Tom Wolfe​ lived round the corner from the Metropolitan Museum, at 21 East 79th Street, between Fifth and Madison. A mahogany elevator went to the sitting room of his 14th-floor apartment, much as it does to Sherman McCoy’s in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s ‘Master of the Universe’ – who could be Jeffrey Epstein – soon brings ignominy to his marble halls, but he never commits the basic crime of not knowing how wonderful his Upper East Side spread is. ‘It was the sort of apartment the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York and, for that matter, all over the world,’ Wolfe wrote.

Epstein’s house on East 71st Street, which was said to be the biggest of its kind in the city, was as creepy as its owner. With a stone satyr over the fifteen-foot front door and forty rooms over seven floors, the decor was of the Gothic Quagmire school: according to the FBI agents who raided it at the beginning of July, it contains among other weirdnesses a photo-montage of Epstein standing in a prison surrounded by warders and barbed wire, and a life-sized doll hanging from a chandelier. In the entrance hall, rows of prosthetic eyeballs are fixed to the wall. The agents opened the door with a crowbar and, according to federal prosecutors who spoke to the New York Times, ‘seized photographs of nude underage girls’. Evidence has been piling up that Epstein was a man who used his money to enslave girls and rape them or traffic them to his friends. Twelve years ago, in an operation lasting 14 months – Operation Leap Year – the FBI found evidence of 34 underage girls solicited by Epstein, but the billionaire’s lawyers, led by Alan Dershowitz, argued that ‘Mr Epstein never targeted minors.’ According to a recent New Yorker profile of Dershowitz, the deal he successfully struck with prosecutors in Miami, which allowed Epstein to avoid federal charges if he admitted to two counts of soliciting, one of them with a minor, had an additional ‘provision granting immunity to “any potential co-conspirators” and … was made without informing Epstein’s accusers, a violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act’. Epstein spent 13 months in jail. One of his alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, said she was told to keep quiet at that time by one of Epstein’s friends, but she didn’t: she filed a motion not only naming Epstein as her abuser but claiming she’d also been told to have sex with his friends Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz. Who were the ‘potential co-conspirators’ granted immunity under the Florida plea bargain? All the named parties have denied the allegations, but the question of ‘Jeffrey’s friends’ is now at the heart of the case.

The internet believes in the existence of VIP paedophile rings. It went big on ‘Pizzagate’, the bogus 2016 conspiracy theory spread by white supremacists proposing that the Democratic Party was concealing child abuse by senior officials. That’s not to suggest paedophile rings don’t exist, but you need to be careful about the way such allegations can be made to appear instantly substantial by the manner and speed of their promulgation. Richard Henriques, a former High Court judge, has just concluded his review of Scotland Yard’s handling of the allegations made by Carl Beech, who was recently sentenced to 18 years for falsely accusing a number of senior figures of abusing children. ‘Never again,’ said Lord Bramall, a former chief of the defence staff, one of those falsely accused, ‘should the presumption of innocence be reversed on the say-so of one person and for the convenience of one organisation.’

But the case against Epstein and his friends is based on evidence. When you speak to people about this former investment banker, what you discover is that he was a half-educated man who not only fetishised his fetishes, but turned his friends into fetishes, too. A billionaire can buy yachts and private jets, or the biggest apartment in Manhattan, but Epstein wanted influence and connections more than anything else, especially with people who’d passed their exams. He ‘dealt’ in underage girls, and there’s strong evidence that he had friends who procured girls and other friends he shared them with. A judge in the Southern District of New York has stated that some of those alleged to have been involved were ‘famous, some not’. Giuffre, one of Epstein’s chief accusers, has twice accepted out-of-court settlements said to involve millions of dollars.

Epstein had a group of people around him, carefully gathered, who either benefited by taking part in his abuse or benefited by looking the other way. The people who took seats on his jets. The friends who came to dinner. Those who visited his private island. The politicians and charitable groups who whispered about the girls but were grateful for his dosh. Is a friend merely a person you like, or is friendship a kind of contract: by giving someone your private number and taking his gifts, are you allowing him to position you inside his circle of influence, collusion and reward? Some of his fellow abusers, and many of those who colluded with the abuse, are named in Epstein’s address book. Sources say he included not only people he liked, but people he wanted to be liked by, and the overall picture is of a self-serving elite that flattered Epstein with their presence and enabled him with their shrugs.

