“Moloch, whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!” — Allen Ginsberg, Howl
If you are stuck at home, if a disease has begun to eat away the face of your nation, if illness has tinged even the once reliably boring moments of your life with terror, you might start to go a little batty, and, if that happens, you might start to watch the same few movies again and again, the passing hours registered only by the shade of light in the window, at which point you will begin to notice hidden patterns, secret meanings. You will finally hear what such films have been trying to tell you all along.
This is what happened to me in the last few weeks with the movies of Stanley Kubrick, which, on repeat viewing, have turned out to be lousy with portents. Even the most overlooked of the director’s films, Eyes Wide Shut, which he was fiddling with when he died, sounds a clarion call through time, revealing the actual nature of a society now being swept aside by the virus.
Kubrick’s message is simple: you know nothing.
It’s a truth demonstrated via allegory, the story of a powerful man beset by demons. Of course, to many, the movie was always more than a parable. It was an exposé written in code. It revealed a dynamic that had long played out in sectors of elite society but was not glimpsed until our own age, an age of scandal, the most telling being the scandal of Jeffrey Epstein.
In short, Eyes Wide Shut is not fiction. It’s documentary. It’s a great artist, at the end of a brilliant career, uncovering hidden evil.
What is the function of art?
Is it to show us something diverting, beautiful, new?
Or is it to tell us what we’ve always known but never admitted to ourselves?
The Epstein affair is a microcosm of our era, a miniature that stands for the whole. It’s not just a cabal of cultists that devours young women, as seen in the movie, but the culture itself, which worships an ancient Canaanite god that can be appeased only with the lives of children. Eyes Wide Shut is an eschatological guide to that era, a book of Revelation that prophesized terrible events.
As for Epstein himself, well, he can be filed in a special category. For many, he was the person you only think you know, the kid who, though nice at school, pulls the wings off flies at home; the birthday clown with a crawl space full of corpses; the neighbor you have looked at a million times but never really seen. He is the ugliness of the world hiding in plain sight. Or the impossibility of plain site, the ubiquity of masks. What does the rabbi do when he is alone in the synagogue? What does the minister do when he is alone at the church?
Epstein was born in Sea Gate in 1953, once a summer retreat for New York society that, by the time he was a boy in the sixties, had dilapidated into a stretch of run-down outer-borough Brooklyn waterfront at the edge of Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel setting the night aflame. His father worked for the Parks Department. His mother raised Jeffrey and his brother, Mark. They attended Lafayette High School, alma mater of Sandy Koufax, Vic Damone, and Herb Cohen (my father). Lafayette was filled with first generation Americans, the sons and daughters of people who’d ditched a thousand years of bad history for Gotham.
Epstein graduated high school in 1969. By then, the hippie ethos, tie-dye, and LSD had soaked the blotter clear to Avenue X. You can see it in pictures taken of Epstein at the time, frizzy-haired and stoned. And yet, there was an unsettling intensity in those black eyes. It could be seen through the big hair and bad clothes. This is not the real Jeffrey Epstein. The real Jeffrey Epstein would live in grand houses, silk underwear, terry-cloth robes. His professional path reads like a fake, something cooked up by the CIA, but maybe no career makes sense when looked at closely. How does anyone take that first step?
He bounced from college to college, but nothing clicked. His break did not come until 1974, when, at twenty-one years old, he landed a teaching a job at Dalton, the private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and it was this school, crammed with the children of the rich, that would be his portal, his way into everything else.
How did Jeffrey Epstein, a man with no connections, no college degree nor special genius for numbers, land this gig? It’s strange. Which is why so many conspiracy theorists focus on it. You can’t help but notice the coincidences. For example, Dalton’s headmaster at the time, the man ultimately responsible for the hire, was a former OSS agent and science fiction writer named Donald Barr who had a young son, Bill, who would, decades later, head the U.S. Justice Department in the Trump Administration, in which position he’d help clear Trump from charges of conspiring with Russia, walk Trump through impeachment, and oversee the investigation into the death of Jeffrey Epstein.
