We’ve seen characters like this before. They are uncommon but not unheard of. They emerge out of nowhere and Tom Ripley their way into the highest strata of society. They speak into existence their own importance. They are relentless in their quest for fame and fortune and power. They collect influential friends and amass vast wealth, for sport. Their background doesn’t check out, but no one seems to mind as long as the checks clear and the champagne flows. And then, one day, inevitably, it all comes crashing down.
Jay Gatsby is one such character. He came from nothing, traveled abroad, cavorted with criminals, built a fortune, went to great lengths to conceal the humble details of his past. He was decadent, but his tastes ran to the nouveau riche. He was interested only in himself. He believed the rules did not apply to him. He could be generous and charming, but beneath the veneer of old-sport respectability was insecurity, self-loathing, and rage. He lived the American dream and the American nightmare. He died a violent death. Gatsby is fictitious, of course, but the elements are all the same—and isn’t much of Epstein’s story also a work of fiction?
Epstein is a real-life Gatsby, but a poisoned Gatsby, a Daisyless Gatsby, a Gatsby without the green light, a Gatsby from hell. He is a magic trick inverted. Now you don’t see him, now you do. One day he’s just there, in the thick of it all, possessor of an opulent Upper East Side townhouse, the most expensive residence in all of Gotham. He could not have acquired such a signature property if he was not rich. That’s what everyone thinks, at least. That’s the rationale. If he lives there, he must be legit. Money can’t buy you everything, but it can certainly bring you the benefit of the doubt.
Rumors fly, but as with Gatsby, the rumors are little more than speculation. He’ a financier, is what the papers say. He must be very good at whatever it is he does. He must know how to play the markets. He must know how to invest. He must have the wealthiest clients in the world. He must be a magician with money. Rabbit from a hat. Now you don’t see it, now you do.
Even now, we don’t fully know the origin of the money. Was he the beneficiary of the largesse of his earliest patron, the garment industry magnate? Was he a new-wave Meyer Lansky, laundering vast sums for organized crime? Was he an arms dealer—or rather, a broker between arms buyers and arms sellers, a conduit to move money without detection? Was he a modern-day pirate, his entire fortune purloined from some secret CIA slush fund? We don’t really know. We may never know.
We do know about the posh mansion at 9 East 71st Street, just off Central Park, same neighborhood as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. The townhouse is, essentially, a gift from the garment industry magnate: the underwear mogul, destroyer of healthy body images, prime mover of the insidious trend of female models to look less like voluptuous adult women and more like prepubescent boys. He and the garment industry magnate are close: intimates, some say, the same word used to describe the slinky wares the garment industry magnate has on offer. Pretty underage girls admire the young women (who look like younger boys) who model the underwear. He uses this as a recruitment tool. I can make you a model for my friend the garment industry magnate. I can make you famous. In the early years, the clumsy years, this is how he operates. He makes promises he has no intention of keeping.
He develops a persona. He hides behind a cloak of money and mystery. He eschews suits and ties for more casual clothes. He cultivates friendships with high-powered individuals at the top of their fields: scientists, attorneys, politicians, actors, writers. He throws dinner parties, salons really, where these individuals can meet and talk shop. The conversations are stimulating. That’s his primary function: to bring interesting people together and make everything stimulating.
The socialite, so-called, is on hand for most of these parties. She is with him all the time, but the nature of their relationship is hard to define. Are they boyfriend and girlfriend? Business partners? Just close friends? Journalists can’t decide, and no one cares enough to press the issue.
There are rumors, but the rumors are mostly speculation. He likes the rumors. The rumors cultivate mystique. There were rumors about Gatsby, too. They say he killed a man. What he will wind up doing is much, much worse, and can’t be articulated so simply.
There are girls at the parties. Not all of the parties, but enough of the parties. Somehow he determines who might be interested in a different, extra-legal, kind of stimulation. Once upon a time, it was a commonplace for older men of means to take much younger women as lovers, as mistresses, as wives. This was considered a perquisite of wealth and station. Royals did it on the regular in days of yore, and artists and poets too. The creator of Alice, the paradigm of the kind of girl these predatory men chase after, and of Wonderland, the proto-Upside-Down where the regular rules do not apply, where the first instruction to Alice is EAT ME: Mr. Dodgson left for posterity all those photos of naked girls. Charlie Chaplin liked them young, and society indulged him. Elvis Presley liked them young, and society indulged him. So it is with his party guests, the subversive ones who crave what only he can provide. Age of consent is a construct, they argue. This is our birthright. This is our due. This is droit du seigneur for the modern age. That’s the kind of stimulation these men desire—an odious form of stimulation difficult to safely procure in polite society. With the help of his socialite-cum-procuress, he gives them what they want, and then they are his.
These encounters happen at the townhouse, but also at the ranch in New Mexico, and at his vacation home in Palm Beach, and also at the private island. (He has his own island!) There are girls at the parties, so many girls, girls recruited from the poorer parts of town, girls from Eastern Bloc countries, girls recruited by other girls, girls paid a week’s worth of wages at their jobs at the mall to give backrubs for a few hours. Some of them never return to the party. Others are groomed—by the socialite-cum-procuress, and by him personally. Backrubs give way to blowjobs. They are taught how to behave, how to defer, how to please, how to keep quiet, so as not to puncture the fantasy. They are being trafficked, is the technical term, although most of them don’t realize it in the moment. The girls are used as party favors. They are used to stimulate the powerful men who are now his friends, men who believe it is their due, men who don’t ever want their vilest impulses to be denied. He films the girls in bed with the powerful men, and the tapes are very effective for purposes of coercion. It’s amazing, the lengths men will go to, to ensure that this sort of thing is kept secret. He has established a blackmail factory. Was that the objective all along?
