The story behind Epstein’s deep connection with Harvard parallels his giving history, with close friendships with professors and administrators spanning the past 10 years. As an individual with no formal connection to the University, save for his donations, his Harvard ties highlight the meeting between the world of minds in the academy and the world of wallets in the business arena.
Yet Epstein appears interested in more than the large collection of planes, trains and automobiles which his fortune has allowed him to amass—and he has found Harvard the perfect staging ground for his intellectual pursuits.
Networking with the University’s greatest and most well-known minds, he has spurred research through both discussion and dollars he has contributed to various faculty—most often in the sciences.
Indeed, those new to his beneficence praise his wealth of knowledge and numerous relationships within the scientific community.
“I am amazed by the connections he has in the scientific world,” says Martin A. Nowak, who will leave Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study to run the mathematical biology and evolutionary dynamics program at Harvard endowed by Epstein’s $30 million gift. “He knows an amazing number of scientists; he knows everyone you can imagine.”
Indeed, Epstein shares a special connection with one of the most prominent figures at Harvard—University President Lawrence H. Summers.
Summers and Epstein serve together on the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, two elite international relations organizations.
Their friendship began a number of years ago—before Summers became Harvard’s president and even before he was the Secretary of the Treasury—and those close to Epstein say he holds the University president in very high regard.
“He likes Larry Summers a lot,” Epstein’s friend and Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz says. “He speaks well of Larry, and I think he admires Larry’s economic thinking.”
And Summers is not the only person at Harvard whom Epstein admires—or who admires Epstein.
Epstein counts a number of professors—including Dershowitz, Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn and former Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky—among his bevy of eminent friends that includes princes, presidents and Nobel-Prize winners.
The relationships Epstein has formed inside and outside the scientific community are particularly impressive, given that he is self-taught and does not even hold a bachelor’s degree.
Kosslyn was introduced to Epstein by the famed late Harvard professor and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and Dershowitz says he met Epstein through “mutual friends.”
Rosovsky, Epstein’s oldest friend in the bunch, met the mogul through similarly serendipitous circumstances. Twelve years ago, “we were introduced by a mutual friend, Mr. Leslie Wexner,” Rosovsky writes in an e-mail.
Wexner, the billionaire who founded Limited Brands—whose empire now includes Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and Express—is also a longtime Harvard benefactor.
Epstein and Wexner, longtime friends and business associates, teamed up in the early 1990s to fund the construction of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel’s new building, Rosovsky Hall.
Epstein, along with Wexner and his wife, is listed on a plaque in the building as the donor of the Rosovsky Naming Gift.
But despite running in the academy and business circles’ proverbial fast-track, Epstein himself is reserved when it comes to stepping into line of the public sight.
In fact, many of Epstein’s friends within the Harvard community say it comes as a surprise to them that Epstein, a long-time, low-profile donor, attached his name to his latest donation at all.
University officials seem to appreciate Epstein’s proclivity to privacy, and did not return repeated phone calls requesting information about his donation.
Epstein himself also declined to comment for this article. His staff say he has never granted an official interview to a member of the press.
“He was very anxious to make this donation anonymously,” Dershowitz says. “He didn’t want any building or anything named after him,” he says, adding that “the school put some pressure on him to do it.”
A source familiar with the donation confirms that Summers told Epstein a public donation would be in the best interest of the program because other donors would come forward on the basis of his support.
Epstein “did not want to damage the program by not making the donation publicly,” the source says.
But behind the scenes, Epstein is a well known figure, garnering the praise and respect of prominent academics.
A Meeting of the Minds
Dershowitz, Kosslyn and Rosovsky each herald Epstein’s keen intelligence, sharp wit and his uncommon interest in the sciences.
“Jeffrey is totally irreverent,” Dershowitz says. “To him, it doesn’t matter if it’s a prince, a pope, or the president; if Jeffrey has a good joke or a good idea, he’ll share it.”
“He is provocative, but it’s in fun,” Kosslyn writes in an e-mail.
When the joking concludes, though, it is clear that Epstein has the chops to survive—and flourish—among this formidable group of intellects.
