How Jeffrey Epstein Bought His Way Into An Exclusive Intellectual Boys Club
The Edge Foundation runs what has been called the “world’s smartest website” and held annual “billionaires’ dinners.” It was also financed by Jeffrey Epstein and gave him access to elite circles in science and tech.
As BuzzFeed News and others have investigated Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to leaders in science and technology in the wake of his July arrest on sex trafficking charges, one name has stood out as Epstein’s intellectual enabler: John Brockman, the New York literary agent who ran Edge, billed as an elite salon of thinkers “redefining who and what we are.”
Yet Brockman’s connections to Epstein ran deeper than have been previously disclosed. In fact, according to a BuzzFeed News review of Edge’s IRS filings, the nonprofit’s full range of exclusive events would not have been possible without Epstein’s largesse. Indeed, after Epstein made his final recorded donation to Edge in 2015, the group stopped hosting the annual “billionaires’ dinner” that was once the highlight of its calendar.
Epstein, who killed himself in federal custody in August, wasn’t merely associated with Edge. He was by far its largest financial donor, and his association with Edge gave him access to leading scientists and figures in the tech industry.
While he was bankrolling Edge, Epstein attended its events. So, too, in the early 2000s did Sarah Kellen, who is alleged to have helped arrange Epstein’s sexual abuse of underage girls. In photos that have been recently removed from the Edge website, Kellen was pictured at the 2002 billionaires’ dinner with Brockman, and at a 2003 event with Brockman’s son, Max.
Brockman did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Brockman emerged from the New York art scene of the 1960s, promoting underground cinema and rubbing shoulders with heavyweights like Andy Warhol. Later, he became the leading agent for authors writing books on science and technology, with a reputation for negotiating big advances for his clients. But Brockman’s particular cachet came from his role, played through his nonprofit, Edge, as a self-styled “cultural impresario.”
Until 2018, Brockman asked an annual question of Edge contributors, a group comprising authors he represented and other luminaries in science and technology. Their responses to questions such as “What is your dangerous idea?” and “What will change everything?” were published on what the Guardian dubbed “the world’s smartest website” and packaged into books. Brockman relished his role as facilitator, sending emails with a sign-off quote: “John Brockman is the shadowy figure at the top of the cyberfashion food chain.”
Edge was also largely a boys club — 80% of the more than 900 people currently listed on its website as contributors are male.
BuzzFeed News analyzed the Edge Foundation’s IRS filings from 2001 to 2017, published at ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. As reported by one of Brockman’s former clients, Evgeny Morozov, who writes about the political and social implications of technology, foundations associated with Epstein provided $638,000 out of a total of almost $857,000 received by Edge over this period.
These donations weren’t Edge’s only source of income: An entry marked “book contract,” which appears from 2005 onward, accounts for a total of about $1.48 million in earnings. Income from publishing Edge books would have covered the foundation’s basic running costs; operating the website, professional fees, depreciation, and other expenses totaled about $1.27 million from 2001 to 2017. But it could not cover the additional $706,000 that Edge spent over that period on “travel, conferences, and meetings.”
Epstein was a regular attendee at Edge events. He was shown at the 1999 and 2000 billionaires’ dinners, in photographs on pages that have recently been deleted from the Edge website, and was also mentioned in a write-up of the 2004 dinner. Epstein was also present at Edge events in 2011, after his 2008 conviction for sex crimes, BuzzFeed News reported earlier this month.
In 2002, Brockman, his wife and business partner Katinka Matson, and the leading scientists Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were pictured on Epstein’s jet flying to TED in Monterey, California — the multiday technology, entertainment, and design conference that the billionaires’ dinners were held during. The caption to this picture was recently altered to remove mention of Epstein. His Edge profile, describing him as a “financier and science philanthropist,” has also been removed.
Whether Epstein himself attended the 2002 Edge billionaires’ dinner is unclear. But members of his entourage were there. One photo from the event, shows Brockman with two young women named in the caption. The photo was also recently removed from the Edge website.
One of these women is Sarah Kellen, who was employed as an assistant to Epstein’s former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell and was protected from prosecution under the 2008 plea deal that saw the financier serve 13 months in a Florida jail after his earlier arrest. In several lawsuits, Epstein’s victims have alleged that Kellen was among those who helped arrange the sexual abuse.
