The perilous allure of glamor

One of the mystifying things about the Jeffrey Epstein saga is how many well-known scientists were sucked into his orbit even after his conviction for pedophilia. Daniel Engber writes about what it was like to be a scientist in Epstein’s circle.

It’s summer 2010, and Jeffrey Epstein has just returned to New York City after serving out an 18-month sentence in Palm Beach, Florida, including parole, for soliciting prostitution from a minor. He’s hosting dinner at his townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To his left is John Brockman, the literary superagent who seems to represent every scientist who’s ever written a bestselling book (Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman, and so forth). Brockman has brought along a client—a young professor whose line of research interests Epstein. Across the table, and to Epstein’s right, is an aspiring fashion model and her companion.

There’s no cross-talk or conversation between these pairs of guests; it’s more like Epstein has convened two separate interactions for his private entertainment, and these just happen to be coinciding both in time and space. “He would alternate between us,” recalled the professor, who asked that his name not be included in this story. “Sometimes he’d turn to his left and ask some science-y questions. Then he’d turn to his right and ask the model to show him her portfolio.” At one point, a young female staffer stepped into the room to give Epstein a massage, rubbing his neck as he talked and listened.

No one seems to know that much about Epstein’s occupation, but there’s little doubt about the ways he liked to spend his time. “I only have two interests,” he once told a longtime friend and former academic. “Science and pussy.”

The scientists were, in their own way, members of Epstein’s entourage. “Beautiful women are only a part of it,” wrote the journalist Landon Thomas Jr. in a 2002 profile of Epstein for New York. “Because here’s the thing about Epstein: As some collect butterflies, he collects beautiful minds.” That phrase comes up in other places, too: “Jeffrey’s [hobby] was scientists. He liked to collect them,” an anonymous Epstein associate told Connie Bruck for her recent piece on Alan Dershowitz in the New Yorker. Left unmentioned, though naturally implied, is the fact that Epstein’s butterflies were almost always men.

Over time, Epstein would build a network for procuring brilliant men. Chief among his fixers was the superagent, John Brockman. (Brockman declined to comment for this story.) When Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker flew out to a TED conference on Epstein’s private jet in 2002, their agent Brockman was on board as well. (Pinker’s scanty ties to Epstein have been singled out in recent weeks; he says he only boarded Epstein’s jet because of Brockman.) Roger Schank says it was Brockman who introduced him to Epstein, too. “Everybody goes through John Brockman,” he told me.

It is clear that Epstein was a science groupie who liked to surround himself with well-known scientists. But what was in it for them? They must have soon realized that he was a poseur who did not know any science and that his interest was shallow. He would get an expert in some field, suggest an idea and then get distracted and not listen to the rest of what they said.

So why did they hang around with him? If one sets aside the possibility that some may have been attracted by his dangling of young women as lures and tries to put the most charitable spin on their motives, what other reason might there be? It is true that he did fund some of their research programs but there were well-known scientists who, as far as I know, did not get any money from him but still were willing to spend time with him.

My feeling is that they were seduced by the celebrity lifestyle. Being a scientist is not glamorous. The work is hard, and even scientists who have done really important, even ground-breaking, research rarely achieve wealth and fame. While they may be greatly admired by their peers, that circle is small. Not for them are red carpet events, adoring fans, and riding around in limousines and private planes. Some of them must find it galling that people they consider their intellectual inferiors live a life that seems so exciting and yet is so foreign to them and be curious about what it must be like. So when someone like Epstein contacts them and offers to fly them in his private plane to exotic locations and even private islands for events, they may have fallen prey to the temptation to experience life in a way that they could only do vicariously before.

Glamour has always been seductive to a certain kind of mind. Nowadays, we are deluged with stories about the lifestyles of the rich and famous and it is not unnatural to wonder what that life might be like. So perhaps when Epstein offered scientists a chance to taste a bit of it, they jumped at the chance and deliberately ignored all the warning signs that he was a creepy pervert in order not to spoil the fantasy.


  1. garnetstar says

    I think you’re quite right, glamour and celebrity does appeal to a certain kind of mind. Especially one who believes in his own superiority, which “brilliant” scientists are prone to. They are the kings of their little molehill, but because of that think that they’re kings.

    And, there is the well-known ability of sociopaths to select their victims well, knowing which people have the vulnerabilities that the sociopath can prey on. We don’t know the number of scientists that Epstein tried his ploy on, who weren’t the right kind of victim and who didn’t fall for it. But sociopaths are expert at preying on the ones who are.

    I always had the impression that scientists in Boston were far more prone to delusions of their own great importance that scientists in New York City were. In Boston, being a famous professor at Harvard or MIT is really the top status that there is, you can regard yourself as king of the city.
    In NYC, of course, mere scientists and professors cannot sustain that delusion. In the same town live people like Jackie Kennedy and Donald Trump and various former presidents and Saudi princes and Rockfellers and Vanderbilts, etc. You are nothing compared to them, and don’t have such fantasies of celebrity and glamor and power.

  2. JM says

    Epstein also had money and donated it to projects he thought interesting. Some scientists that should have known better were willing to put up with him to get money for research projects. Epstein was trying to buy respectability and fame from the scientists just as much as the scientists wanted it from him.

  3. lanir says

    I think that hanging out with someone who was formerly convicted of a crime is not wrong in it’s own. We only know this to be an error in this case because Epstein seems to have continued to act as a predator. Unless you propose the death penalty or some kind of permanent exile or imprisonment for a particular crime then some means of returning to society is required. Not allowing for this is simply promoting one of those alternatives -- or worse, hoping the person gets free but is a permanent second class citizen who has few if any rights. And that leads to a whole can of worms as we can see with illegal immigrants.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone should have ignored signs of continued predation and abuse. I’m suggesting that everyone should have looked for them and those should have been the determining factor, not a prior conviction. I agree this becomes more problematic with the rich who can afford to avoid legal problems but I don’t think we help anyone by judging people based on the outcomes of a very troubled criminal justice system.

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