For years, publicist Peggy Siegal was an essential New York party host and omnipresent player in the annual Oscars swirl. Then her past relationship with Jeffrey Epstein came to light. Will she ever live it down?
For years, publicist Peggy Siegal was an essential New York party host and omnipresent player in the annual Oscars swirl. Then her past relationship with Jeffrey Epstein came to light. Will she ever live it down?
Peggy Siegal was on a yacht off the coast of Capri when her life fell apart. She’d flown from London to Italy in early July to attend a dinner Larry Gagosian was hosting at Villa Malaparte, the cliff-top mansion overlooking the Gulf of Salerno where Jean-Luc Godard filmed Contempt. Siegal, a Manhattan-based movie publicist and professional host to the New York establishment, was to stay on a friend’s Feadship until the party. Then she would go to another friend’s home in the South of France to celebrate her 72nd birthday. Then back home, then to the Hamptons, and then to the Greek island of Patmos. At summer’s end, she would attend film festivals in Telluride and Toronto. For decades, the Peggy Siegal Company has been a linchpin in successful Oscar campaigns. Her exclusive screenings, and the buzz and bonhomie they inspire, are crucial for pushing members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote for films she promotes. When Oscar season is at its height, Siegal has been known to host five events per week.
The day of Siegal’s flight from London to Naples, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor contacted her about disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s social life. Four days prior, federal agents had arrested Epstein on sex-trafficking charges when his private jet landed at Teterboro Airport. For decades, Epstein had cut a shadowy figure in New York and Palm Beach with his mysterious fortune and connections to power players including Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and retail billionaire Les Wexner. In November 2018, the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown had drop-kicked Epstein back into public consciousness with a reexamination of his 2008 guilty plea for soliciting sex from a minor, and the sweetheart deal Miami prosecutors gave him despite evidence that he’d molested dozens of teenage girls in Palm Beach.
Siegal knew Epstein. He attended a handful of her events, they traded favors, and in 2010 she hosted a dinner in his home to honor Epstein’s then friend Prince Andrew, with whom Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre has said she was forced to have sex. (Andrew denies this.) The prince would later discuss that party in the disastrous BBC interview that preceded his “step back” from official duties in November. Siegal also knew what it meant that Kantor, who with colleague Megan Twohey won a 2018 Pulitzer for reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged predations, wanted to speak. Now that the FBI had raided Epstein’s seven-story Manhattan town house—and locked safe full of photos—Epstein’s crimes had ignited into a full-blown frenzy that seemed to expose daily a fresh set of prominent figures with links to a wealthy predator. Siegal’s ensuing fall may illustrate the extent of public disgust for the leeway Epstein enjoyed. Or, depending on whom you ask, the moral expectations of post-#MeToo Hollywood—or, the velocity of media judgment; the perils of false friends; sexism; ageism; or how easy it is to dismiss notoriously dismissive people.
After the Times reached out, Siegal consulted a friend who is a lawyer. (She’d only sought his legal guidance once before, when the TSA had revoked her Global Entry privileges for failing to declare clothes purchased in Europe.) “I felt very threatened as to why people were calling me when hundreds of people knew him,” Siegal said when we met in the fall. The lawyer referred Siegal to Matt McKenna, a crisis P.R. specialist who once worked for Clinton. Soon after, Siegal briefly retained Libby Locke, a defamation attorney. McKenna advised Siegal to speak to Kantor for the article. “There was no question that there was going to be reporting about Peggy, and I wanted the first foundational story to be in a paper of record,” McKenna later told me. The article ran on the paper’s front page on Sunday, July 14. An accompanying photo showed Siegal in a fur shrug and gold kitten heels.
“it made me look like a society lady,” Siegal said. The article described her as one of the “social guarantors” who gave Epstein a veneer of respectability. “He said he’d served his time and assured me that he changed his ways,” Siegal told the paper, which also quoted her saying Epstein, in recent years, “was in complete denial.” Siegal considered the article a disaster: “I’m now being positioned on the front page of the New York Times, along with people who really knew him financially, socially, and possibly sexually.”
