Of the many mysteries that still surround the life and crimes of the notorious financier, the source of his wealth, and thus his power, might be the greatest. His long-standing business ties with his most prominent client, billionaire retail magnate Leslie Wexner, hold the key.
In the fall of 1982, a money manager named Harold Levin got a phone call that would change his life. A lawyer representing Leslie H. Wexner, the founder and CEO of the women’s apparel retailer The Limited, said Wexner was looking for a financial adviser. Would Levin be interested? Levin most certainly was. In Columbus, Ohio, where Levin lived, Wexner was a legend. Wexner grew The Limited from a single Columbus store into a global retail empire that included mall fixtures Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, and Bath & Body Works.
Levin landed the job after six months of grueling interviews. He wasn’t making Masters of the Universe money—Wexner paid a salary of $250,000 a year—but it was enough for Levin to move his family into a 6,000-square-foot house across the street from Wexner in Bexley, Columbus’s most exclusive suburb. By 1986, Wexner ranked sixth on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $1.4 billion. “In New York, I had bankers constantly taking me out to dinner,” Levin told me. Once, a banker arranged a private tour of Le Bernardin. “The kitchen was so clean, you could eat off the floor,” Levin remembered. Wexner entrusted Levin with increasingly ambitious projects. Starting in the mid-1980s, Levin purchased thousands of acres of farmland in New Albany (population 414) on the outskirts of Columbus, where Wexner planned to build his very own town modeled on an 18th-century Georgian village. “Les sent me to Richmond, Virginia, to look at architecture he wanted to copy,” Levin said.
On one of Levin’s trips to New York in 1989, Wexner asked him to meet a brilliant young financier who wanted to pitch an investment opportunity.
Levin had never heard of the man, Jeffrey Epstein, which was odd. After working for Wexner for seven years, Levin knew virtually every player on Wall Street (a few months earlier, Levin says, he met with arbitrageur Ivan Boesky). Levin’s skepticism was confirmed as soon as he arrived at Epstein’s Madison Avenue office. There were no visible signs of a trading operation; just Epstein sitting behind a desk that didn’t even have a computer. “Epstein was trying to explain a currency trade he wanted to do. I have an MBA from Ohio State, and I didn’t understand a word the man said,” Levin recalled. Levin went back to Columbus and reported that Epstein was a fraud. “I told Les, ‘Stay away from him,’ ” Levin remembered. Wexner agreed not to do the trade.
Levin was shocked when Epstein showed up in Columbus a few months later and announced Wexner had put him in charge of his finances. Levin tried to protest but says Wexner wouldn’t take his calls. Levin couldn’t stand having Epstein as a boss. “He was an asshole. The most arrogant person I ever met,” Levin recalled. A few months later, Levin quit.
Levin said Epstein taunted him on his way out. “On my last day, Epstein walked into my office and held up a piece of paper. He bragged that Les had given him power of attorney over his money. I worked for Les for seven years and I never had general power of attorney,” Levin said. Epstein, Levin continued, even ordered him to surrender equity in Wexner’s town project, likely costing Levin millions. “Epstein basically said, ‘If you want, you can fight it out, but I have a lot of lawyers and I’ll make sure it’ll cost you a fortune.’ ”
Levin’s life unraveled. He couldn’t find a job. Friends told him Epstein was spreading rumors around Columbus and on Wall Street that Wexner had fired him for misappropriating funds. His wife filed for divorce, Levin said, and was granted custody of their three children. “I had a nervous breakdown. I was living out of my car for a while,” Levin said. He applied for jobs using computers at the library and showered at state parks. “Epstein ruined my life. I lost everything,” Levin said.
Two years after guards discovered Epstein unconscious in his Manhattan prison cell, the pedophile’s life and mysterious death remain a subject of fevered speculation and conspiracy theorizing. Was Epstein an intelligence agent? A debased financial genius? A sociopathic con man who fleeced billionaires and politicians with sexual blackmail?
In a search for answers, I spent the past six months investigating the Epstein mystery that could unlock others: How did he get his money? For it was Epstein’s half-billion-dollar fortune that enabled him to sexually abuse and traffic hundreds of girls on multiple continents. “There’s no question that Epstein could not have done what he did without the support of people that provided him money,” said attorney David Boies, whose firm represents numerous Epstein accusers, including Virginia Roberts Giuffre.
