investigations

Creating Jeffrey Epstein

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

One of the more perverse aspects of the Jeffrey Epstein story is how the predator’s power flowed from a man who made his fortune selling lingerie to generations of women and teens in malls across America. Epstein’s emetic symbiosis with his chief benefactor, Leslie Wexner — known as the “Merlin of the Mall” because at one point his company owned Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, and Bath & Body Works — is explored in Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, a three-part docuseries out July 14 on Hulu. (This after that other Epstein confidante, Ghislaine Maxwell, was sentenced on Tuesday to 20 years in prison.)

Turning a blind eye is a very key phrase with this series,” says director Matt Tyrnauer. Epstein had been introduced to Wexner in the mid-1980s by an insurance executive and soon became money manager to the mall magnate at a time when his company (then called the Limited, later renamed L Brands) was riding high. The documentary shows how Epstein was given full power of attorney, replaced Wexner’s mother on the board of the Wexner foundation, and even shacked up in a house on the property of Wexner’s Xanadu in Ohio. Epstein’s money, Upper East Side mansion, and even the Lolita Express — originally a Boeing 727 owned by L Brands — would all come from Wexner.

All this has already been covered in newspapers, magazine features, and podcasts. What Angels and Demons magnifies is how Victoria’s Secret was both a calling card and the ideal hunting ground for Epstein. The documentary presents interviews with company executives and never-before-seen footage of Epstein at the first Victoria’s Secret fashion show, in 1995, and tells how Epstein would pose as a Victoria’s Secret recruiter to women around the country. The film contains a scoop: In 2006, a fax appearing to come from inside L Brands shared an Epstein victim’s employee records — she worked at a Victoria’s Secret in Florida — with Epstein’s defense attorney, which showed that she had been fired for an alleged theft of approximately $209 in merchandise.

The film also illuminates how the bizarre Wexstein dynamic was winked and poked at for years by the New York media. “A lot of it played out in the New York City of the late ’80s, ’90s, and aughts,” says Tyrnauer. “There’s a particular flavor to that world, which now seems like a lost world. But that’s what set the stage for this.”

In some ways, the story began with this magazine in 1985. That’s when an elfin Wexner appeared on the cover, flanked by two models, under the headline “The Bachelor Billionaire.” Wexner, the mag noted, “Doesn’t go to galas, he doesn’t read WWD or W, and he doesn’t pronounce ‘La Grenouille’ right. And it doesn’t matter … The bachelor billionaire is written about by gossip columnists, courted by women, and wooed by charities.” Tyrnauer says, “The cover of New York magazine then was the curtain-up for the next new billionaire who was going to make a go in the arena. It was the time of Donald Trump, Saul Steinberg, and Henry Kravis, and that was the big status play.”

Photo: New York Magazine

The story was written by Julie Baumgold, who says the Ohio-based Wexner was a somewhat reluctant parvenu. “I don’t remember him at all as a Gatsby-esque figure,” she told me. (“I did get very excited about the stock, which I wanted to buy, and Ed would not let me buy it,” she added, referring to Ed Kosner, then the editor of New York and now her husband. “That’s unethical!” Kosner could be heard shouting in the background of the call.) Yet Wexner would appear on the cover of New York again two years later after buying Bendel’s, the department store hailed as “New York’s citadel of chic.” He got Jackie O. to stand next to him at the store’s reopening. “There could be no bigger, flashier play for press attention and a bump up in status than that,” observes Tyrnauer. It was around this time that Epstein, who had already enmeshed himself in Manhattan power circles after teaching at Dalton and working at Bear Stearns, found his mark in the ordinarily shrewd Wexner. Cynthia Fedus-Fields, a former executive at Victoria’s Secret, says in the film that “each one must have fulfilled the need of the other. Wexner had the money that Epstein was seeking, and Wexner got from Epstein the glamour and smoothness that he was seeking.”

Once the satyr sunk in his claws, Wexner became less like a Gatsby and more like a Buchanan, retreating back into his money and vast carelessness in Ohio, leaving Epstein to run wild. In 1996, Christopher Mason wrote in the New York Times how Wexner had bought the uptown mansion and dumped millions into it, only to sell it to his “protégé,” Epstein. “Les never spent more than two months there,” Epstein told the paper. By then, Wexner probably should have understood that Epstein was not to be trusted. In 1993, Wexner was told by a Victoria’s Secret executive how Epstein had falsely portrayed himself as a recruiter of models for the brand. In 1997, a woman named Alicia Arden alleged Epstein had lured her to a Santa Monica hotel room, again posing as a Victoria’s Secret recruiter, and sexually assaulted her. She filed a police report. In 2003, Wexner would gush to Vicky Ward in her now infamous report in Vanity Fair that Epstein was “a most loyal friend” who is “very smart with a combination of excellent judgment and unusually high standards.”

The reclusive Wexner gave a rare response to the filmmakers, saying through a representative, “The issue of Epstein claiming an association with Victoria’s Secret was raised on one occasion with Mr. Wexner. He confronted Epstein and was clear that it was a violation of company policy for him to suggest that he was associated in any way with Victoria’s Secret and that Epstein was forbidden from ever doing so again. Epstein denied having done so.”

The series gingerly touches upon a long-held speculation about Wexner’s personal life dating back to the 1985 Baumgold story, in which he was quoted as saying, “A lot of people think because I am not married I am asexual or homosexual, but I enjoy a relationship with a woman.” When Epstein was deposed in Florida years later, he was asked if he was bisexual and if he had ever developed a “sexual relationship with Leslie Wexner at some point in time.” Epstein answered no to both questions.

Those interviewed remain bemused as ever about why Wexner granted Epstein such carte blanche for so long. Not until 2007 did Wexner finally break with Epstein, at which point Wexner discovered his financier had fleeced him for millions. Two days before Epstein’s death in 2019, Wexner gave his fullest remarks to date on the subject in a letter to his foundation, in which he wrote, “I am embarrassed that, like so many others, I was deceived by Mr. Epstein. I know now that my trust in him was grossly misplaced, and I deeply regret having ever crossed his path.”

The director’s previous subjects include Studio 54’s Steve Rubell, the gay Hollywood hustler Scotty Bowers, and Roy Cohn. How does Epstein fit into his oeuvre? “A lot of my films are studies in power and the way certain figures move in their rarefied worlds,” says Tyrnauer. “I think the darkest tale I’ve told is about Roy Cohn, who was the quintessential public scoundrel in New York for most of the second half of the 20th century and was given a big pass by the powers that be for his behavior. They always used to say that when Claus von Bülow was accused of murder, he became a much more in-demand dinner-party guest in New York. I think Esptein fell into that category.” Certainly that was the case for many a power-schnorring member of the New York media elite. As Michael Wolff would write about his longtime dining companion after his mysterious death, “The public grilling that would shortly ensue about how any decent person could come to Epstein’s house had a simple answer: for the pleasure of it. The welcome. The ease. For a few hours outside the ordinary.”

How Leslie Wexner Helped Create Jeffrey Epstein