but he was gone. I stooped to new lows to score more pills, often calling doctors and begging them to write me a prescription. I always found a way. Whenever I scored pills, my favorite thing to do was to isolate myself in my apartment and get high. Like I said, it was never a party for me. It was more about removing myself temporarily from the world around me. I’d take my pills, peek outside to make sure everything was OK, and then lock the door and enjoy the feeling of warmth rising to my brain. Of course, my friends from recovery noticed that I wasn’t going to meetings and knew exactly what was going on.
Entering Eglin Federal Prison Camp for the first time
No one could come in with me, and it wasn’t the kind of place for long goodbyes. I simply got out of the car as a guard came out to get me. Immediately, my delusions that this place would live up to its nickname were shattered. As I approached the guard, he looked at me with disdain. “Let’s go,” he said gruffly as he yanked my arms behind me and tightened a pair of cuffs around my wrists. I glanced back at the carful of guys. They looked stricken. I nodded to them once to let them know I was OK before the guard nudged me wordlessly toward the building’s entrance. I don’t know exactly what I had expected, that they would escort me to my room like I was checking in at the Hilton? No. As soon as we walked inside the prison, everything changed. The guards made it clear that I was nothing to them. Worthless. They took all of my belongings away from me, even the biography of the “Rolling Stones” that I had brought with me to read. “You can’t bring anything but a bible,” a guard said scornfully, tossing my book aside. He threw an orange jumpsuit at me and took me into a tiny washroom to change. Then it was time for a strip search, the horrors of which cannot be overstated. As we went through the motions of my intake, the guards jostled me about, not really hurting me or anything; just treating me physically and verbally like I was sub-human. I suppose there are plenty of people who support this and believe that if you’ve committed a crime, you deserve to be treated like garbage. But all this does is harden people who have made mistakes instead of rehabilitating them. We can punish people for their crimes and remain compassionate. I had many more months to learn about all the injustices of our prison system, but my crash course started right away.
When Steve met Ed:
I had just barely gotten back in the swing of things, but I was eager to reinvigorate the company by making some new hires. While I was in prison, I had gotten a letter from a young guy named Ed Rosenfeld who worked at PJ Solomon, a financial services company that had done some work for us while I was away. Ed’s letter explained that he wanted to get out of banking and work at a company where he could learn a business and make decisions and then live with them. He wrote that with his finance background, he believed he could help bring our company to the next level. I liked the sound of that, and called Ed to ask him to come in and meet with me. “I’m in Mexico this week,” Ed told me. “I can come in any day next week.” I shook my head, as if he could hear that over the phone. “No,” I told him. “If you want to meet, be here tomorrow.” I hung up. I don’t know why I had an urge to test Ed so soon. I guess I wanted to see how serious he was about working with me. Of course I would have met with him the following week, but I didn’t have to because he showed up in my office the next day. Ed has been one of the most important hires in the history of Steve Madden, so I want to break down the traits I recognized in him that day. First, he had an instinct to be a maker, which I admired. And beyond being sharp, which he clearly was, Ed was as cool and dispassionate as I was excitable and over-the-top.
Becoming a father in 2007:
In some ways, fatherhood was an even bigger shock to my system than prison had been. Everything about being a parent was so counterintuitive, especially for a selfish guy like me. I simply couldn’t be selfish around my kids. It had to be all about them. I accepted this and even relished it because I saw that it was forcing me to become a better person, even if it was against my will. Wendy, on the other hand, took to motherhood right away. Of course, she had plenty of help, so she was able to enjoy her time with the twins, and she had fun with it. Jack and Stevie weren’t identical, obviously, but they did look a lot alike as babies, with my strawberry blonde hair and Wendy’s striking eyes. Having kids also gave me something new to worry about, and, as crazy as it sounds, this helped me focus at work. We have a corporate ethos at Steve Madden, and that is: we’re panickers. We panic a lot. From the moment I started the company, I thought we were going out of business, and I drilled this sense of caution and doom into my team the same way my dad had drilled it into me. And I now had a whole team of people who were as passionate and panicked and full of creative ambition as I was. The twins’ birth coincided with a period of enormous growth for the company. Rest was over, and there was a new energy at the company that gave us the wind at our back.
The Wolf of Wall Street effect:
Ever since “The Wolf of Wall Street” had come out, young entrepreneurs were reaching out to ask for my advice. When I did personal appearances now, there were fewer young women asking me to sign their shoes and more asking how I built this company from nothing into a multi-billion-dollar global brand. At one appearance in Ann Arbor, a college student raised her hand during the Q&A. “I’m very proud of you,” she told me when it was her turn at the mic. “You did a good job with your life.” I paused. She clearly meant no harm, but the implication of what she was saying was clear. “And now that it’s over . . .” I said with a smile, winking to let her know that I wasn’t really offended. The audience laughed. But as I moved on to the next question, I couldn’t quite shake what she had said. She’d really gotten to me because she was so right. For me, the building and grinding and hustling really were in the past. My life wasn’t over, but it wasn’t about what I created in the moment anymore. It had to be about what I wanted to leave behind. There were two things. One was a strong, dynamic company that was both profitable and a force for good. And the other was my life itself: my story, my mistakes, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. The latter you’re obviously holding in your hands. As for the former, I’ve found new ways to contribute within the company: By advising Ed on our deals, mentoring the team, and being a good influence, hopefully without making too much of a nuisance out of myself.