Epstein burnished his own myth, telling people, preposterously, that he only accepted clients with assets of $1 billion or more. But until recently, Epstein’s only publicly named client was Wexner. “When I asked Jeffrey who else he worked with, he’d say, ‘I can’t talk about it,’ ” an Epstein friend recalled. Wexner paid Epstein’s predecessor about $600,000 a year in today’s dollars. Epstein, a former high school math teacher from Coney Island, Brooklyn, was worth a reported $559 million. His estate included a 51,000-square-foot Manhattan town house (bought from Wexner); a private jet (formerly owned by The Limited) and a helicopter; a Caribbean island; a Paris apartment; a Palm Beach mansion; and a 10,000-acre New Mexico ranch. (Epstein’s brother’s real estate company also had majority ownership of a Manhattan condo building on East 66th Street where Epstein allegedly housed girls. The building was formerly owned by Wexner.) Prosecutors say that Epstein built his vast sex-trafficking ring throughout the ’90s and early aughts. In other words, Epstein became Epstein during his long association with Wexner.
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When Epstein pleaded guilty to two counts, including soliciting a minor for prostitution, in Palm Beach in June 2008 and registered as a Level 3 sex offender in New York, Wexner refused to discuss him. In 2019, a Wexner spokesman told The Washington Post that the Wexners had severed all ties with Epstein in 2007. They condemned Epstein’s actions, the spokesman said. It was only after Epstein died that Wexner described their relationship—and even then in opaque terms. In Wexner’s telling, he was another Epstein victim preyed upon by a devious mastermind. “Being taken advantage of by someone who was so sick, so cunning, so depraved is something that I’m embarrassed that I was even close to,” Wexner said during a speech in September 2019. In a letter to his charitable foundation around this time, Wexner claimed Epstein had “misappropriated vast sums of money from me and my family.” Epstein had reportedly transferred back nearly $47 million to a Wexner-controlled charity fund in 2008.
But Wexner’s belated attempts to explain himself only raised more questions. Why, for instance, did Wexner not report Epstein’s alleged $47 million theft to the FBI? Or how could Wexner claim to be blindsided by Epstein’s duplicitousness? “I told Les, ‘I wouldn’t trust Epstein to cross the street—why are you trusting him with your money?’ ” recalled Jerry Merritt, a former Ohio state highway patrolman who served as The Limited’s security chief for more than 25 years.
In reporting this article, I spoke to more than 30 people who had firsthand encounters with Epstein or Wexner. (Wexner, who announced he was stepping down from the board of his company in March, declined numerous interview requests.) The story that emerged is a deeply strange one. Sources say Epstein occupied different roles in Wexner’s life depending on the audience. “Jeffrey compartmentalized. He told you what you wanted to hear,” Epstein’s former lawyer Alan Dershowitz told me. Epstein sometimes portrayed himself as a surrogate son to a lonely billionaire. He told some people he was Wexner’s fixer. Dershowitz said that when he became Epstein’s criminal lawyer in 2007, Epstein boasted that Wexner would not testify against him. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Epstein’s long-standing connection to one of America’s richest men inarguably aided his public profile, adding to his air of legitimacy and thus his power.
Wexner met Epstein sometime around 1986. They were introduced by Wexner’s close friend the insurance mogul Robert Meister, whose firm handled insurance for The Limited. I spoke with Meister in April, and he opened up for the first time about the origins of Wexner and Epstein’s relationship. It was history that Meister, 79, found difficult to revisit. “I walked away from Epstein a long time ago, and I’ve been trying to erase him from my mind ever since,” he said.
Epstein struck up a conversation with Meister on a commercial flight to Palm Beach. Meister remembered being impressed with the young banker. In reality, Epstein lived in a one-bedroom apartment and ran a fledgling investment firm. (Epstein had been forced to leave Bear Stearns in 1981. He told Securities and Exchange Commission investigators he had been penalized after letting a friend borrow money to buy stock, that there were irregularities with his expense account, and that there were rumors at the firm about his relationship with a secretary.) “He was a great bullshit artist,” Meister said. People who knew Epstein remarked at his savant-like skill at impressing powerful older men. “Jeffrey was a flatterer,” said interior designer Robert Couturier, who met Epstein in the 1980s. “Jeffrey would call me every day and say, ‘Oh you’re so brilliant. You’re the best.’ ” Epstein’s friend Stuart Pivar, a founder of the New York Academy of Art, said Epstein’s magnetism was almost impossible to resist. “If you had hundreds of millions of dollars and you knew Jeffrey, there’s a high likelihood that you’d give it to him. He was that good of a con man.”