According to New York magazine, Epstein taught Prince Andrew ‘how to relax’. To be fair, ‘Andy’, as Epstein calls him, has never appeared to have too much trouble in that department. He hung out with Epstein when he came to New York and had him over to Norfolk for shooting parties at Sandringham. Epstein had 16 numbers for the Duke of York, including one for his equerry. Trump’s ex-friend Steve Bannon snuggles up in the address book next to Debonnaire von Bismarck. Conrad Black (with more than a dozen numbers) is next to Tony Blair (home number only) and the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg (who also lived on Tom Wolfe’s street). There are lots of British socialites (brought to him by his friend Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the late newspaper magnate and pensions-thief Robert Maxwell), and there are industrialists, publicists and the editors of fashion magazines, most of whom, in my experience, would happily attend a party in the gusset of a Nazi commandant’s breeches. Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, is there near Bill Clinton (Epstein had 20 different numbers for Clinton, who travelled on his plane on 12 occasions). Governors, heiresses, models and bankers, lawyers and actors, scientists and Prince Andrew’s ex, Sarah Ferguson (who accepted a gift of $15,000 from Epstein when she was skint). The writer Malcolm Gladwell went on the jet, but says he had no idea who Epstein was. Steven Hoffenberg, who cheated investors out of $460 million, claims that Epstein was not just a friend but a co-conspirator in his own crimes. Nobody has ever seen a reliable list of Epstein’s financial clients.

The publication of Epstein’s contacts list must be causing anxiety to those who keep a similarly promiscuous address book or aren’t too careful about handing out their number. You don’t want it to be sitting next to Harvey Weinstein’s, and, on a casual run through your own contacts list, you don’t want to find that you somehow – one dark night – decided to take down Beelzebub’s number. Even the obvious innocents in Epstein’s book are tarnished by his wanting to know them. ‘What is it exactly about Courtney Love that caused Jeffrey Epstein to put her number into his book?’ I will now ask myself. It may be quite innocent: perhaps he got her number from somebody else; perhaps he asked her to a fundraiser; maybe she met him once and didn’t notice that the three girls behind him were 14 years old. The same question could be raised in relation to another singer, Bryan Ferry, or the actress Minnie Driver, or the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby. How exactly did Epstein come to have ten numbers for Peter Mandelson? We are all, to some extent, defined by the company we keep, and if there are things we don’t notice about our ‘friends’, it is often because we realised it was better not to look.

For students of the society black book, there are some no-brainers among Epstein’s contacts: Henry Kissinger, Nicky Haslam, Mick Jagger. But it becomes clear that Epstein much preferred to hang out with famous intellectuals, lunching them at Delmonico’s, Elaine’s, the Four Seasons and the Pierre. He liked popular scientists (Steven Pinker says he barely knew him) and had the billionaire’s love of a Nobel laureate. It turns out that a few semesters spent in one’s youth at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences can do wonders for a man’s dreams of scientific domination. Epstein is a fan of ‘transhumanism’ – the science of finessing the population by means of ‘better’ genes and improving technologies. This led him to believe that, with the help of elite scientists, he could establish an intellectual justification for personally impregnating countless women. He cultivated several scientific big-wigs and gave $6.5 million to Harvard’s Programme for Evolutionary Dynamics. Still, despite the smart company he kept, you wonder what on earth this modern eugenicist found to say to the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. When awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee said that Wiesel had brought a message of ‘peace, atonement and dignity’ to human affairs. Epstein has had Wiesel’s number since at least 2012, but seems to have met him a few years later, via Peggy Siegal, the New York social fixer, a woman the New York Times once described as ‘spin doctor, salonista, celebrity confidante and, occasionally, bouncer’. She was a friend of Epstein’s – there are six numbers for her in his address book – and she continued to invite him to social events after his 2008 conviction. Siegal organised a private screening of the Hungarian film Son of Saul in Manhattan on 3 December 2015 and Wiesel was there, and so was Epstein. When I contacted Siegal at her office on Lexington Avenue, she put me onto her public relations firm, Greenbier – ‘We Solve Problems’ – who told me she had organised the event but could not remember introducing the men and indeed had no precise recollection of Epstein being there. The spokesman went on to tell me that Siegal does more than two hundred events a year and that failing to remember such details is pretty standard.

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