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The Fantasist

Epstein’s 71st Street townhouse is reportedly the biggest in Manhattan; the Palm Beach house, right, is on the Intracoastal Waterway.  

Stroll says he could never get a straight line from Epstein. “Everybody who’s his friend thinks he’s so darn brilliant because he’s so darn wealthy. I never saw any brilliance, I never saw him work. Anybody I know that is that wealthy works 26 hours a day. This guy plays 26 hours a day.”

Those who believe in Epstein say that his intelligence works in a lofty and synthetic manner. “His mind goes through a cross section of descriptions,” says Joe Pagano, a financier. “He can go from mathematics to psychology to biology. He takes the smallest amount of information and gets the correct answer in the shortest period of time. That’s my definition of IQ.”

A Columbia University geneticist says Epstein has that insight in science, too. “He has the ability to make connections that other minds can’t make,” says Richard Axel, a Nobel Prize winner. “He is extremely smart and probing. He can very quickly acquire information to think about a problem and also to identify biological problems without having all the data that a scientist would have … He also has an extremely short attention span. Why?—it’s not that he’s bored. He has enough information after fifteen minutes so that you can see his mind thrashing about, as if in a labyrinth. And even to doubt an expert’s statements.”

Epstein has been a munificent supporter of cutting-edge research. Axel met Epstein during the early biotech days of the eighties. Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff met him in the Internet bubble, in the late nineties, when Epstein invited him and a group of scientists and media types to fly to a conference on the West Coast in his beautiful 727.

“It was all a little giddy,” Wolff says. “There’s a little food out, lovely hors d’oeuvre. And then after fifteen to twenty minutes, Jeffrey arrives. This guy comes onboard: He was my age, late forties, and he had a kind of Ralph Lauren look to him, a good-looking Jewish guy in casual attire. Jeans, no socks, loafers, a button-down shirt, shirttails out. And he was followed onto the plane by—how shall I say this?—by three teenage girls not his daughters. Not adolescent girls. These are young, 18, 19, 20, who knows? They were model-like. They towered over Jeffrey. And they immediately began serving things. You didn’t know what to make of this … Who is this man with this very large airplane and these very tall girls?”

Soon after, Wolff was invited to tea at the house on East 71st Street. He understood that there was a purpose to the cultivation. Epstein was shifting his view to media, in his Über-way. “What does the media mean, where does he fit into it?” Then Epstein began to show up in the press. In 2002, he flew Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey to Africa on his plane to discuss aids policy, and suddenly he was being written about. In 2003, he became a discreet confidant to Wolff during the period when Wolff was involved in a bid for New York Magazine. Sometime after that, Wolff saw the financial architect in his office at 457 Madison Avenue, the Villard House, where Random House once had its offices. “His literal office is where Bennett Cerf’s was. It’s an incredibly strange place. It has no corporate affect at all. It’s almost European. It’s old—old-fashioned, unrehabbed in its way.” Nearby, Wolff went on, “the trading floor is filled with guys in yarmulkes. Who they are, I have no idea. They’re like a throwback, a bunch of guys from the fifties. So here is Jeffrey in this incredibly beautiful office, with pieces of art and a view of the courtyard, and he seems like the most relaxed guy in the world. You want to say ‘What’s going on here?’ and he gives you that Cheshire smile.”

Epstein likes to say he’s private, but you don’t fly Bill Clinton to Africa without wanting attention. One friend says the Africa trip was Epstein’s Icarus moment. There was tremendous risk that the natural forces of resentment would bring the too-smart, too-rich spirit back to earth. This is the friends’ theory of the Palm Beach case: an overzealous police chief battened onto a rich man because he was not living in a box like everyone else.

The dazzling arc of Epstein’s comet came to an end—without his knowing it—in March 2005. That was when a distraught woman called the police in Palm Beach and, after at first refusing to give her name, said that she believed her 14-year-old stepdaughter had been molested by a wealthy man. The stepmother had learned about the matter in a roundabout way. The girl lived during the week at an “involuntary-admitted juvenile educational facility” because of behavior problems. She had shown up at the school with $300 in her purse, and it became the talk of her classmates. One friend called the girl a “whore,” another friend put a fist through the wall in anger, the girl left school. The stepmother got a call from another student’s mother. Soon, a policewoman was talking to the girl with a therapist present. The girl cried and dug her finger into her thigh and told the story, of going to a big house on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and climbing a spiral staircase to the master bedroom, where a blonde woman of 25 who wasn’t very friendly laid out sheets and lotions on a massage table and left, then Jeff came in, naked but for a towel, and sternly ordered the girl to take off her clothes. As she rubbed his chest, he touched himself, then applied a vibrator to her crotch.