On the evening of December 2nd, 2010, a handful of America's media and entertainment elite—including TV anchors Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos, comedienne Chelsea Handler, and director Woody Allen—convened around the dinner table of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It wasn't just any dining room, but part of a sprawling nine-story townhouse that once housed an entire preparatory school. And it wasn't just any sex offender, but an enigmatic billionaire who had once flown the likes of former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak around the world on his own Boeing 727. Last spring, Epstein completed a 13-month sentence for soliciting prostitution from a minor in Palm Beach. Now he was hosting a party for his close friend, Britain's Prince Andrew, fourth in line to the throne.
When a photo later surfaced of the two men walking in Central Park that weekend, the British press seized on the story, spinning out weeks of headlines about the 16-year relationship between Epstein and Andrew, with salacious details of underage "masseuses" and even a cozy weekend in Balmoral. Members of parliament began calling for Prince Andrew's resignation as Britain's trade envoy, and when another photo surfaced of Andrew and a 17-year-old concubine Epstein had allegedly "loaned" him splashed across the London tabs, even Britain's business secretary wouldn't confirm the royal could keep his role. But the uproar over "The Prince and The Perv"—as the British headlines screamed—mysteriously drowned in the Mid-Atlantic. New Yorkers barely batted an eye about the scandal-mongering across the pond. "A jail sentence doesn't matter anymore," says David Patrick Columbia, founder of New York Social Diary. "The only thing that gets you shunned in New York society is poverty."
"In the Midwest, where I am from, he would be a social pariah," says Lorna Brett Howard, a political activist and wife of Irving Post Capital CEO and Aeropostale director John Howard. "What I see here is if you have big money or are famous then you get a pass."
“A jail sentence doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that gets you shunned in New York society is poverty.”
Sure enough, that December night no one mentioned that their handsome host, a gray-haired 58-year-old financier with tanned skin and a joker smile, had just doled out millions of dollars in civil settlements to seven girls who allege that he paid them to perform erotic massages and demeaning sexual acts when they were underage. They are among the 40 victims turned up by an FBI investigation. But at the time, this particular swath of Epstein's elite Rolodex had no idea that the feted royal would soon renounce Epstein as a friend, nor that the royal's ex-wife, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, would hysterically apologize for letting Epstein pay off some of her debts.
No, back then Epstein was mid-makeover. He had monarchy in-house and famous faces at his table. Former Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne had just endorsed Epstein on his science foundation's website (which has been since removed). It seemed Epstein had joined the ranks of former President Clinton, director Roman Polanski, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose sex scandals faded in comparison with their celebrity. The conventional wisdom among his friends was that Epstein has been victimized by greedy, morally dubious teenage girls and unscrupulous lawyers. "I've never condoned paying for sex, but if the young lady lied about her age it's her own fault," explained one socialite, who along with hedge-fund manager Wilbur Ross and real-estate magnate Leon Black hobnobbed with Epstein at a Southampton movie screening just two months after his release from "community control" in Florida.
Much of Epstein's entrée into New York society can be credited to Ghislaine Maxwell, the superbly well-connected daughter of the late press magnate Robert Maxwell. Epstein started dating her in the 1990s. The romantic relationship ended after a few years, but they have remained close ever since. Last week two victims publicly alleged that Ghislaine procured them for Epstein, one at age 15 from a Mar-a-Lago country club locker room. Virginia Roberts, now 27, who was Epstein's sexual plaything for several years, told the Mail on Sunday. "Ghislaine sent me to a dentist to have my teeth whitened and I went for Brazilian waxes. He wanted me to look pre-pubescent."
Now, New York friends are suddenly hesitant to talk about Maxwell. "She's a high-end 'fixer'," and so what? they ask. "No one in café society gives a damn that a 15-year-old girl gives massages," says one frequent charity-benefit guest. "She gets people into parties and runs around for a lot of people." As to the fallout from her association with Epstein, he says, "If you're Mike Huckabee it would matter but not if you're Ghislaine Maxwell."
The crowd at the events top publicist Peggy Siegal has organized for Epstein proves the point, at least behind closed doors. "I and many others that know him describe him as brilliant," says Siegal. "His unique mind is what attracts the world's smartest people to his home." Last September, with Siegal's help, Epstein hosted a Break Fast after Yom Kippur. A group of 120 friends brought their children over for a buffet dinner. One attendee, Jonathan Farkas, a New York real-estate heir, has known Epstein for 35 years and visited him while he was in prison. "The side I've been reading about is a side I don't know," he says. Farkas considers Epstein one of the smartest people he knows and often asks him for investment advice. "Unless I've seen it, I don't focus on it," he says.
"From a cerebral and business side he's worshipped," says socialite Debbie Bancroft. "He's incredibly charming and handsome. He's an extraordinary package so I can see why people don't want to believe what they hear. If people come out of jail and are still successful, people are very forgiving, shockingly so."
Renowned scientists whose research Epstein has generously funded through the years also stand by him. Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author of Quantum Man, has planned scientific conferences with Epstein in St. Thomas and remained close with him throughout his incarceration. "If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge," says Krauss. "Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they're not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I've never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people." Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, "I don't feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it."
Alexandra Wolfe is a former contributing editor to Conde Nast Portfolio. She has written for publications including The New York Times, New York magazine, The New York Observer, and The Wall Street Journal, where she wrote design and lifestyle features for the Weekend Journal section. She is working on a book called American Coddle , about America's culture of entitlement.