In hindsight, Meister suspects Epstein aggressively cultivated him in the hope that Meister would open doors to his billionaire friends—like Wexner. Not long after Epstein met Meister, Epstein invited Meister to play racquetball and started turning up in the steam room at his gym while he was using it. “I’d be having a steam and Epstein would come in,” Meister said. During one conversation, Epstein asked Meister to introduce him to Wexner. Epstein falsely said he had learned that Wexner’s money manager was stealing from him. Epstein, a self-described financial “bounty hunter,” offered to help recover the funds. It was convincing enough that Meister arranged a meeting for Epstein at Wexner’s house in Aspen. “Epstein was such a liar,” Meister said. In Wexner’s 2019 letter to his foundation, he wrote that he hired Epstein because friends “recommended him as a knowledgeable financial professional.”
Soon after introducing Wexner and Epstein, Meister started hearing disturbing stories about Epstein’s sexual proclivities. “Think of whatever the worst thing anyone could do is, and Epstein did them all,” Meister said. The breaking point came when Epstein showed up unannounced at Meister’s Park Avenue apartment with five models for Meister’s sexual entertainment. “Epstein thought he was bringing me a gift,” Meister recalled. “I told him, ‘Get the fuck out and I never want to see you again!’ ”
For an introvert like Wexner, Epstein was a social connector who populated Wexner’s life with glittery people.
Meister, whose estimation of Epstein had done a total 180, gave his friend a general warning about his character. Meister says he and his wife, Wendy, warned Wexner to stay away from Epstein. “We begged him, don’t get involved,” Meister recalled. It was too late: Wexner had hired Epstein as his financial adviser. “He thought Epstein was brilliant,” Meister said.
Epstein claimed he could discern hidden patterns in financial markets, but his true moneymaking gift was reading people. He surely recognized Wexner was deeply lonely. “Business was Les’s life,” said Wexner’s childhood friend Peter Halliday, whose Ohio bank prepared The Limited’s first stock offering. Wexner was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1937 to Russian Jewish parents who worked in the garment business. When Wexner entered high school, his family moved from Dayton to Columbus, where his father, Harry, opened a small women’s apparel store called Leslie’s. “It was tough moving into a new community. Les didn’t make a mark for himself,” Halliday said.
Wexner hoped to become an architect like Howard Roark, the libertarian protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Harry insisted he study business at Ohio State. Les briefly enrolled in law school but dropped out to work for the family business. As the story goes, Les wanted Harry to carry a limited inventory focused on casual clothes, and when Harry disagreed, Les quit. In 1963, Les opened The Limited with a $5,000 loan from his aunt Ida. “I built a business so I could create my own world,” Les later told the New York Times. Within a year, Harry closed Leslie’s and was working for Les.
Wexner may have been CEO, but it seemed that his mother, Bella, was the boss. For 34 years she served as The Limited’s corporate secretary. A former executive recalled that Bella belittled her son in meetings when she didn’t like his ideas. “It’ll never work! Don’t do it!” Bella would yell in front of his staff. “I remember sitting there thinking, How dare this woman?” the executive said. Les seemed to be terrified of Bella. According to Meister, Les would sometimes stay at Meister’s house in Palm Beach so that Bella, whose Palm Beach house was near Les’s, wouldn’t know Les was in town. “He was afraid of her. She was running his life,” Meister said.
By 1976, The Limited operated 100 stores. Two years later, Wexner risked bankrupting the company when he borrowed $30 million to acquire the logistics company Mast Industries, which operated a dozen factories in Asia and contracted with hundreds of others around the world. The gamble proved to be Wexner’s genius move, akin to McDonald’s revolutionizing fast food. By controlling production and shipping, Wexner globalized the apparel business. Wexner’s core insight was that baby boomers viewed shopping as a form of entertainment. The Limited’s supply chain allowed Wexner to rapidly roll out new clothing lines at lower cost and keep customers coming back.