The socialite helps him expand his network, take it international. Through her late father, a media mogul and a spy for any number of foreign intelligence services, he meets the prince. And not some middling royal from a flyspeck like Luxembourg. The Duke of York himself! The son of the Queen! When the prince opens his thick wallet, his mum’s portrait is on the banknotes! The prince enjoys his company. The prince enjoys the benefits of having him as a friend. The two men are friendly for years. There is no way the prince doesn’t know. It is impossible for him not to know.
He befriends not one but two presidents, one former, one future, from two different ends of the political spectrum. Both men cheat on their wives. Both have been credibly accused of rape and sexual assault. There are rides on the private jet and visits to the private island. There are parties where he and one of these men are the only males in attendance. There is no way the once and future presidents don’t know. It is impossible for them not to know.
There are others—many, many others. Some of their names are left behind in a little black book, a Who’s Who of shame. An Israeli prime minister. A governor of the state where his ranch is located. A prominent defense attorney, probably the best in the country, affiliated with Harvard. A prominent scientist from MIT. A billionaire private equity guy. Even if they never partook—and victims will later allege that they did—there is no way they don’t know. It is impossible for them not to know.
Then there are the employees. With all that real estate, plus the private jet, there is so much to maintain. There are pilots, chauffeurs, secretaries, groundskeepers, maids, cleaning staff, security guards, videographers, technicians, handymen, accountants, lawyers. One of his chefs will later become famous in his own right, close friends with a late-night TV personality. There is no way they don’t know. It is impossible for them not to know.
The first time he gets caught, he agrees to a plea bargain. Even this he does with great reluctance, like the whole thing is beneath him, an annoyance. The FBI locates 34 credible victims. The Miami Herald finds 80. He would be, should be, put away for decades. But he has the backing of the best lawyers, and friends in the highest reaches of the federal government. As part of the plea deal, he is granted immunity from all federal charges. His accomplices are let off the hook. The investigation is shut down. The indictment is sealed. Even the victims can’t access the plea agreement. He pleads guilty to a single count of solicitation of a minor. He gets 18 months in prison. The U.S. Attorney who signs off on the deal will later claim that he was told to back off, that Epstein was above his pay grade, that he belonged to Intelligence. Who issued this command?
His short stint in custody is little more than an inconvenience. His cell at the county stockade isn’t locked. Visitors come and go. He is allowed to leave for hours at a time, to visit his properties, cavort with his trafficked victims, do whatever it is he does. He takes long walks on the beach. He flies around on his private jet. He rapes with impunity. Despite the lax rules, he is always late, always pushing the boundaries. He sleeps in the cell, but otherwise his life doesn’t much change. After a little over a year, he is set free. As a sex offender, he is supposed to be added to lists, checked on by the authorities. That doesn’t happen.
Once freed, he is a convicted felon, guilty of soliciting sex with a minor, with a digital footprint that includes tales of sex trafficking and rape allegations—but this does not affect his life at all. No one seems to care. His old associates do not leave him. They are happy he’s back in business. And he makes up for lost time, cultivating new friends.
One of his new friends is the richest man in the country. He is the founder of a software company. He is a nerd. He knows more about computing than anyone alive, but he is incapable of using search engines. Eventually, the software company founder’s wife will leave him, because of his relationship with Epstein (she can use Google). The software company founder pleads ignorance. But there is no way he doesn’t know. It is impossible for him not to know.
He is arrested at the airport. He is on his way back from Paris, where he owns yet another deluxe property. This time the doors on his jail cell are locked. This time the socialite-cum-procuress is arrested, too. A rumor circulates that the Attorney General paid him a secret visit at the jailhouse. That would be ironic, as it was the father of the Attorney General, the doctrinaire headmaster at a private school in Manhattan, who gave him his first job. But the rumor is not true. What is true is that he did not leave the jail cell alive. The cameras blinked out. The guards fell asleep. The coroner’s report ruled the death a suicide. In our bones, we will never be sure. His death will be as mysterious as the rest of his life.
Fitzgerald writes on the last page: He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Through death, he escapes justice, escapes reckoning. The socialite does not; she is found guilty and remains in custody, awaiting sentencing. She will likely spend most of what remains of her life behind bars.
But what of all the men who were their friends and clients? The ones who raped the girls they trafficked? The Harvard lawyer, the MIT scientist, the private equity guy, the prince, the governor, the two former presidents—the whole sick crew? Nothing happens to them. Nothing at all.
Epstein fell because in the end, Epstein was not really one of them. He was an interloper, an arriviste, a fraud. A confidence man. The socialite fell because she was a woman. But nothing happens to men like the former presidents, and the Duke of York, and the Harvard legal scholar, and the private equity billionaire. Maybe they don’t get to avail themselves of their favorite nude beach. Maybe they don’t get to participate in the Platinum Jubilee. Maybe they are the target of dank memes. Maybe they lose a seat on a board. But nothing with teeth. There are no real consequences. They are protected, apparently, by the same unknown forces who ordered a U.S. Attorney to stand down and go easy on a rapist and child sex trafficker. Men that powerful really can do whatever they please, like lords of the manor in days of old. Like they are all sons of the Queen.
So we beat on, boats against the current, never quite able to arrive at the truth.
"Maybe they are the target of dank memes." What a sentence!
Brilliant. Love it.