“You shouldn’t wear that lipstick, it makes you look older,” Jeffrey Epstein told me.
I was 27, and wasn’t thinking about how to make myself look younger -- particularly not when dating a man 13 years my senior. At the time it didn’t strike me as a particularly odd thing to say. Mostly what I remember is feeling hurt, embarrassed, and second guessing myself -- not just in my choice of frosted pink lipstick, but in my choice to fly down to Palm Beach to visit Jeffrey in the first place.
My experiences with Jeffrey had mostly lapsed into the murk of memory, where they would likely have remained, unexamined, were it not for the original Netflix series “Filthy Rich” documenting his serial abuse of young women, and most disturbingly, minors. But watching the series prompted me to reflect upon and write about those experiences, primarily to share strength and hope with young people who might be vulnerable to people like Jeffrey.
It was June 17, 1994. I remember the date not because of the significance of the lipstick remark, or anything traumatic that happened between me and Jeffrey that weekend, but because like 95 other million people, we were glued to the television watching the infamous Bronco police chase, which resulted in the ultimate arrest of OJ Simpson.
While not glued to the television in his kitchen watching the unfolding Simpson saga, Jeffrey and I lounged in his pool. I remember what I was wearing -- a beige crochet bikini -- and what he was not: a bathing suit. This wasn’t particularly shocking, and he had informed me that he preferred to skinny dip. Unlike many of the young women (and now we know young girls) he lured into his web, I wasn’t particularly sheltered, nor naive. I didn’t consider myself a prude -- but perhaps on some level I was, because while his nudity didn’t shock me, it did inhibit my ability to converse comfortably, as I found myself averting my gaze to avoid looking at his genitalia.
While his nudity didn’t strike me as particularly remarkable, his vulgarity did. My bathing suit had seen better days, and had lost some of its elasticity -- I had also lost some weight and thus the bikini wasn’t fitting as snugly as intended. As I was getting out of the pool after a swim, he pulled it, then called out “nice beaver shot.” I had no idea what that even meant, but I recognized the intent: to degrade and humiliate.
Which seems to have been part of Jeffrey Epstein’s modus operandi as related in the Netflix series. The observation of one of his victims rang true: “The more he saw you being damaged, the more it excited him.”
I didn’t know about this dark side -- much less his molestation pyramid scheme of soliciting young women and minors for sex, then using them to solicit other victims. And to be clear, I was not a victim. I chose to spend time with him, and was initially attracted by his ruggedly, seemingly masculine appearance and apparent intelligence. But as his crudeness and callousness blunted my attraction, he didn’t use physical force to compel sexual relations. Ironically if he had, the situation might have turned out entirely differently.
I was not a victim -- and I suspect Jeffrey knew it. By 1994 he was well on his way to learning who would be the most efficient, least troublesome means to serve his sexual ends. The younger, the least connected, the least protected, the least sophisticated, the better. Girls like the then-16 Victoria Roberts, who had reportedly already been molested by a family friend at the age of 7, who’d run away from home, was living on the streets by the age of 13 before getting entangled with a 65-year-old sex trafficker for six months in Miami, before returning home, getting a job at a spa, where she was “discovered” by Jeffrey’s alleged accomplice, Ghislane Maxwell, and groomed for a two-year-stint providing sexual services for Jeffrey and his associates. Girls like Courtney Wild, who’d also found herself on the streets as her mother struggled with addiction, and was recruited not just to provide sex for Jeffrey, but to procure it, from what she estimates to be 40-60 other girls ranging in ages from 14-16.
Cruel circumstances had already taught these girls that they didn’t really matter, that they were powerless, and that being used by men was perhaps their best avenue for surviving, for getting ahead.
My circumstances were different. And by the time I was 27, after having served in The White House, the State Department, and the media, I was less than an ideal candidate to victimize sexually. But perhaps he hoped to find in me an accomplice? No such luck either.
I had met Jeffrey at an Aspen, Colorado conference hosted by the late financier Ted Forstmann. Jeffrey had not been invited to the conference. He was not of the caliber of the kind of established titans of industry who attended the extremely exclusive, invitation-only gathering. He was perhaps of the same, or greater, level of wealth, and certainly had the accoutrements such wealth afforded (e.g. private plane, private island, enormous estates). I worked for Forstmann, writing speeches, op-eds and providing strategic philanthropic advice, andI attended as part of the staff contingent.
Jeffrey had attended as the guest of one of Forstmann Little’s board members, Lynn Forrester (now Lady Lynn de Rothschild), an extremely accomplished, widely respected and well-connected businesswoman and investor. He made a bee-line for me, flirted, and asked a lot of questions about my background. When I pointed out he was ignoring his date, he assured me they were just friends. He was in his late 30s, fit, good looking -- and Jewish. Could it be that I’d finally met the nice, successful, Jewish boy my parents had always hoped I’d grow up to marry?
