Here's a story behind a story. The British papers and their extensions in the United States, which include the Drudge Report, are in a predictable excitement over a minor royal's relationship with a woman who claims she was an under-age sex slave. Bill Clinton is also involved, which provides a tangential but convenient connection to the American presidential electoral cycle.
Despite the lurid headlines, there is nothing much surprising or novel about this: little other news is breaking, other than the end of the world, according to a canned videotape that CNN has prepared for such an eventuality.
Drudge has his banner headline. A rather hopeless sounding civil suit is given another faint gust of publicity, with no other winds blowing. A middle-aged man accustomed to privilege is accused, not for the first time, of enjoying the hospitality of a social-climbing and free-spending lover of young girls at parties. Whoopde.
That one of the figures is Prince Andrew, fifth-in-line to the throne and falling down the rankings like his country, adds to the interest but not to the surprise: Queen Victoria's great-great-grandson is better known than his lesser siblings largely because he once dated a soft-core porn star. And his ex-wife became in her financial desperation the face of Weight Watchers. There was that too.
Prince Andy — which is how he was introduced by the host of these parties in Palm Beach, Andy — was a friend of Jeffrey Epstein, the man at the center of this sex scandal. So good a friend that they were snapped together in Central Park after the financier's disgrace and at the time of the Prince's own, related embarrassment. Judgment was never Prince Andrew's strong suit.
The proud stolidity of the House of Windsor is remarkable for its continuity, but hardly surprising. There's a curious wrinkle to the story, a story behind the story, that I've always found more interesting.
For the founder of Victoria Secret seems to be the money behind these parties. And yet he had no known interest in such entertainment: Leslie Wexner, now 77 years old, is an Ohio-based retailer, a momma's boy who married unusually late and devotes his most recent public affections to Ohio State University, Mitt Romney and Israel. Why would he fund Jeffrey Epstein's extravagant hospitality, and lifestyle?
Vicky Ward, author of a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Jeffrey Epstein, got closest to the question. As she's acknowledged more recently, she skipped over the allegations that Jeffrey Epstein and his guests had slept with underage girls, and focused instead on "the issue that remains a mystery — how Jeffrey made his money".
I don't have any inside information or real connection. A blonde Swedish friend, whom I knew after I first moved to New York in 2002, went to Jeffrey Epstein's parties; I remember I hoped she'd take me along, that's how little I understood. After his fall, Epstein cut a beleaguered figure at Peggy Siegal's movie screenings.
My father won a prize when he was 16 years old and went down from a grim industrial town in the North to meet Andy's mother, before she became Queen. He's a European and a republican now, but still remembers that year as the pinnacle of his life. (No wonder I fled.)
No, this speculation is based almost entirely on a reading of Vicky Ward's profile, which I recommend. It's most interesting between the lines. But first her description of the 51,000-square-foot townhouse where Epstein held court:
The entrance hall is decorated not with paintings but with row upon row of individually framed eyeballs; these, the owner tells people with relish, were imported from England, where they were made for injured soldiers. Next comes a marble foyer, which does have a painting, in the manner of Jean Dubuffet … but the host coyly refuses to tell visitors who painted it. In any case, guests are like pygmies next to the nearby twice-life-size sculpture of a naked African warrior.
Upstairs, to the right of a spiral staircase, is the "office," an enormous gallery spanning the width of the house. Strangely, it holds no computer. Computers belong in the "computer room" (a smaller room at the back of the house), Epstein has been known to say. The office features a gilded desk (which Epstein tells people belonged to banker J. P. Morgan), 18th-century black lacquered Portuguese cabinets, and a nine-foot ebony Steinway "D" grand. On the desk, a paperback copy of the Marquis de Sade's The Misfortunes of Virtue was recently spotted. Covering the floor, Epstein has explained, "is the largest Persian rug you'll ever see in a private home—so big, it must have come from a mosque." Amid such splendor, much of which reflects the work of the French decorator Alberto Pinto, who has worked for Jacques Chirac and the royal families of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, there is one particularly startling oddity: a stuffed black poodle, standing atop the grand piano. "No decorator would ever tell you to do that," Epstein brags to visitors. "But I want people to think what it means to stuff a dog." People can't help but feel it's Epstein's way of saying that he always has the last word.
In addition to the town house, Epstein lives in what is reputed to be the largest private dwelling in New Mexico, on an $18 million, 7,500-acre ranch which he named "Zorro." "It makes the town house look like a shack," Epstein has said. He also owns Little St. James, a 70-acre island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the main house is currently being renovated by Edward Tuttle, a designer of the Amanresorts. There is also a $6.8 million house in Palm Beach, Florida, and a fleet of aircraft: a Gulfstream IV, a helicopter, and a Boeing 727, replete with trading room, on which Epstein recently flew President Clinton, actors Chris Tucker and Kevin Spacey, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, Lew Wasserman's grandson, Casey Wasserman, and a few others, on a mission to explore the problems of AIDS and economic development in Africa.
At the time Ward writes, Epstein not only has access to all this real estate; he employs the daughter of a notorious British press baron, and a retinue of young masseuses; he entertains friends and does extensive favors for them. That's an expensive lifestyle.
His income comes from managing money for clients. But only three clients or patrons are identified: one later claims his net worth never exceeded $4.5m, and another could not have long funded Epstein, because the client's Ponzi scheme collapsed back in 1993.
The only significant, consistent and identifiable source of funds is Les Wexner, chairman and CEO of L Brands, which controls Victoria Secret and Bath & Body Works. Wexner is one of those single-digit billionaires. The lingerie brand and chain is a powerful franchise.
Wexner is the only identified client of Epstein. At least at one point he owned the Manhattan mansion in which Epstein threw those parties for scientists and politicians, which he leavens with strangely-accented models, my Swedish friend, who merely looked and sounded like one — and Andy. And they're close, Epstein saying: "People have said it's like we have one brain between two of us: each has a side."
Epstein's acknowledged services to Wexner are thin. To Vanity Fair, he claims to trade in foreign exchange markets, though it's not clear how that fits with a declared strategy of wealth preservation tailored to the prudent billionaire. The forex market is liquid, and I presume more anonymous as a result, but Vicky Ward can't find anyone who knows him in the market. Whatever services he provides as a fixer must be extraordinary.
So we're left with this: a self-made Jewish shopkeeper, hard-working child of Russian Jewish immigrants, close to his mother and never married, meets an erudite investment banker who looks like a movie star and plays so well the part of Jewish boy arrived in Society. But this Platonic partner is obsessed by young girls, and that's his undoing.
Vicky Ward calls her subject The Talented Mr Epstein, a reference to the anti-hero of Patricia Highsmith's novels, who covets another's life. You might know the movie by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon as Highsmith's Tom Ripley. 2003's Jeffrey Epstein is the man whom he becomes, golden and charming, modeled on Jude Law. But the awkward striver of the start of the movie, who by the end is locked in a dark room with his secret, is the other half of The Talented Mr Epstein: Les Wexner.