As shopping malls spread across the country, The Limited boomed. Wexner went on an acquisition spree in the 1980s. He took over the Lane Bryant and Lerner chains, the department store Henri Bendel and a struggling Palo Alto lingerie store called Victoria’s Secret. At the time he met Epstein, The Limited had an annual revenue of $3 billion. Despite the success, Wexner remained little known outside Ohio. Meister recalled a party in Aspen when Donald Trump walked up to Wexner and said, “Nice to meet you, now how did you get so fucking rich?”
Wexner and Epstein soon became virtually inseparable. They were an odd pair. Wexner was in his late 40s, with a round face and big ears. Epstein was in his early 30s and dashing—from the right angle he looked like Richard Gere. “Les knows everything about me. He knows every experience I’ve had,” Epstein once told a friend. Wexner’s public image continued to grow after hiring Epstein. A 1989 Boston Globe profile that detailed Wexner’s rise reported that his September 1 diary entry that year read: “I finally like myself.” (In a filmed deposition, featured in the Netflix documentary Filthy Rich, Brad Edwards, a lawyer for some of Epstein’s victims, asked Epstein if he had a sexual relationship with Wexner. Epstein denied it.)
Merritt, The Limited’s security chief, was unnerved by the sudden friendship. Merritt recalled a weekend in the late 1980s when Wexner invited Epstein to shoot at targets on land Wexner owned in rural Ohio. “Les had started collecting guns, but Les didn’t know which end of a gun worked,” Merritt said. Merritt recruited a world-class trap shooter named Jim Forsbach to teach Wexner to shoot, but, Merritt said, Wexner relied on Epstein. “Epstein had this Magnum, P.I. gun. He didn’t know what he was doing. It looked like he’d never taken it out of the holster,” Merritt recalled.
Epstein was a social connector who populated Wexner’s introverted life with glittery people. Novelist Christina Oxenberg remembered being invited by Epstein to a dinner party at Wexner’s Upper East Side town house not long after Epstein took over Wexner’s finances. “Les seemed like this rumpled, sweaty schlub. He was so ill at ease. And there was Jeffrey facilitating the conversation,” Oxenberg told me. Dershowitz said the first time he met Epstein, at the Martha’s Vineyard home of Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Epstein invited him to be a guest of honor at Wexner’s upcoming birthday dinner. “Jeffrey said something like, ‘For a present, my friend Leslie Wexner wants me to invite the most important man I met this year,’ ” Dershowitz recalled. The flattery worked: Dershowitz attended. Other guests included astronaut John Glenn and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.
Wexner’s physical appearance changed. A former Victoria’s Secret executive recalled Wexner dyed his hair. He hired a live-in personal trainer and adopted a new wardrobe. “Les would wear the tightest jeans you saw. I don’t know how he didn’t cut off blood supply to his private parts,” the former executive said. Wexner’s colleagues referred to this look as “chairman’s casual.”
According to sources, Epstein took an interest in Wexner’s romantic life. In 1985, New York magazine put Wexner on the cover with the headline “The Bachelor Billionaire.” Wexner dated but the relationships didn’t tend to last. Around the time Wexner met Epstein, Wexner broke up with a Columbus woman. According to sources, Epstein showed up at her house with a multimillion-dollar check and told her to stay away from Wexner. (The woman declined requests for comment.)
The friendship vexed Wexner’s mother, Bella. Sources said she wanted Les to settle down and get married. “Bella hated Epstein. She was so blunt,” Merritt said. Around 1990, Wendy Meister introduced Wexner to a corporate lawyer in her late 20s named Abigail Koppel, who worked in the London office of Davis Polk, The Limited’s outside law firm. “Abigail was so secretive about it,” a friend from London recalled. “She said, ‘Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to jinx it.’ ”
But Epstein stayed very much in the picture. He reportedly arranged Wexner and Koppel’s prenuptial agreement and was one of 50 attendees at their January 1993 wedding ceremony. Wexner even gave Epstein Bella’s seat on the board of the Wexner Foundation.
Epstein soon began traveling to Ohio with Ghislaine Maxwell, the on-off girlfriend who had helped burnish his society connections in Manhattan. “She was with Jeffrey everywhere,” Merritt said. To some, it seemed like the age-appropriate Maxwell was a public front for Epstein’s crimes involving underage girls. “It’s a useful beard situation,” said Oxenberg, Maxwell’s former friend. Epstein and Maxwell were also social with the Wexners outside of Ohio. When the Wexners traveled to Europe, Epstein and Maxwell joined them on shopping trips.
