Jeffrey Epstein was only a would-be Master of the Universe when I first met him in 1987, at movie producer Coco Brown’s annual Halloween party in New York. I was standing with Isabel Goldsmith, the eldest daughter of the financier Jimmy Goldsmith, when Epstein and his brother, Mark, joined us. “A surfeit of Epsteins,” Isabel remarked. It turned out she had once met Epstein in London.
The next day Epstein called me and said there was something he would like to talk to me about. We met for tea at the Mayfair Hotel on 65th Street the following Thursday. He asked at the outset if I would be interested in writing a story about his business for my monthly “Wall Street Babylon” column in Manhattan, inc. magazine. At this point, all I knew about him was that he was an acquaintance of Isabel Goldsmith’s.
“What is your business?” I asked him.
“I’m sort of a financial bounty hunter,” he said, with a big “I know more than you” grin that rarely left his face throughout our tea. He explained that he hunted down hidden money for a fee. He described the convoluted network for hiding money in Andorra, Fiji, Gibraltar, and the Cayman Islands in such vivid detail that I thought he might be in the business of hiding as well of finding it. He dropped so many names in the realm of money machinations—such as Adnan Khashoggi, Aristotle Onassis, and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan—that his stories, though intriguing, didn’t quite add up. For one thing, I knew Khashoggi well enough to presume that he didn’t need help from Epstein in finding hidden money. And I certainly had no thought of writing a column on this self-styled bounty hunter. As we finished the tea, I mentioned I was leaving for Spain on Monday.
“How do you go?” he asked.
“Iberia Airlines,” I said, adding that I always flew coach.
“If you like, I can upgrade you to first class. Much better food.”
“Drop your ticket off with my doorman tomorrow morning. It won’t cost you a penny.”
Epstein lived in a one-bedroom apartment at Solow Tower at 265 East 66th Street. As instructed, I brought my ticket to the doorman on Friday morning, and Friday evening I picked it up with a first-class sticker and a first-class seat assignment.
I flew to Malaga, Spain, and back in great style and comfort. When I mentioned Epstein’s ticket trick to Jimmy Goldsmith, whom I was visiting in Spain, he warned me to be careful with him. It was advice I stupidly did not immediately heed.
In December 1988, I needed to go to Los Angeles to interview people involved in the growing junk-bond scandal. Epstein not only converted my coach tickets to first class; he insisted that I stay in his house in Santa Monica. He told me that he had rented the two-bedroom house near the pier for Eva Andersson, his onetime girlfriend.
Jimmy Goldsmith warned me to be careful with Epstein. It was advice I stupidly did not immediately heed.
Eva, a former Miss Sweden, was in her third year of medical school at U.C.L.A. I found her witty, empathetic, and insightful. Along with her dog, we would take early-morning walks along the boardwalk to Venice Beach.
Epstein had another surprise for me. It came in the form of a call from the actress Morgan Fairchild. At his suggestion, she met me for lunch at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was preparing for a role on Murphy Brown, and Epstein had informed her that I could tell her all she needed to know about investigative journalism. It was a subject that typically made people’s eyes glaze over, but Morgan seemed keenly interested. I dined with her many times on my trips to L.A.
Back in New York, Epstein often invited me to meet interesting acquaintances of his. We had lunch with Leslie Orgel, a Salk Institute biochemist who said that human life might have been seeded on Earth by a higher intelligence in the universe, a theory that greatly interested Epstein; Vera Wang, a former Vogue editor, who had just opened a bridal-dress store on Madison Avenue; Evangeline Gouletas-Carey, the wife of former governor Hugh Carey, who shared an office with Epstein at the Villard Houses; and Stuart Pivar, a Brooklyn-born scientist who made a fortune in plastic containers and helped endow the New York Academy of Art. Epstein took me to a number of events at the Academy of Art, including his former girlfriend Paula Fisher’s wedding celebration (which ended in a food fight between Pivar and Barbara Guggenheim).