Dershowitz, who has written 20 books, says Epstein is “brilliant,” and is the only person outside of Dershowitz’s immediate family to whom he sends pre-publication manuscripts.
Kosslyn calls Epstein “one of the brightest people I’ve ever known.”
“He’s an absolute delight to talk and argue with,” Kosslyn says. “Unlike some very bright people, Jeffrey actually wants to get at the right answer to a question, not just win a debate.”
And, Dershowitz says, discussing—and debating—concepts in mathematics, genetics, law, and psychology is a popular pastime for the trio.
“When Jeffrey, Steve and I are together, nobody finishes a sentence,” Dershowitz says. “We cut each other off all the time because we just get it.”
Dershowitz says that Epstein’s friendships with numerous high-profile intellectuals are a natural outgrowth of the financier’s great wealth.
“Jeffrey has so much money that you can’t give him anything,” Dershowitz says. “The only gift you can give him is interesting people, and someone gave me to him as a gift.”
So, while Epstein “received” both Dershowitz and Kosslyn nearly a decade ago and the two have been working at the same university for years, they came together—at Epstein’s behest—only recently.
“He’s very proud of the fact that he introduced us,” Dershowitz says. “He loves bringing people together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
In this case, Dershowitz says, it did.
Dershowitz and Kosslyn currently jointly teach Psychology 2310, “The Neuroscience of Law: Can a Legal System be Grounded in Knowledge about the Brain?”
While Kosslyn and Rosovsky say Epstein has supported their research, others outside Epstein’s inner-circle have also benefited from his largesse.
In recent years, Epstein has funded the work of Professor of the History of Science Anne Harrington.
From 1999 to 2001, Harrington and her colleagues examined claims made by traditional Chinese medicine, with a particular focus on qi, the Chinese term for “breath of life” or “vital essence.”
In particular, Harrington says she and her colleagues focused on the phenomena to which the Chinese apply the term. Qi or qi dong commonly refer to the practices which improve individuals’ health and well-being and increase their sense of inner-peace.
Harrington’s research took her to Beijing, China—where she worked alongside traditional Chinese medical practitioners and other Western scientists—and Chicago, Ill., where the actual experiments were conducted.
In addition, Harrington says Epstein also funded a working group, which examined the placebo effect and the state of the field.
She says Epstein is known for his interest in unconventional and “cutting-edge developments in the sciences.”
“He is known for his willingness to support research that is ‘outside the box,’” Harrington writes in an e-mail. “He likes to see if he can anticipate where the emerging cutting-edge of science might be,” she writes.
Epstein likes to “invest up front in it, and, in that sense, I think his scientific interests are literally unconventional,” she adds.
Harrington says she and Epstein met through Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior (MBB) program, which Harrington co-directs and Epstein advises in his capacity as a member of the committee on MBB.
Although Harrington says Epstein is not as active on the committee as he once was, he remains an important contributor to Harvard’s scientific community.
“Jeffrey’s knack for identifying future emerging, but perhaps under-appreciated or under-funded areas and ‘adopting’ interesting people within the Harvard community could have a long-term positive impact on this institution’s capacity to stay intellectually nimble and on the edge,” she says.
The Nowak Factor
In a move that is likely to do just that, Epstein donated $30 million to create a mathematical biology and evolutionary dynamics program at Harvard last January.
A newly recruited professor, Nowak will play an integral part in that program.
Nowak, who is currently the head of the Program in Theoretical Biology at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, will arrive at Harvard this summer to assume a rare joint appointment in the mathematics and organismic and evolutionary dynamics departments.
He says he uses mathematics to model human behavior, the evolution of language and the changes that occur in cancer cells.
Nowak says he met with then-Mathematics Department Chair and current Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 last spring, who told Nowak that Harvard’s natural sciences would benefit from his presence at the University. Nowak was granted a tenured position at Harvard in August 2002, which he accepted.
Epstein’s donation soon followed.
Friends at Harvard say they know little about the logistics of Epstein’s multi-million dollar donation, but Rosovsky says discussions about the gift began last spring—around the same time as Nowak’s meeting with Gross—with a final decision coming in late January.