By this point, Epstein was representing himself as something of a problem solver for Wexner. One time, Epstein called Dershowitz and asked if the lawyer knew someone in the Clinton administration. Epstein claimed Wexner was in a panic because customs agents at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey seized thousands of dollars of Cuban cigars and $50,000 in cash from his private jet. Dershowitz said he did not know anyone who could help. A person close to the Wexner family with knowledge of the allegation emphatically denied that any such event occurred. Vanity Fair has found no mention of the alleged incident in court or law enforcement records.
During the 1990s, both Epstein’s and Wexner’s profiles grew on the world stage. In 1991, Wexner cofounded a philanthropic organization of Jewish billionaires known as the Mega Group, which uses some of its vast resources to shape Middle East policy. In 2003, Wexner’s foundation commissioned GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz to advise American Jewish leaders on how to rally support for Israel. “For a year—a SOLID YEAR—you should be invoking the name of Saddam Hussein and how Israel was always behind American efforts to rid the world of this ruthless dictator and liberate their people,” Luntz’s recommendation stated.
Epstein kept close in that circle of influence. U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson and Middle East envoy George Mitchell allegedly participated in Epstein’s sex ring, according to a lawsuit filed by Giuffre. (Richardson and Mitchell adamantly deny the allegations.) Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was an Epstein confidant. Epstein invested $1 million in one of Barak’s business ventures; Barak reportedly visited the East 66th Street condo building. Dershowitz told me he once arrived at Epstein’s town house as Epstein and Barak were wrapping up lunch. On a chalkboard, Barak had drawn a map of how the West Bank should be divided. (Barak could not be reached for comment. In 2019 he denied any wrongdoing related to the condo visits.)
During his time as Wexner’s financial guru, Epstein’s holdings grew tremendously—sometimes by acquiring properties formerly owned by Wexner such as the town house on East 71st Street, one of the largest private homes in Manhattan. While it has been reported over the years that the home was transferred to him in a $1 transaction-—and Epstein may have led people to believe that—documents show he paid Wexner $20 million for it. In Columbus, Epstein owned a 10,000-square-foot house next to Wexner and, according to Merritt, paid a below-market price for one of The Limited’s private jets. (Epstein also reportedly oversaw construction of Wexner’s superyacht, Limitless.) Merritt recalled once asking Wexner why Epstein was so well compensated. “Les just said, ‘Because I got more money than I can ever spend,’ ” said Merritt. “Les gave him free rein over his checkbook.” In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported Epstein earned $200 million from Wexner. Merritt puts the number at $400 million.
Epstein’s predecessor Harold Levin described a possible scenario by which Epstein could have taken control of assets. “We didn’t put a mortgage on any of those properties. We used The Limited’s stock to buy them, so there were no liens,” Levin said. In other words, because Wexner didn’t owe banks any money, his properties could be controlled by Epstein, and there would be scant public record of it.
As Epstein’s wealth grew, his predatory behavior became more brazen. He sometimes used his connections to Victoria’s Secret in his schemes, a pattern at least some executives at the company were aware of. One afternoon in the spring of 1993, an executive rushed into the office of Victoria’s Secret catalog president Cynthia Fedus-Fields with disturbing news: A model told a hairdresser at a photo shoot that a man named Jeffrey Epstein was running around New York presenting himself as a Victoria’s Secret scout. Fields knew Epstein was problematic. Fields, then in her 40s, had met him the previous year and rejected several inappropriate propositions from him to go out, one of which included a weekend date to Wexner’s house in Aspen. (Fields declined Epstein’s advances.)
Fields told the executive to report Epstein to Wexner immediately, according to a source briefed on the conversation. “Les said he would stop it,” the source recalled.
Merritt remembered one lunch around this time when Epstein boasted he was the “personnel director” for Victoria’s Secret. In May 1997, an aspiring model named Alicia Arden told the Santa Monica police that Epstein sexually assaulted her in a hotel room after he posed as a Victoria’s Secret scout.