After three years at Dalton, Epstein was fired for cause. He was a bad teacher. Some later said he had a bad habit of getting too close to female students. To quote Heraclitus, “Character is destiny.” It didn’t slow him down. By that time, Epstein had become friendly with Ace Greenberg, a serious power at the investment firm Bear Stearns. Epstein tutored Greenberg’s son. Imagine—the handsome outer-borough wizard finishing with signs and cosigns at the kitchen table, then sticking around to schmooze with Ace. Epstein’s talent wasn’t numbers, anyway. It was people. Reading them. Reflecting what they wanted to see. Greenberg was an accomplished bridge player. He knew when to bluff, when to fold. But Epstein was a magician. He’d get you watching this hand while that hand was stealing your wallet, or your daughter.
Epstein had also befriended Jimmy Cayne, another bridge-playing Bear Steans legend. It was these men who brought Epstein into finance, starting him at the bottom of Bear Stearns, watching him climb. Epstein made limited partner, then left, he said, with plans to start his own firm. From there, his career became part of his magic act. He disappeared here, then reappeared there with new clients and big-time money. By the late eighties, he was said to manage a hedge fund that accepted only billionaire members. He was said to invest their money, doubling it, tripling it, then taking a percentage, yet there were no records of his trades and he actually seemed to have only one client, Leslie Wexner, an Ohio-based mogul who founded the Limited and owned Victoria’s Secret.
Epstein was living like a billionaire himself, moving between properties: a mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a ranch in New Mexico, an estate in Palm Beach, and a private Caribbean island, Little St. James, which was known to people in St. Thomas as Pedophile Island. He had private planes, too, including a 727 nicknamed the Lolita Express. He was joined on land and in the air by an array of notables: Clinton, Dershowitz, Trump.
Just how did Jeffrey Epstein make all that money, acquire all that property, assemble that roster of powerful friends? Was it sparkling conversation, or something else he supplied? Was he a financial guru or a supercharged super fly, an upper-world pimp who could feed a certain class of men forbidden fruit, then use his knowledge of their depravity to extort money and protection?
Which leads to the real subject of this story and the real object of Epstein’s career: the objectification, abuse, and destruction of children.
What causes a person, usually a man, to crave sex with what Nabokov’s Humbert called nymphets, girls who have barely reached physical maturity? Is it a mental illness, the sort that can be attributed to a childhood trauma? Is it a chemical imbalance or a hormonal snafu? Is it about power? Is it a quest for mastery, a need for dominance that grows out of insecurity, even self-loathing? Or maybe it’s more simple than all that. Maybe it’s just evil.
If so, it’s a kind of evil that seems to characterize a certain class at a certain time, the most powerful people in a moment of decadence. Ancient Rome, Dynastic China, Vienna between the wars—once dominant societies at the end of an age. As power wanes and imperial dreams fade, the lust for conquest turns inward. It manifests, according to lavish conspiracy theories, in the velvet rooms of secret societies, where the taste for arcane ritual and human sacrifice is rooted in a maddeningly arrogant belief: “There is nothing I want that I can’t have, there is nothing I can do that I can’t get away with.”
Epstein built his empire around this taste and belief. His houses and planes were filled with girls, many whom were first approached outside high schools, offered an easy way to make a few hundred bucks, then groomed and abused. He subsequently “leant” these girls to friends. We know how such encounters usually started. A visitor to Epstein’s house would be asked if he wanted a girl to give him a “massage.” Epstein himself is said to have requested up to three “massages” a day. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who defended Epstein, admitted that he got a massage at Epstein’s house, but said he never took off his underpants. Prince Andrew was often with Epstein. There is a picture of the prince smiling beside a young woman in a belly shirt. They stand side by side in a postcoital way. The girl, then sixteen, is Virginia Giuffre. She has since been involved in legal action against Prince Andrew and Dershowitz, who she claims sexually abused her. An older woman stands behind them in the photo. She wears a sleeveless turtleneck, her dark hair short and messy in a style made famous by Princess Diana. She is standing back and smiling, a car salesman watching you get behind the wheel in the showroom. This is Ghislaine Maxwell, a daughter of the media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who himself died under mysterious circumstances, drowning off his yacht on the high sea. Ghislaine is believed to have worked as Epstein’s procurer, an occasional participant in three-ways. Epstein described her as his best friend.
