NEW YORK — A strange thing happened when Jeffrey Epstein came back to New York City after being branded a sex offender: His reputation appeared to rise.
In 2010, the year after he got out of a Florida prison, Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos dined at his Manhattan mansion with a British royal. The next year, Epstein was photographed at a “billionaire’s dinner” attended by tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. A page popped up on Harvard University’s website lauding his accomplishments, and superlative-filled news releases described his lofty ambitions as he dedicated $10 million to charitable causes.
Powerful female friends served as social guarantors: Peggy Siegal, a gatekeeper for A-list events, included him in movie screenings, and Dr. Eva Andersson-Dubin, a champion of women’s health, maintained a friendship that some felt gave him credibility. Epstein put up a website showing Stephen Hawking and other luminaries at a science gathering he had organized.
“If you looked up Jeffrey Epstein online in 2012, you would see what we all saw,” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, said in an interview. He seemed “like an ex-con who had done well on Wall Street,” who was close to the Clintons and gave money to academic pursuits, Botstein said. That was why, he noted, Bard accepted an unsolicited $50,000 in 2011 for its high schools, followed later that year and in 2012 by another $75,000 in donations.
More than a decade ago, when Epstein was very publicly accused of sexually abusing girls as young as 14, he minimized the legal consequences with high-powered lawyers, monetary settlements that silenced complaints, and a plea deal that short-circuited an FBI investigation and led to the resignation announcement Friday of a Trump Cabinet official who had overseen the case as a prosecutor. Socially, Epstein carried out a parallel effort, trying to preserve his reputation as a financier, philanthropist and thinker.
Some of the respect Epstein, 66, drew on was manufactured, the accomplishments recycled. The gathering with Hawking had taken place back in 2006. The positive online notices appeared to have been paid for by Epstein: A writer employed by his foundation churned out the news releases, and the supposed author of a Forbes story calling Epstein “one of the largest backers of cutting edge science” conceded in an interview that he was given $600 to post the pre-written article under his own name.
Though some institutions and prominent people, including Donald Trump, said they shunned him, Epstein’s tactics largely worked. Over the past week, as the scope and seriousness of his alleged offenses involving dozens of victims have become clearer after a new indictment in New York, the story of Epstein and his social circles shows how some people were willing to welcome back — or at least give a pass to — a handsome rich man who had been convicted of a crime involving a minor.
Epstein’s social strategy proceeded from his legal one. The lenient agreement he reached with prosecutors — his plea involved one girl, a 17-year-old, and the crime was prostitution, which made it look like the teenager was in part to blame — gave others a reason to dismiss his wrongdoing, decide he had paid his penalty or not question what had happened.
At the top of New York society, plenty of people have “weird chitchat attached to their name,” said Candace Bushnell, the “Sex and the City” writer. She said in an interview that she looked into rumors about Epstein for The New York Observer in 1994 but stopped reporting after she was thrown out of his town house and threatened.
For years to come, people brushed such stories aside. “You’d think, ‘It couldn’t possibly be true,’” she said.
In March 2006, a year after allegations of sexual misconduct were first reported to police in Palm Beach, Florida, Epstein underwrote the kind of elite event he prized.
It was a five-day gathering in the Caribbean of some of the world’s top scientists, including Hawking, to share ideas about gravity and cosmology, with scuba and catamaran excursions on the side. One evening, the participants had dinner on the beach at Epstein’s private island.
Some of the scientists noticed that Epstein “was always followed by a group of something like three or four young women,” as Alan Guth, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it in an email to The New York Times, but they did not investigate further.
Over a decade later, after Epstein was released from the Palm Beach County jail, he employed a similar strategy. He surrounded himself with prestige and counted on others to look past what he had done.
“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender,’ Epstein told The New York Post in 2011. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”
Siegal recalled, “He said he’d served his time and assured me that he changed his ways.”
For someone purported to have vast resources at his disposal, Epstein’s early endeavors to improve his image were oddly unpolished. In 2010 he created the first of at least a half-dozen websites, with names like JeffreyEpsteinScience.com and JeffreyEpsteinEducation.com, dedicated to extolling his philanthropy and fashioning himself a patron of technology and medicine.
The websites looked amateurish, the photos of him meeting with top scientists dated to years before his time in prison, and the name of the Harvard professor who led a research center Epstein had funded, Martin A. Nowak, was often misspelled.
At the same time, Epstein launched a public-relations campaign composed of a blizzard of news releases, along with canned write-ups designed to resemble news stories. For the most part, the announcements, which circulated from 2012 to 2014, were recycled accounts of donations he had made in the early 2000s and did not reflect new charitable giving. The earliest releases listed Epstein’s personal contact information, though later ones had the name of a media consultant. Some of the ersatz news stories found their way onto sites like Forbes and The Huffington Post.
Of all the names Epstein dropped, perhaps the most frequent was Harvard’s.
Though Epstein never attended Harvard or even got a college degree, the university has been a recurring theme in his self-styled image as a Renaissance man of finance and science. He found Harvard’s doors open to him once he opened his wallet, with donations starting in the early 1990s that eventually totaled at least $7.5 million.
He took to wearing Harvard sweatshirts, gravitated to mingling with celebrity scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker, and developed friendships with former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers and law professor Alan Dershowitz, who later helped defend him. (In civil suits, Dershowitz has been accused of having sex with two of Epstein’s accusers; he has denied the allegations and accused their lawyers of malfeasance.) Epstein, a former math teacher, even popped up for lunchtime discussions among scientists at a Harvard cafeteria, Pinker said in an interview, adding, “He weighted his own opinions as much as scholarly literature.”
