Jeffrey Epstein: The glamorous financier with a dark side

The more you delve into the past of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein - the man who tarnished Prince Andrew's reputation – the more mysterious it becomes.

When I was assigned to write a profile of a "mysterious Gatsby-esque" financier, Jeffrey Epstein, for Vanity Fair in 2002, I anticipated "a gossipy piece about a shadowy, slightly sinister, but essentially harmless man who lived very large, had wealthy important friends, hung out with models and shied away from the press", writes Vicky Ward in The Daily Beast."If only it had ended there."

Epstein's biography could be divided into two themes. One was "the hidden source of his wealth": he claimed he financed his jet-setting lifestyle by managing the money of billionaires "a story no one I spoke to believed". The second mystery was his "unorthodox" private life.

The gossip in New York centred on the parties that Epstein, then in his 50s, hosted, where plutocrats, academics and other eminences mingled with "nubile, very young women". Nobody made any secret of this (see below).

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But when Ward put allegations to Epstein that he had molested a 16-year-old girl, he got heavy pushing into the Vanity Fair offices where he "spooked" the editor into dropping all reference to it.

He also, allegedly, threatened Ward's then husband and children. Six years later, Epstein was sentenced to 18 months in jail in Florida for soliciting prostitution from an underage girl.

Epstein had sprung to prominence earlier in 2002 when he flew Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey to Africa in his customised Boeing 727, says New York magazine. The immediate question was: "who in the world is Jeffrey Epstein"?

The answer was an intriguing story, "full of question marks". His initial ascent was a "classic American success story", says The Observer. Born in a rough Brooklyn neighbourhood, in 1976 he was "plucked from a seemingly ordinary life as a maths teacher at a Manhattan private school and given a job at the now defunct investment bank Bear Stearns".

Epstein began trading options, and was reportedly very good at it. By 1981 he had become a partner. But soon after, he abruptly quit the bank saying he wanted to run his own business.

"Thereafter, the details recede into shadow," says Vanity Fair. Epstein, who relocated his business to the Caribbean in 1996 after he bought the island of St Thomas, has kept all his deals and clients secret.

The exception is Leslie Wexner, the billionaire chairman of Limited Brands (which owns Victoria's Secret), who is credited with smoothing his acceptance into the establishment.

Yet there were also some more shady acquaintances, notably Steven Hoffenberg, the "audacious" head of Towers Financial Corporation, who was later sentenced to 20 years in prison "for bilking investors out of $450m".

By 2002, Epstein's fund was said to be worth $15bn, but the man remained an enigma. "You think you know him and then you peel off another ring of the onion skin and there's alwayssomething else extraordinary underneath," former Tiffany CEO Rosa Monckton told Ward at the time. "He never reveals his hand."

A friend to forget for Prince Andrew

"I've known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy," Trump boomed. "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."

Women, though, were only a part of it. "As some collect butterflies", Epstein collected "beautiful minds", wrote Thomas. In fact, Epstein collected contacts, full stop, says The Observer.

His "black book" of names revealed in leaked court documents "reads like a directory of the world's global elite". Under the letter B alone are listed Blair, Bloomberg and Branson. There are multiple contact numbers for Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch and others.

Yet of all Epstein's glamorous and influential friends, "none has had their reputation as tarnished by association with the disgraced financier as badly as the Queen's second son" (who had 16 telephone numbers listed).

"Prince Andrew protests his complete innocence in the face of all the accusations from America," says AN Wilson in The Sunday Telegraph. But he must now regret opting to stay on a "sleazy yacht owned by a dubious billionaire" rather than heading off "for the rain-soaked glens of Balmoral instead".

Following a week of "torrid" headlines and calls to stay away from the World Economic Forum in Davos this month the Duke of York has admitted to friends that he was a "fool" over his friendship with Epstein and made an "error of judgment" staying with him in New York in 2010 after Epstein's release from jail, says Valentine Low in The Times.

Claims that he had sex with an underaged girl have been "deeply uncomfortable" for the royal family. They could get more uncomfortable yet.