It’s getting toward the end of the month, so apologies for posting a New York Times story as the center for today’s blog; I know not everyone is a subscriber and has the 10 or so permitted free articles. It’s not that important, anyway, but I’ll try to quote only judiciously from the story, about the strange relationship between Jeffrey Epstein and Leslie Wexner, the founder and CEO of what’s now known as L Brands but everyone who grew up in Columbus called the Limited.
The story draws a lot of lines between the two, but doesn’t connect all the dots, many of which are, as yet, not connectable by primary sources. What’s known is that the two were unusually close, and aren’t anymore. This sorta sums it up:
Within years of meeting Mr. Epstein, Mr. Wexner handed him sweeping powers over his finances, philanthropy and private life, according to interviews with people who knew the men as well as court documents and financial records.
Mr. Wexner authorized him to borrow money on his behalf, to sign his tax returns, to hire people and to make acquisitions. Over the years, Mr. Epstein obtained a New York mansion, a private plane and a luxury estate in Ohio — today valued at roughly $100 million all together — previously owned by Mr. Wexner or his companies. At the same time, he drove a wedge between Mr. Wexner and longtime associates and friends.
Virtually from the moment in the 1980s that Mr. Epstein arrived on the scene in Columbus, Ohio, where L Brands was based, Mr. Wexner’s friends and colleagues were mystified as to why a renowned businessman in the prime of his career would place such trust in an outsider with a thin résumé and scant financial experience.
Wexner, for his part, claims he severed their relationship at some point, around the time of the now-infamous plea deal in Florida:
“While Mr. Epstein served as Mr. Wexner’s personal money manager for a period that ended nearly 12 years ago, we do not believe he was ever employed by nor served as an authorized representative of the company,” said Tammy Roberts Myers, a company spokeswoman.
Ms. Myers said that, at the direction of the company’s board, L Brands recently hired lawyers “to conduct a thorough review” into the relationship. She declined to say what the investigation would entail.
Wexner has reason to put as much distance as possible between himself and a sex criminal now; as many have pointed out, all is not what it used to be at L Brands, which swaggered through the Malling of America like conquering heroes. L Brands, at one time, encompassed the Limited, Limited Too, Limited Express, Lane Bryant, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret. Probably a few I’m forgetting in there, too. It would be hard to pass through a shopping center without feeling their fingers in your wallet; long after I outgrew the cheap clothes on offer, toddler Kate would drag me into Bath & Body Works. (They sold cheap glycerin soaps for a buck a bar, and she loved to pick out the colors she liked and just play with them in their wrappers. Kept her amused on many trips to Columbus. My sister pointed out that most malls had multiple locations of B&BW, knowing it was an impulse buy — they wanted to be in as many places as possible, to catch you when you were feeling impulsive.)
Now, of course, the plight of the American shopping mall is well-known, and Victoria’s Secret in particular is in trouble. They failed to see the body-positivity trend coming, preferring to stick to the otherworldly, fake-boobed TrumpFembot(tm) model for their brand image. This may be explained by the fact that until recently, they had a board with only one woman on it — Abigail Wexner, the CEO’s wife. She is undeniably a brainy woman, but I doubt she’s noticing lingerie trends at the middle-class retail level, living in the Himalayan altitude of wealth as she does.
Anyway, this is a bad time for Wexner to be seen as a confederate of someone like Epstein, even in the past, as it’s becoming increasingly evident Epstein’s proclivities and activities were carried out more or less in plain sight, and Wexner is the father of two daughters himself. A consumer boycott is the last thing the company needs.
When I wrote about him about 100 years ago, the angle was this: For years, this fortysomething Jewish bachelor accumulated wealth and built his company and kept a pretty low profile, and then suddenly one day he woke up and decided to be a Player. Columbus is like most Midwestern cities and prizes dues-paying over just flinging money around, and Wexner made a big misstep early when he suggested the symphony orchestra give up its Ohio Theatre base for a “real” music hall. The Ohio Theatre was one of those glorious old movie theaters from the ’20s that fell into disrepair; a volunteer-funded restoration effort saved it and people were very proud and nostalgic about it, so that didn’t go over well at all. He lost that one, but anyone with millions of dollars isn’t ignored for long, and I think building the Wexner Center, an avant-garde art space on the Ohio State campus, satisfied his urge to make a mark in the arts, and plastering his name on a few hospital buildings did the same.
But I recall seeing Epstein’s name associated with him for a while now, with the theme that somehow Epstein offered the billionaire some essential schooling in “how to be rich.” Wexner didn’t start really spending in a showy way until his marriage to a New York City M&A lawyer in 1993. First there was the gigantic house in the Columbus suburbs to welcome her to town, then, because his bride liked outdoorsy pursuits like riding and shooting, he outfitted the house with barns and stables and bought her country homes in London and …Georgia, I think. There was a yacht, Limitless, with the yachtiest yacht details available; I think I remember some puff piece talking about the “dolphin cam” belowdecks, so his children could watch the fishies swim by. Epstein was apparently part of all these projects, even down to overseeing the design and building of the yacht, a pretty amazing thing for a college dropout with no mariner experience to do.
So I guess the question that hangs over all of this is: Is it possible for a man capable of building a billionaire’s fortune over the course of one lifetime — he famously launched his first store with a $10,000 loan from various relatives — be so naive that he didn’t know what Epstein was, fairly early in their relationship? He trusted him to sign his tax returns? Build him a $100 million yacht? So did he know and not care or — and I think this is far more likely — this sort of behavior is simply accepted, along with everything else, if you’re rich enough and have the right friends?
OK, so. Sunday afternoon and I’ve been away from here for…a week. Apologies. I have no excuse other than: I’ve been busy, with a few weeknight engagements. Missed a couple of swim workouts, which I expect I’ll pay for during my open-water test in three weeks. If I drown, I’ll tell St. Peter, “It was summer, and I was busy.” Whatever.
I’m also done keeping up with various presidential outrages in this space. They’re happening too fast, and you guys all get to them first. Now it’s Baltimore, last weekend it was the “go back” stuff; current events these days are like being dive-bombed by zombie wasps or something. It’s so enervating, and it’s hot outside.
Thanks for hanging around, anyway. Next week are the Dem debates here in Detroit. I’m credentialed for the first night, and hope to share something with you after. Stay tuned.