Epstein was arrested in Florida in 2006. A mother of one of the abused girls had gone to the Palm Beach police and made a complaint. She said her fourteen-year-old stepdaughter was taken to Epstein’s mansion by an older girl and paid three hundred dollars to strip to her underwear and give Epstein a massage. There was an FBI investigation, at the end of which Epstein was arrested, though the agents probably did not understand just who they were arresting, or who and what the accused knew. After pleading to reduced charges (procuring an underage girl for prostitution, soliciting prostitution) Epstein was sentenced to eighteen months in prison. For most of that time, he was allowed to leave the facility on “work release” for twelve hours a day, six days a week. The deal was negotiated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Alexander Acosta, who went on to serve as Secretary of Labor in the Trump Administration. Asked to explain why he’d gone so easy on Epstein, Acosta said he’d been told by a higher-up that Epstein “belonged to intelligence,” that anything involving Epstein was above Acosta’s “pay grade.”
Epstein was arrested again on July 6, 2019, this time at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, soon after his plane landed from Paris. He was sent to the Manhattan Correctional Center, aka the Tombs. Times had changed. In 2006, when he’d been arrested that first time, American Idol was the biggest show on TV and George W. Bush was in the White House. The age of nationwidewide audiences was over by 2019; it was Netflix and Amazon, niche, controversial, small. Trump was in the White House. Harvey Weinstein had happened. Ditto Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Les Moonves, Mario Batali. People like that weren’t going to get away with it anymore.
As Epstein was being arrested, the FBI searched his East Side mansion. They busted through the ornate front door at 9 East Seventy-First street, then combed every closet and drawer, coming away with pictures, on CD, of seemingly underage naked girls.
Epstein spent his last days at Rikers. He had a single card to play: tell the secrets and reveal the names in exchange for a shorter sentence. But his cohorts were not ordinary men; these were some of the most powerful people in the world. They shared an interest with Epstein, a passion for depravity. For twenty years, it was a road they traveled together. Now the road forked. “The overriding impression I took away from our roughly 90-minute conversation was that Mr. Epstein knew an astonishing number of rich, famous and powerful people, and had photos to prove it,” James Stewart, who interviewed Epstein in 2018, wrote in the New York Times. “He also claimed to know a great deal about these people, some of it potentially damaging or embarrassing, including details about their supposed sexual proclivities and recreational drug use.”
It was in Epstein’s interest to spill. For his coconspirators, the opposite was true. In certain secret societies, when a brother’s continued existence becomes a threat, that man is not killed. He is instead presented the facts, then left alone with a gun, knife, or rope. He is expected to do what is “honorable.”
That, according to conspiracy theorists, is the story of Jeffrey Epstein, who was found hanging in his cell on the morning of August 10, 2019.
As for the prophecy, the story of the death foretold in parables …
Stanley Kubrick wanted to make Eyes Wide Shut for over thirty years. He’d acquired the rights to the material, a novella by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, in the early seventies. In it, the protagonist, on a long ramble through the city at night, discovers a dark hidden world. Kubrick shifted the action from Vienna to New York, then shot the film in London, giving it an everywhere and nowhere feel. He clearly meant to conflate contemporary Manhattan with Vienna as it had been after the abdication of the last Hapsburg and before the Anschluss in 1938: a bubble in time, Western civilization at its most dissipated, so sweet it’s begun to rot.
Kubrick was obsessed with conspiracies, plots, symbols, and ghosts, haunted history, a past from which the protagonist can’t shake free, dialogue that contradicts action—there is what they say, then there is what they do. Paths of Glory (1957), his masterpiece, is about the way powerful men, French military officers, disregard the lives of the soldiers in their command. Lolita (1962), adapted from Nabakov’s pedophiliac love story, is about the self-justifying sickness of the most cultured men. Dr. Strangelove (1964) suggests our military leaders are governed by an even more obscene logic than our pederasts. The Shining (1980), in which America is a haunted house where the blood of massacred Native Americans pours out of the elevators and floods the halls.
Eyes Wide Shut went into production in 1996. Kubrick had not released a movie in a dozen years, the last being his Vietnam War story Full Metal Jacket, a portrait of America abroad. Eyes Wide Shut would show America at home, in the boudoir, as personified by a naive couple who unknowingly float atop a sea of beasts. In it, the filmmaker would depict the secret lives of the sort of people that financed his own work, entertainment and business moguls who inhabited the inner sanctums of the upper rooms.
Casting was never an accident with Kubrick. Actors were selected not only because they were good and could handle abuse—he was famous for that—but because they represented some essential quality. To play the couple in Eyes Wide Shut, he hired the biggest movie stars of the moment: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who, like Bill and Alice Harford of the screenplay, were young, attractive, successful, married, and a little dumb. It’s not that they were stupid, but there was something important they did not know.