According to the harrowing story of accuser Maria Farmer, Epstein even brought the abuse to Wexner’s doorstep in Ohio. In the spring of 1996, Farmer was miserable working as Epstein’s personal assistant in New York when she received a dream assignment: Film producers wanted the 25-year-old to create paintings that would be featured in the Jack Nicholson movie As Good As It Gets. Epstein begged Farmer not to quit and made an incredible offer: His client Les Wexner wanted Farmer to spend the summer working on the paintings at Wexner’s 300-acre compound in the town Wexner was building from scratch. (As reported in Filthy Rich, Farmer spoke to a Vanity Fair reporter in 2003, but the magazine did not publish her accusations against Epstein.)
Although Farmer was broke and living in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment, her instinct was to turn it down. Epstein’s relationship with Wexner seemed odd to her. Farmer recalled the first time Epstein gave her a tour of his town house: “Jeffrey said, ‘See all this stuff? I don’t need any of it. I could live in a tent. But Les gave this to me for a dollar. Les would do anything for me.’ ”
Farmer was also unsettled by strange visitors coming and going at the house. She recalled government officials making pilgrimages to meet Epstein for unexplained reasons. What frightened her most, though, were the children. Farmer said she witnessed Maxwell escorting countless high school–age girls to meet Epstein, supposedly to interview for modeling jobs. “Every afternoon. Ghislaine would run out saying, ‘I need to get the nubiles!’ ” Farmer recalled. (Maxwell’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.)
Nonetheless, Farmer accepted Epstein’s offer and that May, she packed her supplies into a truck and drove west to Wexner’s Ohio village. But what seemed like a dream would turn into a nightmare. This account is based on my interviews with Farmer and a sworn affidavit she submitted in federal court in 2019.
Early in her stay, Farmer began to feel like she was being watched at all times. Maxwell called Farmer from New York, screaming at her because she accidently spilled henna dye on a white rug. “Ghislaine yelled, ‘You’re going to have to leave right now!’ Jeffrey later called and apologized,” Farmer recalled. In interviews, Farmer said she needed Abigail’s permission to go jogging outside because the grounds were patrolled by armed guards and dogs. (In a 2019 statement to The Washington Post, the Wexner family said neither Les nor Abigail knew who Farmer was before her accusations were made public. “And while we don’t know with whom Ms. Farmer may have spoken, who may have claimed to be Mrs. Wexner, it was not Mrs. Wexner,” a family spokesman said at the time.)
Epstein and Maxwell were Farmer’s only connection to the outside world. They flew in on weekends and took Farmer to see movies like Independence Day and go food shopping at Walmart. Farmer thought Epstein and Maxwell acted more like kids than adults. “They would do things like ‘pants’ each other while waiting in line to buy movie tickets,” Farmer recalled. Over time, socializing with a couple nearly twice her age felt almost normal. Farmer invited her two elementary school–age brothers to live with her at Epstein’s Ohio house.
“Les knows everything about me. He knows every experience I’ve had,” Epstein once told a friend.
One night about two months after she arrived in Ohio, Farmer said Epstein and Maxwell invited her to their bedroom and sexually assaulted her. Farmer said she fled, locked herself in her room, and called 911. She said the sheriff’s dispatcher responded, “We work for Wexner.” Terrified, Farmer called her father in Kentucky. He agreed to drive overnight to pick her up. (A spokesman for the Franklin County, Ohio, sheriff’s office confirmed to The Washington Post that its officers had been contracted for Wexner’s security detail at the time but said it had no remaining records of such a call.)
Farmer said that when she returned to New York, her 16-year-old sister, Annie, whom Epstein was also helping financially, revealed that Epstein and Maxwell had touched her inappropriately at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch. Farmer says she tried to file a report with the New York Police Department. Officers said they had no jurisdiction in Ohio and instructed her to talk to the FBI instead. Farmer said she did, but the FBI never followed up.
In September 1997, Wexner celebrated his 60th birthday with a dinner at his Ohio estate. Meister says he used the occasion to once again tell Wexner how untrustworthy Epstein was. “My wife and I told him and Abigail hundreds of times to stay away from Epstein,” Meister said. In front of guests including former senator Joe Lieberman and real estate developer Marshall Rose, Meister said he begged Wexner to sever ties with Epstein. “Les wouldn’t listen,” Meister said. It was the last time Meister visited Wexner’s house.