Nowak says Epstein has been sponsoring his research—to the tune of $500,000—since the two met about three years ago.
Since colleagues say Epstein is particularly interested in an interdisciplinary approach to science, he and Nowak seem to be a natural fit.
The source familiar with the donation also says that Harvard was the only institution to which Epstein would consider making a donation of this type.
“There isn’t a university that comes close to Harvard in so many different areas,” the source says. For Epstein, “there was not a choice between Harvard and another place; there isn’t another place that exists.”
Like Harrington, Nowak says Epstein’s munificence comes with no strings attached.
A University source confirms this, saying the donation “is a general gift with no provisions of any kind in the terms.”
Nowak says Epstein’s hands-off approach makes him an attractive scientific sponsor.
“He is one of the most pleasant philanthropists to deal with,” Nowak says. “Unlike many people who support science, he supports science without any conditions. There are not any disadvantages to associating with him.”
Although Nowak describes Epstein as a “friend,” the contact between the two is such that Nowak is unaware of exactly how it is that the financier is in a position to be so generous.
“He has a company. What exactly he does I don’t know,” he says.
The Making of a Mogul
When he is not globetrotting in search of investment opportunities, colleagues say Epstein spends his days managing the fortunes of his billionaire clients from his private island, Little St. James, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but his life was not always so charmed.
50-year old Epstein was born into a working-class Brooklyn family, and attended the city’s Lafayette High School. In his early ’20s, he taught mathematics and physics to high school students at The Dalton School, an elite Manhattan preparatory school.
Epstein began his career in high finance at Bear Stearns, where he ascended the ranks to become a limited partner before leaving in 1981 to open his own business.
Shortly thereafter, he founded J. Epstein & Co., a private holding company, which he has been running ever since.
Although Epstein chooses only to manage the money of billionaires, including Wexner, a source familiar with Epstein’s business dealings says the choice does not indicate any hubris on his part.
“It’s not by reason of arrogance,” the source says. “Many people can manage $100 million. Managing $1 billion requires a totally different skill set.”
And it seems Epstein believes he is providing an important service to his incredibly wealthy, and therefore incredibly vulnerable, clients.
“The burden of wealth is often not very well thought out,” the source says. “These people couldn’t imagine their wealth. They have a [Chief Financial Officer], an accountant and stockbrokers, and their financial lives start to look like a house that is added onto every year. At the end it doesn’t work very well.”
His client list is a closely-guarded secret, bar one: Wexner is a long-time client. He is also Epstein’s mentor.
Indeed, friends say his close relationships with Wexner and others have provided him with a brand of informal education.
Epstein briefly studied physics at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences but never graduated from either.
Sources close to Epstein say he found the traditional college environment stifling.
But Epstein has never approached learning and living conventionally.
From flying President Clinton, Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker to Africa to explore the problems of AIDS and economic development facing the region, to hosting the world’s elite minds at his lavish homes in New York, Palm Beach, New Mexico and his private island hideaway, to funding outreach programs to curb the spread of Cholera in Bangladesh, it seems Epstein lets his curiosities guide him.
Friends say Epstein’s scientific, intellectual and philanthropic interests—not his host of homes or his fleet of aircraft—give him the most satisfaction.
And over the past decade, those interests have consistently—and increasingly—led him to Harvard.
“He appreciates excellence,” Kosslyn says. “He thinks we are dong something special and wants to help nurture our institution.”
Friends and associates say Harvard stands only to benefit from his evolving relationship with the university because Epstein comes with more than just deep-pockets.
“He’ll benefit Harvard in a lot of ways,” Dershowitz says. “He’s a lot more interesting than some traditional academics. He has a very probing, inquiring mind. I think he’ll be a great challenge. He’s a real outsider and will challenge the current ways of thinking. He’ll have a substantial impact.”
And Harvard, it seems, welcomes that challenge with open arms.
“I hope that he will—over time—become one of the leading supporters of science at Harvard,” Rosovsky says.
With Epstein’s latest gift, it seems he is on his way to doing just that. Although—if Epstein has his way—few may know when he reaches that threshold.
—Staff writer Jaquelyn M. Scharnick can be reached at email@example.com.