“I Collect People, I Own People, I Can Damage People”: The Curious Sociopathy of Jeffrey Epstein

Many moons ago, in the early 2000s, my friends spent a weekend in Southampton with a distinctive young blond who resembled Lady Gaga if Gaga were British. She was about 22 and said she was an interior designer, or a jewelry designer, or a motivational coach—I can’t remember which, but in any case the job sounded more aspirational than real—and she lived in an apartment on the Upper East Side that her older boyfriend had given her, at least temporarily. He collected art, and they often attended auctions. He loved vegetarian food and playing unfamiliar concertos on his grand piano. As she strolled down Southampton’s tree-lined streets, she was struck by their beauty and said she’d have to discuss getting a home there with her boyfriend. His name was Jeffrey Epstein.

Back then, as a cocky, petite, ink-stained wretch, I wasn’t one of the young women in Manhattan whom Epstein and his friends approached for relationships, one-night stands, or abuse. But I was surrounded by a lot of them. They were always the most beautiful girls in the room, usually models or former models, with a slightly aloof Stepford Wives aura that masked a deeper vulnerability. Several names came up when they were around: Epstein, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, film financier Steve Bing, and former president Bill Clinton, then in the prime of his postpresidential career and flying around on Epstein’s jet, dubbed the Lolita Express, or Burkle’s jet, dubbed Air Fuck One. (None of these men has been accused of wrongdoing.) The women were often blond—Epstein, in particular, liked patrician blonds with a bit of a baby face. At his home on the Upper East Side, he kept a photo of ’80s soap star Morgan Fairchild, whom he called his ideal woman, though considering they were both in their early 50s back then, she was far too old for him.

Beyond allegedly running a pedophile ring, Epstein, who hanged himself in August, epitomized the transactional nature of fin de siècle New York society, the sociopath who proved the rule. As hedge funds began to create massive fortunes and the billionaire class outpaced entail and primogeniture, women like the one in Southampton were necessary accessories, and learning how to acquire them was part of many a high-level trader’s skill set. There’s a temptation to say that the world has always worked this way—ambitious, beautiful young women have often sought to climb rungs via powerful men, and powerful men have partly craved power in order to access beautiful women—but this era in New York was unique. A rapidly increasing workforce of women in black slip dresses, knee-high black boots, and flatironed hair had come to seek the Sex and the City lifestyle, not husbands—but with most of their professions (fashion, publicity, publishing) paying far less than men’s, they were not averse to someone footing the bill.

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Beautiful women also had currency in the city’s “models and bottles” scene, as the post-9/11 era of downtown nightlife was called. Manhattan’s legendary club scene of hip-hop stars, painters, and graffiti artists, where one gained entrée by virtue of one’s art rather than the size of one’s wallet, was going capitalist. A new nightclub formula had been devised: Ice buckets of Cristal and Cîroc bottles were set up at leather banquettes, alongside every kind of model—Victoria’s Secret model, runway model, supermodel, “just-off-the-boat model”—and if you were a rich older guy who wanted to take a seat, it could cost up to $10,000, though Puffy and Leo didn’t pay a thing.

Like his billionaire friends, Epstein ran a highly compartmentalized life. “He’d say he was going somewhere for work, and then I’d see pictures in a British tabloid of him on a yacht with supermodels,” says a woman who dated one of his close friends. The women of consenting age with whom Epstein became involved weren’t gold diggers, per se—they were models, or Amy Winehouse’s “Gucci bag crew” flying to Miami for free, or postcollegiate women who didn’t care about a 30-year age difference. Some wanted to open a door to the world of private planes and the global elite. In later years, he favored a different kind of Eastern European woman who was more expressly for sale. “There are almost as many people involved over 18 as under 18—it’s not 50-50, but it’s in that ballpark,” says David Boies, the attorney for some of Epstein’s accusers. He describes two different types of of-age women involved with Epstein. “There were women who were not underage, but usually in their younger 20s, who became part of what we’re calling Epstein’s sex-trafficking orbit—they’d either be trafficked or lent out, describe it as you will, to other people,” he says. “Then there were young professional women of comparable age whom Epstein sort of dated, and then he might or might not recommend them to other people.” Young women like the one I came across in Southampton were presumably part of that second set. (She did not return messages for further comment.) Epstein’s recommendations for these young women were romantic, or professional, or some uneasy mix of both; Charlie Rose, disgraced after sexual assault allegations, received suggestions for several assistants on his TV show from Epstein.

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The women who dated Epstein, many of whom now have high-profile careers, didn’t want to be identified in this article, some because they feel the press would mangle their relationships and describe them as prostitutes, not a reputation a professional woman can surmount. Some were getting something from Epstein—a trip on a private plane with Bill Clinton is not without value. But more often they were, to some degree, the commodities—tradable objects. That was part of the grift. Epstein traded men for acceptance, always trying to show other men how many important people he knew: politicians, billionaires, former Harvard president Larry Summers, top scientists. Women were another instrumentality. Everyone had their price.

Epstein’s ex-girlfriends say he was quiet and charming, for the most part, Jay Gatsby in a monogrammed sweatshirt. He spent most of the day on speakerphone, and he liked them to listen in, rolling calls from financiers to heads of state. He did not drink or take drugs or smoke, and he didn’t like to be around people who did. He practiced Iyengar yoga. He showered many times a day. He abhorred restaurants and ate whole grains, proteins, and leafy greens 30 years before the rest of America. He tied body to mind, physical self to mental aptitude; he believed in transhumanism and had a theory that if you had too much muscle mass, you wouldn’t be as smart as you could be. He liked to sleep in 54-degree chill because he believed you’d get the most restful sleep at that temperature. “I was like, ‘I’m fucking freezing. I’m going to die of hypothermia,’ ” says an ex-girlfriend.

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