The Win-Win Game
It was all dazzling fun, but in late 1988 a dark cloud poked its way into the festivities. It began when I tried to board an All Nippon Airways flight that Epstein had upgraded to first class. The A.N.A. representative told me it could not be a first-class ticket, which cost $6,000, because I had paid only $655. When I pointed to the first-class sticker, she said anyone could steal one and paste it in. I was unceremoniously moved to coach.
Back in New York, I asked one of Epstein’s former girlfriends about the upgrade. She told me it only works about one in three times, and that Epstein would send her to check in ahead of time to spare himself the potential embarrassment. She explained that he had obtained the stickers from a friend and entered the airline’s computer system to make the seat assignments. Later, I learned that the friend who supplied the stickers was Steven Hoffenberg, which seemed reasonable since I knew Epstein was involved in his attempt to win control of Pan Am Airways. I had met Hoffenberg with Epstein at the Regency Deli on several occasions. He was over six feet tall with dark sinister eyes. I knew he owned a bill-collection agency, Towers Financial, and had recently tried to take over Pan Am, where he presumably got hold of the first-class stickers.
The cloud darkened further when I got a frantic call from an executive at Simon & Schuster, the publisher of my book Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA, who had met Epstein at my birthday dinner on December 6, 1988. He told me that he had given Epstein $70,000 to invest in a deal to take over the chemical company Pennwalt. After sending the money, he had not received the necessary papers, and Epstein was no longer returning his calls. He phoned one of the principals in the deal, who said he had never heard of the executive. I told him I would look into it.
Epstein was in Palm Beach at the time, but he had given me a computer program called Carbon Copy so I could get real-time quotes on the stocks I was interested in. It was another way of showing off his technological prowess. The program allowed me to remotely access his computer via my telephone modem. I decided to use it to find out what was going on with the publisher’s investment in Pennwalt. Remotely, I clicked on “Home” on Epstein’s computer and went to the archive, where I found a file of recent transactions. In it were dozens of letters from people demanding the return of their investments, including Vera Wang’s father, the investor C. C. Wang. Another was from a financier involved in the takeover deal of Pennwalt, who reported that a check from Epstein for $83,000 had bounced a second time. The sums were considerable, but from the one-way correspondence I could not determine if they had been repaid. One set of transactions involved Steven Hoffenberg, the person who may have unwittingly provided my first-class stickers. Rather than demanding repayment, he wanted to transfer large sums to Epstein from Associated Life and United Fire, two small insurance companies that Hoffenberg controlled. As I read through this material, I found nothing about the publishing executive’s money, but I grew increasingly queasy about Epstein.
In early 1989, unable to come up with a better subject, I wrote my “Wall Street Babylon” column about Epstein (whom I didn’t identify by name, because he refused to speak to the fact-checker from Manhattan, inc.). Its thesis was that the takeover game had become so lucrative that even small guys—who had their power breakfasts in the Regency Deli instead of the Regency Hotel—could play. All that was needed was enough charm to convince investors they too could score like the big corporate raiders. It was titled “The Win-Win Game.” After it was published, Epstein stopped speaking to me.
I thought about him again in 1995. Hoffenberg had been charged with running a massive Ponzi scheme in the late 1980s in which no less than $475 million was stolen. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but a large part of the missing funds was not recovered. Epstein, meanwhile, had reportedly scored well in the win-win game. I heard from mutual friends that he had moved from his one-bedroom apartment in the Solow Tower, first to a town house that had been seized by the U.S. government, and then to a mansion on East 71st Street that had previously belonged to the billionaire retailer Les Wexner. I was told that he also had a ranch in New Mexico, a home in Paris with a stuffed baby elephant in the living room, and a private airliner. However he had come into his windfall, I was not entirely surprised, given his charm, nerve, and looseness with the truth, that he had become a real-life version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.
Nor was I surprised in 1996 when the corporate detective Jules Kroll told me he was conducting a discreet investigation into Epstein’s background. He sent one of his top investigators, Thomas Helsby, to interview me. Over lunch at Petaluma, Helsby told me that a board member of Les Wexner’s company, concerned about Epstein’s influence over Wexner, had personally hired the Kroll agency. They had already determined that Epstein had dropped out of college, worked as a roofer in Brooklyn, and faked his résumé to get a teaching job at Dalton, the private school on New York’s Upper East Side. This did not come as a total shock, even though Epstein had told me he had a degree in nuclear science, because I had always assumed that, like Jay Gatsby, he had invented himself.