By 2014, a page appeared on the website for Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, the initiative Epstein had financed 11 years earlier with a $6.5 million donation (and a pledge of $23.5 million more that never came), featuring a studio portrait, his résumé and links to his websites. “He is one of the largest supporters of individual scientists, including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Marvin Minsky, Seth Lloyd and Nobel Laureates Gerard ’t Hooft, David Gross and Frank Wilczek,” the Harvard bio said, in what appears to be an exaggerated claim.
A Harvard spokesman said he did not know who was responsible for the page, which has since been removed.
That same year, Epstein resurfaced at a prestigious science conference. Pinker, who sat at the same table as Epstein, said he was treated as an important donor to be wooed.
Brand-new start of it
Although he was often described as a billionaire, Epstein did not come close in his philanthropy to other superrich people. His charitable foundations rarely gave away more than $1 million a year during the 2000s, according to tax records, and much of it was money others had given him.
In 2015, a new foundation Epstein created, Gratitude America, received a $10 million infusion and started making donations. The source of the money is something of a mystery. Like his earlier giving, which was financed largely by $21 million in donations to his foundation from a close friend and business associate, retail magnate Leslie Wexner, the 2015 money did not appear to have come from Epstein.
Tax records show the $10 million donation came from a limited liability company located in a 22-story building on Park Avenue in Manhattan that also houses the family foundation of Leon Black, a billionaire investor and chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. He has known Epstein for years. In 1999, Black gave $166,000 to another of Epstein’s charities, and Epstein once served on the board of Black’s own foundation. The two men also appear in photos at a 2007 meeting with scientists at Harvard.
It could not be determined whether Black was responsible for the $10 million donation. His representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Andersson-Dubin, founder of the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai, gave Epstein another form of currency.
The physician, who served for many years as an in-house doctor of NBC, is a breast cancer survivor who used her experience as inspiration for a holistic treatment approach. A former model and Miss Sweden, she is the wife of Glenn Dubin, a founder of Highbridge Capital Management who is No. 1,168 on the Forbes billionaires list. The two are known for their philanthropy, and in 2006 they bought Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ former apartment at 1040 Fifth Ave., a symbol of their standing in the city.
Andersson-Dubin also has a long history with Epstein, and has remained loyal to him since the 1980s.
At that time, she was putting herself through medical school. She became his girlfriend and, with his encouragement, put modeling aside to focus on her studies. They remained close after she married in 1994. After Epstein’s release from jail, she continued to socialize with him; those in her circle were aware of their continued friendship.
Despite long-standing news reports about Epstein’s behavior, Andersson-Dubin said through a spokeswoman that she was shocked by the recent news. “She’s a very loyal friend and didn’t abandon him after 2008, but the frequency of their contact was less,” the spokeswoman said. The new allegations “are completely counter to the person she is familiar with.”
Their relationship went a long way toward dispersing the cloud around him, according to some observers. If Epstein had Andersson-Dubin’s friendship, it suggested to others that perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Siegal, perhaps the city’s most prominent professional hostess, took a more active role, using her gate-keeping powers to usher Epstein, a friend, into screenings and events.
In an interview, she said that her relationship with Epstein was not a paid one: They had developed a rapport over the years, with him often quizzing her about films and other topics. “I was a kind of plugged-in girl around town who knew a lot of people,” she said. “And I think that’s what he wanted from me, a kind of social goings-on about New York.”
After he left prison, she had no trouble continuing the friendship. She knew other people who had served time and then resurrected their lives, she said. “The culture before #MeToo was — ‘You’ve done your time, now you’re forgiven.’”
At screenings, Epstein would shuffle in at the last minute, sit in the back, speak to no one and leave before the party, Siegal said. He had no ambitions for New York’s party circuit, she and others said, and preferred to entertain people in his own space.
But her invitations helped. In 2010, just after Epstein left prison, he attended a screening of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Soon a flattering blind item appeared in The New York Post about how he was “greeted warmly by guests.”
“It was the first time he has been out in two years, but nobody blinked he was there,” an anonymous source told the newspaper.
A few months later, Siegal threw the dinner party at Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion for Prince Andrew, giving Couric, Stephanopoulos, Chelsea Handler and others a chance to speak to a member of the royal family a few months before the much-anticipated wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
“It was just one of those strange nights,” Handler said in an interview. Siegal had not emphasized who was hosting, several guests recalled. “The invitation was positioned as, ‘Do you want to have dinner with Prince Andrew?’” Siegal said. Epstein did not speak much. Andersson-Dubin was there, but others said they barely knew who Epstein was or what he had been convicted of.
Two of the other guests have also been accused of sexual misconduct, then or since: television host Charlie Rose and Woody Allen, who attended with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn. (“So how did the two of you meet?” Handler recalled asking the couple.) Soon after, outraged headlines appeared about Prince Andrew’s associating with Epstein, a sex offender.
In a recent email, Stephanopoulos said he regretted attending. “That dinner was the first and last time I’ve seen him,” he said, referring to Epstein. “I should have done more due diligence. It was a mistake to go.”
After the #MeToo era dawned in 2017, others were starting to feel less comfortable with Epstein. The Miami Herald published an investigation that spurred new interest in the case. Siegal began to distance herself. It was obvious that he was going to face renewed scrutiny, she said, but “he was in complete denial.”
Others echoed that description. Just three months ago, as federal prosecutors were closing in with new charges, Epstein had a conversation with R. Couri Hay, a publicist, about continuing to improve his reputation. Epstein asserted that what he was convicted of did not constitute pedophilia, recalled Hay, who declined to represent him.
The girls he had sex with were “tweens and teens,” Epstein told him.