Leo Koretz was the Bernie Madoff of the 1920s. The son of immigrants from Central Europe, Koretz was a Chicago lawyer turned financier who amassed a considerable fortune by convincing insufficiently diligent investors to bankroll non-existent Panamanian oil and timber projects that promised high-yield returns. Like Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme unravelled during the general financial collapse of 2008, Koretz preyed on wealthy members of society. Playing hard to get, he had the Chicago establishment beating a path to his suite at the legendary Drake Hotel and pleading with him for a piece of the action. He even lured family members into the trap, in the process easing the qualms of potentially suspicious investors. After all, the thinking went, who would cheat his own mother?
This alone is fodder enough for a good yarn. But there’s more, as author Dean Jobb demonstrates in his colourful portrait of Koretz. Unlikely to be mistaken for a matinee idol, the bespectacled, paunchy Koretz was nevertheless a prodigious womanizer who – perhaps most implausibly of all – managed to pass himself off as an esteemed literary critic while hiding from U.S. authorities in rural Nova Scotia after the scam was exposed in 1923.
Jobb, a Halifax journalist and professor whose previous books include an investigation into the 1992 Westray mine disaster, pays particular attention to the Nova Scotia portion of the Koretz biography. Hiding behind a beard and an alias, Koretz reinvented himself as Lou Keyte, a wealthy man of letters who feted unsuspecting locals with extravagant parties at his expensively refurbished Pinehurst Lodge in Caledonia. Koretz was eventually discovered by authorities and extradited to Chicago. He pled guilty, but blithely insisted that his victims willingly participated in their own misfortune.
Relying heavily on newspaper accounts of the day, Jobb enlivens the narrative with vivid details and anecdotes. But, perhaps befitting Koretz’s capacity for deception, the book’s central character remains an elusive figure who took many secrets – including what made him tick – to the grave.