The real shock came 10 years later when I read that Epstein had been arrested in Palm Beach for soliciting under-age women to perform sexual massages. I knew he liked the company of women but not under-age ones. The women he had introduced me to all had substantial careers: doctors, actresses, art dealers, theater producers, academics, money managers, and filmmakers. I couldn’t conceive that he would consider having sex with under-age girls. Such ugly perversity was not only criminal; it also made him vulnerable to blackmail. Had he fallen prey to the Master of the Universe complex in thinking he was immune from federal law and the rules of civil decency? Whatever his motive, Epstein went to prison for 13 months.
The Feel of Human Skin
After a hiatus of some 24 years, I heard from Epstein in April 2013. He said he had read an article I had written in The New York Review of Books on Nabokov, and he would love to discuss it with me. He invited me for tea the next afternoon at his home.
On the outside of his house on East 71st Street, just off Fifth Avenue, was a plaque with the initials “JE.” A tall, strikingly beautiful woman in her late 20s answered the door with a friendly smile. She introduced herself as Jennifer and showed me to the anteroom. The walls contained photographs of rich and powerful men posing with Epstein. Five minutes later, Jennifer reappeared and led me to a long rectangular table in the dining room. She asked if I would like an omelet or anything else to eat.
“Just tea,” I replied.
A few minutes later, Epstein came in accompanied by Svetlana, another of his assistants. She was almost as tall as Jennifer. Then a third assistant came in the room, Leslie. As I would learn, he had no shortage of comely female assistants. Leslie served us tea and left with Jennifer.
Epstein, wearing a tracksuit, sat at the head of the table. Except for his gray hair, he looked very much the same as the last time I saw him, in 1989. His glistening know-it-all smile had not changed. He began the conversation by saying that Nabokov was his favorite writer and he kept a copy of Lolita next to his bed and on his plane. He wanted to know what the author was like. The last time I had spoken to Nabokov and his wife, Vera, had been more than a half-century before, and my memory of him was dim. After recounting a few vivid impressions, I asked Epstein what he was working on.
Epstein said that Nabokov was his favorite writer and he kept a copy of Lolita next to his bed and on his plane.
He told me his main interest was cutting-edge artificial intelligence. He said that he was funding a group in Hong Kong to produce “the world’s smartest robot,” which would have “more empathy than a woman.” He said one problem his robot team had was simulating the feel of human skin. As he discussed the progress on the prototype, which had been named Sophia, I couldn’t help thinking of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. In it, a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, attempts to implant his intelligence in a young flower girl, and winds up falling in love with his own creation. I asked, “What would Sophia be used for?”
“The elderly,” he answered. His theory was that advances in medicine and biotechnology would result in an increasingly large population of centenarians, many of whom would need 24-hour assistance. Empathetic robots like Sophia would provide it.
Changing the subject, I asked, “How do you make money these days?”
“I manage money for a few select clients,” he replied.
I knew that his guilty plea to felony charges in Florida in 2008 would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to get a license to manage other people’s money in the U.S. “Do you have an offshore hedge fund?” I asked.
His smile broadened. “Hedge funds are a thing of the past. But there are wealthy individuals in various parts of the world who need help protecting their assets. I help them.”
In the anteroom, I had seen photos of Epstein with Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirate prince Mohammed bin Zayed, some in beachwear and with snorkel gear. I asked, “Are these clients in the Middle East?”
He answered that some were, and that he was planning to buy a house in Riyadh, since that was becoming the new center of international finance.
“What about Russia? Any clients there?” I asked.
He shrugged and answered that he often flew to Moscow to see Vladimir Putin.