To protect her privacy, BuzzFeed News has not named the other young woman, who could not be reached for comment. But a woman with the first name matching the name given in the caption, as well as Kellen, were logged as passengers on the flight that took Epstein, Brockman, and his scientist guests from New York’s JFK airport to Monterey on the day before the dinner.
Through a spokesperson, Kellen said that she, too, was a victim of Epstein’s. “Sarah had just turned 22 when she was recruited by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell to work as an assistant for Maxwell,” her representative, Tracy Schmaler, said in a statement. “Very soon after Sarah was brought into Epstein’s world, he began to sexually abuse her, and this abuse went on for years. Sarah continues to struggle with the trauma of her experiences and has chosen not to speak publicly at this time.”
In 2003, Kellen was again photographed at an Edge “science dinner,” which replaced the billionaires’ dinner that year, this time with Brockman’s son, Max. This photo has also been removed from the Edge website.
Max Brockman, who is now CEO of the Brockman literary agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
There are no recorded donations from Epstein to Edge from 2006 to 2008, during the original investigation for sex offenses involving underage girls and the start of his subsequent imprisonment. But from 2009, he again began contributing, donating at least $50,000 a year in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
As Epstein strived to rehabilitate his reputation after his release from jail, Edge gave him access to elite circles in science and the tech industry. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reported that Epstein was at the 2011 billionaires’ dinner, held in Long Beach, California, also attended by tech titans including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin of Google, and Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, plus a “master class” on the science of human nature, held at a winery in St. Helena, California.
But Brockman’s networking for Epstein ran deeper than Edge’s events. Last month, Morozov revealed email correspondence from 2013 in which Brockman tried to arrange a meeting between Morozov and Epstein. Brockman mentioned Epstein’s “beautiful young assistant from Belarus” and described the financier, incorrectly, as a “billionaire who owns Victoria’s Secret plus a modelling agency.”
(Epstein’s true worth, according to his will, was in the hundreds of millions, and Victoria’s Secret is part of L Brands, headed by Leslie Wexner, the billionaire whose finances Epstein managed until 2007.)
“He also got into trouble and spent a year in jail in Florida,” Brockman added. Morozov declined the invitation.
Epstein’s last recorded contribution to the Edge Foundation was a donation of $30,000 in 2015, after which the group’s total fundraising stalled. In 2016 and 2017, the foundation received just $5,477 from a single donor. The billionaires’ dinners died with Epstein’s donations: The last one was held in March 2015.
Edge was always an unusual charity. Between 2001 and 2017, it awarded just one major grant, a one-off prize of $100,000 given to David Deutsch, a pioneer of quantum computing at Oxford University, which Epstein funded. (“I think Edge told me the name of the sponsor of the prize when they informed me I’d won it,” Deutsch told BuzzFeed News by email. “But the name meant nothing to me: I’d never heard of him.”)
Although the billionaires’ dinners stopped after Epstein pulled the plug on his funding, the Edge website remains active, posting regular videos of conversations with Edge contributors. “Edge consists of individuals who create their own reality and do not accept an ersatz, appropriated reality,” the website boasts. “The Edge community consists of people who are out there doing it rather than talking about and analyzing the people who are doing it.”
So far, news of Brockman’s close association with Epstein has not led to an exodus of Edge contributors. Carl Zimmer, a leading science writer and New York Times columnist, struck a rare note of protest in July, days after Epstein’s arrest, when he told Edge to remove his profile and contributions from the site.
“Somebody had reported about this Edge–Epstein connection and I was appalled,” Zimmer told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t want to give any tacit approval to him.”
The feminist author Naomi Wolf similarly cut her ties with Brockman in late July. “I made the decision to leave Brockman Inc on July 31, 2019, due to my learning about Jeffrey Epstein’s funding of Edge.org, and due to the appearance of Sarah Kellen, Epstein’s associate, on the Edge.org website,” she told BuzzFeed News by email.
Morozov went further last month when he revealed his email correspondence with his former agent. “Brockman is already many months too late to what he should have done much earlier: close down the Edge Foundation, publicly repent, retire, and turn Brockman Inc. into yet another banal literary agency,” he wrote.