Meanwhile, Epstein was driving a wedge between Wexner and executives at The Limited. Executives didn’t understand why Wexner, a brutal boss and famous control freak, allowed Epstein such latitude. “Les berated people. I once saw Les smack an executive on top of his head,” a former Victoria’s Secret executive said. “Les could be a complete asshole,” recalled another former executive. “His favorite thing was to yell, ‘You have shit for brains!’ ” But with Epstein, he took a more sympathetic stance: “Les would defer to him in any meeting…. Les would put his hand on Epstein’s shoulder.”
Epstein often invoked Wexner’s authority to make employees feel as if they worked for him. “Epstein would call you and wouldn’t give his name. He’d just start talking and expect you to know who it was,” a former senior executive said. “He was becoming more and more active in the business. It was really upsetting people.” In 1996, as The Limited was preparing to spin off Abercrombie & Fitch into a separate company on the New York Stock Exchange, Epstein flew to Columbus and told executives that he would decide the share price. Executives worried Epstein was committing insider trading because days earlier, someone—they assumed Epstein—had sold an unusually large chunk of Limited stock. “There was so much concern that one of the lawyers looked around the room and said, ‘Are we going to have to go to jail for this?’ ” recalled an executive who attended the meeting. According to the executive, Epstein got his way.
The Limited’s vice chairman, Tom Hopkins, told Wexner that Epstein was a con man, sources said. Wexner brushed aside the complaints. “Les thought he knew more than the people around him,” a former executive said.
Merritt said beginning in the early aughts, Epstein spent less and less time in Ohio. But publicly Wexner still had glowing things to say about his money manager. In 2003, Wexner told a journalist that Epstein had “excellent judgment and unusually high standards,” adding he was “always a most loyal friend.”
On the face of it, these two men were vastly different in temperament. Epstein was flamboyant and not private at all about his sexual appetites, even if most everyone was unaware of the age of his victims. Epstein filled his house with erotic art and displayed a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita and a book by the Marquis de Sade on his desk. Wexner was a press-shy billionaire who literally built his own fiefdom in the middle of the American rust belt. It’s hard to ultimately define their dealings, but I am certain that the vast sums Epstein earned from Wexner were the source of his power. One of the tragic ironies of the story is that Wexner’s teenage customer base was made up of the kinds of girls that Epstein preyed upon. Epstein used the money and legitimacy his work for Wexner and others afforded him to bring about unspeakable human suffering.
Since Epstein’s death in August 2019, Wexner’s professional life has been in a tailspin. The board of L Brands—The Limited was renamed in 2013—hired Davis Polk to conduct an investigation into Wexner’s relationship with Epstein. The investigation was never made public, but months later, Wexner stepped down as CEO, ending his run as the longest-serving chief executive in the S&P 500 (he remained chairman emeritus of the board).
Wexner’s problems only deepened. Shareholders sued L Brands, alleging the Davis Polk investigation was a whitewash. L Brands retained the law firm Wachtell, Lipton to conduct a second investigation into Wexner and Epstein’s dealings. This past May, Wexner stepped down from the L Brands board, ending his last official role in the company he founded more than a half century ago.
Meanwhile, Dershowitz has subpoenaed Wexner to testify as part of his defamation lawsuit against Giuffre, who alleged Epstein trafficked her to Dershowitz. (Dershowitz denies Giuffre’s allegation.) L Brands shareholders are suing board members including the Wexners in Delaware court, accusing “Abigail Wexner of acquiescence while Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell sexually assaulted [Maria Farmer] in the New Albany compound.” (The Wexners have declined to comment, citing pending litigation.) Maxwell’s sex trafficking trial is scheduled for the fall. (She has pleaded not guilty.) Wexner’s name is bound to be discussed during testimony.
Those who’ve known Wexner longest have experienced a range of emotions as they’ve watched his fall. “It’s not the Les I knew and know,” former Columbus mayor Greg Lashutka told me. Harold Levin, the former financial adviser who feuded with Epstein, feels a small measure of vindication. “When Epstein was arrested, my ex-wife called me and said, ‘You were right,’ ” he told me. Wexner’s childhood friend Peter Halliday thought that the full extent of Epstein’s trail of destruction has yet to be told. “I know the story isn’t finished,” he said. “When the whole story does come out, I just hope Les is dead.”