There are other houses as well, including a sweeping villa in Palm Beach and a custom-built 51,000-square-foot castle in Santa Fe. Said to be the largest house in the state, the latter sits atop a hill on a 45,000-acre ranch. He had it built because of the month or so he found himself spending there, talking elementary particle physics with his friend Murray Gell-Man, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist and co-chair of the science board at the Santa Fe Institute.
Epstein also owned a grand house (he has since sold it) near Wexner's opulent manse at the center of the Limited magnate's high-end housing development in New Albany, Ohio. New Albany was a lush sprawl of farmland on the outskirts of Columbus that Wexner, starting in 1988, turned into a rich village of multimillion-dollar Georgian homes surrounding a Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course. It was a massive development project, financed largely by Wexner himself. Epstein was a general partner in the real-estate holding company, called New Albany Property, despite putting only a few million dollars of capital into the project.
"Before Epstein came along in 1988, the financial preparations and groundwork for the New Albany development were a total mess," says Bob Fitrakis, a Columbus-based investigative journalist who has written extensively on Wexner and his finances. "Epstein cleaned everything up, as well as serving Wexner in other capacities -- such as facilitating visits to Wexner's home of the crew from Cats and organizing a Tony Randall song-and-dance show put on in Columbus." Wexner declines to talk about his relationship with Epstein, but it is clearly one that continues to this day. Not that it helped Epstein in any way to land Clinton. Wexner is a staunch Republican donor, and Epstein, aside from a small contribution to the president's legal-defense fund, has given more to the likes of former senator Al D'Amato.
What attracted Clinton to Epstein was quite simple: He had a plane (he has a couple, in fact -- the Boeing 727, in which he took Clinton to Africa, and, for shorter jaunts, a black Gulfstream, a Cessna 421, and a helicopter to ferry him from his island to St. Thomas). Clinton had organized a weeklong tour of South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, and Mozambique to do what Clinton does. So when the president's advance man Doug Band pitched the idea to Epstein, he said sure. As an added bonus, Kevin Spacey, a close friend of Clinton's, and actor Chris Tucker came along for the ride.
While Epstein got an intellectual kick out of engaging African finance ministers in theoretical chitchat about economic development, the real payoff for him was observing Clinton in his métier: talking HIV/aids policy with African leaders and soaking up the love from Cape Town to Lagos.
Epstein brings a trophy-hunter's zeal to his collection of scientists and politicians. But the real charge for him is in seeing these guys work it. Like former Democratic Senate leader George Mitchell, for example. In Epstein's mind, Mitchell is the world's greatest negotiator, based on his work in Ireland and the Middle East. So he wrote the senator a bunch of checks. Says Mitchell: "He has supported some philanthropic projects of mine and organized a fund-raiser for me once. I would certainly call him a friend and a supporter."
But it is his covey of scientists that inspires Epstein's true rapture. Epstein spends $20 million a year on them -- encouraging them to engage in whatever kind of cutting-edge research might attract their fancy. They are, of course, quite lavish in their praise in return. Gerald Edelman won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1972 and now presides over the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. "Jeff is extraordinary in his ability to pick up on quantitative relations," says Edelman. "He came to see us recently. He is concerned with this basic question: Is it true that the brain is not a computer? He is very quick."
Then there is Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard. Epstein flew up to Kosslyn's laboratory in Cambridge this year to witness an experiment that Kosslyn was conducting and Epstein was funding. Namely: Is it true that certain Tibetan monks are capable of holding a distinct mental image in their minds for twenty minutes straight? "We disproved the thesis," says Kosslyn. "Jeff was on his cell phone most of the time -- he actually wanted to short the Tibetan market, because he thought the monk was so stupid. He is amazing. Like a honeybee -- he talks to all these different people and cross-pollinates. Just two months ago, I was talking to him about a new alternative to evolutionary psychology. He got excited and sent me a check."
Epstein has a particularly close relationship with Martin Nowak, an Austrian biology and mathematics professor who heads the theoretical-biology program at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Nowak is examining how game theory can be used to answer some of the basic evolutionary questions -- e.g., why, in our Darwinian society, does altruistic behavior exist? Epstein talks to Nowak about once a week and flies him around the country to his various homes to deliver impromptu lectures. Over the past three years, he has written $500,000 worth of checks to fund Nowak's research. This past February, Epstein had Nowak over for dinner at the 71st Street townhouse. It was just the two of them (not including the wait staff), and Nowak, making use of a blackboard in the formal dining room, delivered a two-hour highly mathematical description of how language works.
After dinner, Epstein asked if Nowak wanted to meet up with his new friend President Clinton, and off they went to a nearby deli, where Clinton regaled the starstruck former Oxford professor with tales from his own Oxford days. "Jeffrey has the mind of a physicist. It's like talking to a colleague in your field," says Nowak. "Sometimes he applies what we talk about to his investments. Sometimes it's for his own curiosity. He has changed my life. Because of his support, I feel I can do anything I want."
Danny Hillis, an MIT-educated computer scientist whose company, Thinking Machines, was at the forefront of the supercomputing world in the eighties, and who used to run R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering, thinks Epstein is actually using scientific knowledge to beat the markets. "We talk about currency trading -- the euro, the real, the yen," he says. "He has something a physicist would call physical intuition. He knows when to use the math and when to throw it away. If I had acted upon all the investment advice he has been giving me over the years, I'd be calling you from my Gulfstream right now."
On the 727 these days, he has been reading a book by E. O. Wilson, the eminent scientist and originator of the field of sociobiology, called Consilience, which makes the case that the boundaries between scientific disciplines are in the process of breaking down. It's a view Epstein himself holds. He wrote recently to a scientist friend of his: "The behavior of termites, together with ants and bees, is a precursor to trust because they have an extraordinary ability to form relationships and sophisticated social structures based on mutual altruism even though individually they are fundamentally dumb. Money itself is a derivative of trust. If we can figure out how termites come together, then we may be able to better understand the underlying principles of market behavior -- and make big money."