I didn’t know, but when at the conclusion of the weekend he offered me a ride back to the East Coast on his private plane, I accepted. Once aboard, it became clear that the woman who’d originally invited him to the conference was not joining us. He dismissed my queries as to the reason. Had he ditched the one who brought him to the dance -- or did she simply have other plans? Who knows. It was a mystery, like so much else about Jeffrey Epstein.
Among other mysteries, I never saw him eat. He had me served dinner on the plane, and watched me eat, but said he didn’t like eating in front of other people. I thought it was a little strange, but rationalized that there were many people with odd eating behaviors, and a potential future beshert, at least I would not have to put up with disgusting table manners.
But in retrospect, the far bigger mystery was exactly how he made his enormous wealth. He explained to me that he managed investments for billionaires, including Les Wexner, the founder of The Limited, and owner by then of other retail brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Henri Bendel. Raised in a working class family in Brooklyn, New York, he got his start in the financial world thanks to the late Ace Greenberg, CEO of Bear Stearns, and certainly would have made good money working there. I knew Ace in the 90s and had tremendous respect for him, and so asked if Jeffrey was a good guy. He didn’t suggest I steer clear, though he did mention that Jeffrey was terminated from Bear Stearns. It seemed plausible that Jeffrey made hundreds of millions placing savvy bets on investments for himself and people like Wexner, though the latter later claimed Jeffrey had “misappropriated vast sums of money.”
But the focus on money in the title of the Netflix documentary series “Filthy Rich,” appears to me misplaced. The intro montage features images of limousines speeding along highways paved with dollars -- and while the series itself appropriately spends much time on interviews with the young women and girls Jeffrey abused, the title and intro spin inappropriately emphasizes “rich” when the primary focus should be “filthy.”
“Money is only a tool,” Ayn Rand observed, “It will take you wherever you wish. But it will not replace you as the driver.” Whatever its sources, Jeffrey clearly used his money to run over the innocence of his young victims, to treat them not as ends in themselves, but as means to satisfying his own compulsive sexual predilections. Jeffrey -- and not his money -- was the driver, and he used it ultimately to drive himself to Hell.
While I’m not a believer in the Gates of Hell -- or Heaven, for that matter -- I do believe in the existence of evil, and in a way I can’t explain deeply felt its presence that weekend at Jeffrey’s Palm Beach estate. My most vivid memory from the entire experience was the time I spent on my knees -- not in sexual practice, but in spiritual desperation. Indeed, long after I’d forgotten even this memory, my friends reminded me that I’d recounted it to them, and it stuck in their minds precisely because they knew I was not religious.
I don’t believe there was an evil spirit present -- just an evil man. I don’t believe I picked up on anything in an alternate dimension, but rather was likely subliminally intuiting cues that something was very wrong with this person, and that bad things had happened in that place.
Fortunately for me, I was spared any true trauma, not by divine intervention, but ultimately by the fact that I was not really Jeffrey’s type. I was too Jewish -- not the classically WASPy, Midwestern look he preferred. I was too old: at 27 I was already 13 years older than Jeffrey’s youngest victim. Ultimately, it was likely less the physical mileage accrued since departing puberty that protected me than the experience gained fending off other predators. It wasn’t just the ability to maneuver if threatened and retaliate if attacked that likely deterred him. It was that I’d lost the one thing he prized most: the capacity to be hurt deeply for the first time.
Because just as a female bleeds physically when she is penetrated sexually for the first time, a young person is hurt in a unique way the first time he or she is betrayed -- whether by a friend, a lover, an associate or a stranger. And it is the bewilderment, the pain, the primitive outrage that excites predators like Jeffrey the most. I was still fresh faced, but I was no longer fresh meat -- at least not to those who relish the moral degradation of the innocent.
“It's the spirit that you want to loot,” Cherryl Taggart said to her husband James, in Atlas Shrugged. It was an appetite the fictional character James shared with the real-life Jeffrey. Because whatever funds he finagled out of wealthy financiers, whatever sexual acts he solicited from those too young to give consent, the unearned value he derived from these violations was secondary to the greater larceny for which he lusted: Corruption less of flesh, than of soul.
Fortunately in the mostly benevolent world in which I’ve traveled, such depravity is far less commonplace than the run-of-the-mill vices such as concupiscence, envy and greed. Most young people today are at greater risk of being harmed by those who seek something-for-nothing than of being molested by sociopaths. But the young can mitigate their risk from all categories of malefactors by building their own moral fiber: embracing reality, rejecting self-sacrifice, pursuing honest trade, and learning from cautionary tales (like Atlas Shrugged) of the horrible consequences of avoiding hard choices and failing to recognize evil when they confront it.
Finally, they can tune in to the cues, even those they can’t yet fully comprehend, of potential threats, rather than tuning them out in the vague hopes they mean nothing. Young women in particular can avoid the tragic end of Cherryl Taggart, and suicide of all varieties -- spiritual, financial and physical -- by acknowledging that “small, hard point of fear...like the spot of a distant headlight advancing upon [you] down an invisible track,” and by getting out of the way.