I found this hard to swallow. He was, after all, a fabulist, as I had learned from the Kroll report. Nor did it make any sense to me that powerful financiers would trust someone like Epstein to secure or hide their money. After all, they knew that he had made a deal with the Department of Justice to avoid federal charges. How could they be sure he wouldn’t make another deal to reveal their secret funds?
At five o’clock, Leslie opened the door a crack and announced, “Leon is here.” Svetlana rose to her feet. Epstein seemed in no rush to end our chat, but I decided it was my signal to leave. On the way out, he introduced me to a man patiently waiting in the anteroom with Jennifer. It was Leon Black, the billionaire head of Apollo Global Management. His presence there made me wonder whether I had underestimated Epstein’s continued connections with the rich and powerful.
I saw Epstein only occasionally over the next six years. Almost all our meetings were in that same room in his house for afternoon tea. The only exception was a lunch in May 2014 that turned out to be a walk into Central Park to a hot-dog stand. He called its fare “the best hot dog outside of Coney Island.”
Four of his female assistants, including Jennifer and Svetlana, accompanied us. They walked at a discreet distance, two on either side of us, and carried, in case Epstein needed them, Fiji water, cash, and cell phones. I guessed that they were also trained in kung fu.
I got a chance to find out more about Epstein’s female staff through a chance meeting. A week after our walk in Central Park, I ran into Jennifer in Maison Kayser, a café at Third Avenue and 74th Street. She said she was buying croissants for a trip she was taking to Little St. James, Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean, that afternoon. Over coffee, I asked how she had met him.
Jennifer told me she had come to New York from Minnesota to be a model and wound up in a difficult relationship with a man. Enter Epstein, who rescued her from it and gave her a job as an assistant. He also gave her free use of an apartment on East 66th (near where he had lived in 1989). When she told him that she dreamed of being a chef, he paid for her to take courses at the Culinary Institute of America, arranged a part-time internship for her at a steak house, and found her a full-time position in the food industry.
I next asked her about Svetlana, the assistant who had sat across from me. She told me Svetlana was now studying dentistry at New York University, at Epstein’s expense. At that point, I recalled that Eva, now Andersson-Dubin, had since become the in-house doctor for NBC and founder of the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai hospital (named for Eva’s husband, Glenn Dubin). A chef, a dentist, a doctor, a robot named Sophia. I wondered after speaking to Jennifer how far Epstein’s Pygmalion ambitions went.
The last time I heard from him was on February 25, 2019. Three days earlier, Robert Kraft, the wealthy owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with two counts of soliciting sex in a massage parlor in Jupiter, Florida. The police claimed his arrest was part of an investigation into suspected human trafficking. Epstein had pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting sex with a minor in Florida and said that the difference was that Kraft went to a massage parlor while he had hired women from massage parlors to come to his house. (The other important difference being that some of Epstein’s masseuses were under-age.) Both cases involved long-term police surveillance. Epstein pointed out, “In my case, the police had gone through my garbage for months and had my house under surveillance, according to the report. No one has asked the question how could they allow young women to go in and out, and not protect them and question them, if they truly believed they were under-age.” Though he obviously could have been lying—he was a pathological liar—Epstein insisted that he had been unaware that the girls were underage. His outrage, if I understood it correctly, was that if the police had intervened sooner, he would not have had to make a deal with the Justice Department.
On August 10, 2019, Epstein was found dead on the floor of a jail cell at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan, where, denied bail, he was being held on two federal charges of sex trafficking. He was worth, according to court filings, $577,672,654 at the time of his death. In 30 years, through wizardry or legerdemain, he had gone from faking airplane upgrades and bouncing checks to amassing a half-billion-dollar fortune.
Editor’s note: After the above article was published, we heard from Hanson Robotics, the creator of a robot named Sophia, which asserted that “Jeffrey Epstein did not at any time directly fund Hanson Robotics” and that the company didn’t start work on its robot until 2014, and didn’t name it Sophia until 2016. Author Edward Jay Epstein stands by his reporting and suggests that the name Sophia could be pure coincidence.
Edward Jay Epstein is an investigative journalist and the author of many books, including How America Lost Its Secrets: Snowden, the Man and the Theft