Dr. Harford (Cruise) is a kind of everyman, a stand-in for the viewer, who stumbles upon a cult dedicated to the worship and sacrifice of young women. In the opening scene, Dr. Harford sits before a bathroom mirror with his wife—Alice, because she’s about to go through the looking glass—who asks her husband how she looks. Dr. Harford says she looks great, but never takes his eyes off his own reflection. Even when he turns to Alice, he does not see her. Even when he sees her, he does not understand what he sees. He is rich and sophisticated but knows nothing, not even what he does not know. The mission of this movie is to open his eyes, to make him understand what he has always looked at but never understood.
It starts at a Christmas party hosted by Dr. Harford’s patient Victor Ziegler. Many people at this party will be seen at a second party later that same night. They are clothed at the first party, but their faces can be seen. They will be naked at the second but their faces stay be hidden. Daytime, nighttime. Good, Evil.
Ziegler (played by Sidney Pollack) is rich, sophisticated, deeply corrupt, and corrupting. He is first seen greeting guests beside his wife at his front door. A man of the world, a man who knows things. When seen again, he is in his study standing over an unconscious naked woman who, as Ziegler explains to Dr. Harford, has overdosed. “I think they call it a speedball,” says Ziegler, who, though more powerful than anyone else in Dr. Harford’s world, represents the first floor of a much larger structure.
Back at home, Alice rolls a joint, which she smokes with Bill. (Alice as Eve, the temptress). Bill and Alice get stoned; that’s the portal, the way into the new mind through which the truth will be revealed. They talk when they are high, then argue. Alice tells Bill about her fantasy involving another man, a Naval officer she had seen at a hotel the summer before. She says she would have forsaken Bill and her daughter for a single night with that man.
Dr. Harford is angry, rattled. Though Alice has not cheated on him, it feels like she did. Leaving the apartment, he sets off on a nocturnal ramble, half on the street, half in his head. His wife has surprised him. He feels like an idiot, a fool, as if he does not know her at all. She is a mystery that makes everything around him seem mysterious, too. He sees the city for the first time. Everywhere he looks, sex and death, sex and death, sex and death.
He bluffs his way into a private party held in a mansion beyond the last city light. Like the other guests—naked women, men in tuxedos—he wears a mask. In a ballroom, he watches a priest conduct a black mass, the traditional liturgy chanted backward.
Later, when found out, surrounded and unmasked, Dr. Harford is saved by a woman who offers herself as a sacrifice in his place. She will be taken as the ram in the thicket was taken in the place of Isaac. The next day, Dr. Harford reads about a young woman who has died of an overdose.
Is this the same woman who offered herself in his place?
To some, Eyes Wide Shut is a religious document, in which the nature of the world is revealed, the cycles of life. Youth, age, death. To others, it’s Dr. Harford’s marriage as parable. There are three female characters: Alice, a $150-a-night prostitute, and a high-class call girl. Are these in fact the same woman seen in various guises, a woman who stands for all women, whose lives have been warped by male desire? In Dr. Harford’s daughter, we see the cycle starting again.
Bill Harford is the good man who doesn’t understand what he sees. Alice Harford is every wife and mother. Victor Ziegler is Jeffrey Epstein, the outsider, the up-from-nothing, in-from-nowhere striver who has made himself into a service worker for the ultra rich. He is the evil man in the big house with access to still more powerful people in bigger houses. He is the gateway. He is the plane filled with girls. He is the private island. He knows the secrets of the men who run the show, a knowledge that both protects and endangers him. He summons Dr. Harford to his house at the end. Harford has seen things he was never supposed to see and so must be warned, must be kept quiet. When Dr. Harford asks if the girl at the party had been killed, Ziegler scoffs, saying, “You know what happened to her after you left? She had her brains fucked out, period.”
Stanley Kubrick died of a heart attack on March 7, 1999. He was seventy years old. According to conspiracy theorists, changes were then made to his movie.
Jeffrey Epstein died of suicide on August 10, 2019. He was in jail. Having survived one attempt, he’d been taken off suicide watch. There was supposed to be a cellmate and guards to watch him, and cameras to see what he was up to. But there was no cellmate the morning he hanged himself, the guards had fallen asleep, the cameras had broken. The Justice Department announced plans to look into the matter, an investigation overseen by Bill Barr. “The men at the party were not just ordinary people,” Ziegler warned Dr. Harford at their last meeting. “If I told you their names, and I won’t, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.”
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.