In late 2009, as civil complaints alleging Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual abuse of underage girls were mounting, George Rush, the long-running Daily News gossip columnist, was preparing a story on one of the latest Jane Doe lawsuits filed against the billionaire financier. The legal documents contained allegations that hadn’t yet been reported, and Rush was keen on nudging them into the public domain. He drew up a list of questions and sent them to Howard Rubenstein, who was Epstein’s publicist at the time. Rush’s reporting resulted in a call from Epstein himself to Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, who had been a business partner of Epstein’s a few years earlier. The enigmatic and press-shy tycoon was offering Zuckerman something rare: an interview for the Daily News. But when Epstein got on the phone with Rush, Epstein said he could only speak off the record, on the advice of his lawyers. The whole 22-minute conversation sounded to Rush like a bunch of spin.
“It was just kind of this self-serving rationale for how he had been tormented by the lawyers for these girls, whom he characterized as these preexisting prostitutes and strippers who’d already been indoctrinated into the sex world,” Rush told me, describing the interview only in general terms because, even 10 years later, it’s still off the record. “You got the sense that he could adopt many masks. He played up his working-class roots on Coney Island, and how he understood that this was a good story that sold newspapers, and how everybody hates a rich guy. He basically said, I get why this is a good story for you, but I think a better story would be how these con artist lawyers are abusing the legal system.”
Rush said his Epstein chat was “almost useless,” though it “did give me a window into him. He briefly acknowledged getting himself into this mess. But he showed little remorse and no pity for his victims. He was mostly concerned with keeping Ghislaine Maxwell, his alleged henchwoman, out of the story.” Nonetheless, the interview landed Rush in a Judy Miller–style First Amendment battle with an attorney for one of Epstein’s accusers. The attorney, Brad Edwards, went to court to try to compel Rush to turn over the recording on the basis that it contained potentially incriminating evidence. (A judge agreed, but fate intervened on Rush’s behalf when Edwards’s client settled.)
Rush still has that recording, and he’s been thinking about it in recent days as Epstein has become, arguably, the biggest story in America. For Rush and many others who crossed paths with Epstein when he was a prominent figure on the Manhattan media circuit, Epstein’s July 8 federal sex-crimes indictment is especially stunning. “It’s a day that, frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see,” said Rush. “He’s sort of like a Nazi who fled to South America. He was living in peace, like Dr. Mengele in Paraguay, literally on his own island. I think he got too relaxed. It just seemed like he had gotten away with so much, and that the world had moved on.”
For a while, it did very much seem like the world had moved on. But then came #MeToo, followed by last year’s incredibly damning Miami Herald investigation. It not only shed new light—lots and lots of really bright light—on Epstein’s alleged history of fondling and manipulating teenage girls, but it also put Donald Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, in the hot seat for a sweetheart plea deal that he cut with the infamous Palm Beach resident as a U.S. Attorney back in 2007: 13 months in a private wing of the Palm Beach County jail, with a private security detail and daily work release, in return for an admission that Epstein solicited minors for prostitution. (Trump, who has his own history with Epstein, had himself been keeping close tabs on the long-simmering Epstein scandal, back when the National Enquirer was doing fresh coverage in 2015, as my colleague Emily Jane Fox reported. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the new charges, which include sex trafficking.)
This week’s indictment, and the accompanying raid on Epstein’s famously lavish 21,000-square-foot Upper East Side townhouse, has put old coverage of Epstein back in the spotlight. Former Vanity Fair writer Vicky Ward and former editor in chief Graydon Carter garnered attention for a disagreement over the circumstances of Ward’s 2003 Epstein profile. Ward went public earlier this week to say that on-the-record allegations from three Epstein accusers had been scrubbed from her piece after Epstein paid a visit to Carter prior to publication; Carter insists that there were not, in fact, on-the-record sources, and that the reporting in question “didn’t meet legal and editorial standards.”
A 2002 New York magazine feature on Epstein has also been recirculating. It’s the one that contains the following Donald Trump quote: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it—Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” Meanwhile, New York has also drawn attention for an Epstein story that it didn’t publish—by Michael Wolff, who “made some agreement that all fact questions would go through Epstein and only Epstein,” according to the fact-checker assigned to the piece, who described the situation on Twitter. “NY Mag’s lawyers weren’t thrilled about a story that alleged various rich and potentially litigious men socialized with a sexual predator without any proof or calling them for comment.”
Epstein had been part of an investor group, along with Zuckerman, Nelson Peltz, Harvey Weinstein, and Donny Deutsch, that had tried to buy New York in 2003, with Maer Roshan as the favorite for their editor in chief. Their bid fell short, and Roshan then convinced Epstein and Zuckerman to invest instead in Radar, which he’d founded a year earlier. The magazine had run out of money, but the duo pledged $25 million, and Radar got a second wind.
Roshan, who is currently the editor of Los Angeles magazine, recalled his dealings with Epstein from back then, before the first sex-abuse allegations became public. He remembers visiting Epstein’s townhouse to present the first print edition of Radar when it came out in 2005. He was dumbfounded by the mansion’s hyperbolic decor—a bearskin rug complete with bear head, an enormous photograph of a random baby. “The whole place was kind of dark and surreal,” Roshan remembers. “There was a security guard in the corner. The whole thing lasted half an hour. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
After three issues, Zuckerman and Epstein abruptly shut Radar down. At the time, Zuckerman, who’d previously described Radar as a long-term investment, attributed the closure to a lack of advertising, but that explanation never sat well with Roshan, who couldn’t understand why they’d pulled the plug so quickly after such an expensive and high-profile launch. “No one could quite figure out why, after just three issues, after putting all that money in, they would suddenly abandon the project,” said Roshan. “Our advertising revenue and circulation was far ahead of projections.”
However, when news of Epstein’s first arrest in 2006 came out, it all began to make sense. “When you look at the sequence of events, it’s clear that the police first approached Epstein at some point during the Radar rollout,” said Roshan. “It’s not surprising that Mort would want to distance himself from that partnership as quickly as possible.” (Roshan’s last interaction with Epstein came a couple years later, during Radar’s third and final incarnation—backed by Ron Burkle—when Epstein called Roshan to complain about Radar’s coverage of its former co-owner’s sex lawsuits.)
John Connolly, the former NYPD detective and longtime investigative journalist, has reported on Epstein extensively, both in Vanity Fair and for a 2016 true-crime book that he coauthored with James Patterson. Given the latest developments, Connolly said he’s thinking about doing some sort of follow-up. Indeed, there’s already a whole new crop of Jeffrey Epstein media in the pipeline. For starters, Connolly and Patterson’s book is being adapted into a documentary series for Netflix. That’s in addition to an Epstein documentary by filmmaker Barry Avrich that was already reported to be in the works. NBC’s Dateline has recently been exploring an Epstein story as well, someone familiar with the reporting told me. Surely there will be additional Epstein books, and maybe even a podcast or two.
As for Connolly’s reaction to the indictment, had he come to share Rush’s view that it did seem, prior to this week, like Epstein had more or less gotten away with it?
“I always thought somebody was probably gonna shoot him,” Connolly said. “Am I happy that he’s finally getting some justice? Yes. But I’m not happy with the way it happened.” How so? “He never should have been let out of prison in the first place.”