Hollywood’s trade press came next. Struggling to communicate with her Stateside crisis team, Siegal fell into what she classifies as an emotional spiral. “I’m still in the friggin’ hull of this boat!” Siegal recalled. “I go out for meals, but at the end of the day, I’m back in the hull of the boat.” One week after the Times report, the Hollywood Reporter published an article on Siegal’s “symbiotic relationship with a sex offender.” Anonymous former employees described gifts, favors, and an overheard speakerphone conversation between Siegal and Epstein. “OMFG Jeffrey Epstein,” the Reporter quoted a former employee’s G-chat from July 2010, Epstein’s last month under house arrest in Palm Beach. “She’s like, ‘You’re not dating anyone, right?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I am, but you know, she’s very young.’ And she’s like, ‘Stop!'” Siegal told me she has no recollection of that conversation and characterizes the sources as disgruntled ex-employees competing for her business. She maintains that she never worked for Epstein—never had a salary, never had a contract—and that the only thing they exchanged were favors.
Siegal read the article at four in the morning. “I’m going, this can’t be happening,” she recalled. “This is what it’d be like to go to your own funeral. Or to be a casualty of war. I mean, if I had been in Nazi Germany, it could not have been worse,” she said, invoking ancestors who died in the Holocaust. “I thought, Oh, my God, I’m on the train station. I’m getting on that train and I’m going to the camps. And this is exactly what came to mind. This is the kind of political, social, horrific nightmare that came to fruition…. Life has come full circle. I’ve finally been attacked for nothing more than being Jewish, or being a woman, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Three days later, Variety reported that three studios had distanced themselves from her. FX had worked with Siegal, but Variety reported that it was “highly unlikely” they’d hire her again. Annapurna “dismissed” Siegal from work on Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Siegal says, technically, she had not yet been hired.) Two events for Netflix’s Ryan Murphy TV show The Politician were already in the works; Siegal’s name was removed from invitations that had not yet been sent. All told, Siegal believes that in less than a week, she lost around 10 jobs.
An executive who had previously retained Siegal told me about calling his peers about her at the time: “Your gut is saying, ‘There’s no way we’re going to associate our movie with her.’ But it’s a gut check.” There’s no reason to risk outraged guests when you could just as easily hire one of Siegal’s competitors.
“An unforced error on an Oscar campaign is stupid,” said the executive.
“I sent, I don’t know, 100 emails to every marketing person, every publicity person, everyone that had done business with me over the past 25, 30 years,” said Siegal, who has landed only one paying job since.
“This was the universal excuse: ‘The corporate lawyers would not allow us to hire you because we are a publicly held company, and we cannot endanger the reputation of our publicly held company with anyone that is associated with Jeffrey Epstein,’ ” she said.
“I finally turned to a lawyer and said, ‘Who are these people?’ ” Siegal continued. “And the lawyer said, Nobody. It’s just an expression.”
LET US BRIEFLY state the obvious: Peggy Siegal would rather not be sitting in her new attorney’s apartment on Central Park South, giving me the blow-by-blow of her ostensible professional death. As a publicist, Siegal knows that image is everything. Revealing that her company is collapsing—she’s laid off eight employees and is down to just one assistant—could be what ends it. That’s why, in the last six months, Siegal says she has informally consulted colleagues, including New York power publicists Leslee Dart, Cynthia Swartz, and Susie Arons. And it’s why she would converse on the record only in the presence of Bert Fields, a 90-year-old showbiz lawyer whose clients have included Tom Cruise and the Beatles. Fields hosted our interviews in his 12th-floor dining room. (In another room, Fields’s wife, the art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, took phone calls.) Siegal remains conflicted about whether participating in this article will save her or destroy her. But she also believes that her account is her best shot at keeping the lights on at the Peggy Siegal Company. “Until you, or I, or anybody else can get the truth out that I have been unjustly accused as a woman, then I have no business,” she said. “I go out seven nights a week. I have an apartment on the Upper East Side. I have no family. My life is my work. It’s always been that way.”
The first time we met, Siegal was brittle. She cycled through what felt like the whole spectrum of human emotions. She ranted, lamented, pounded the table, cracked jokes, grew teary-eyed, reviewed movies, and praised her friends. The second time, she was in better spirits. Her hair was curled and she’d come from a Citymeals on Wheels luncheon honoring Wendi Deng Murdoch. She wore a rib-knit sweater tucked into a voluminous tweed skirt. Her appearance was as youthful as I’d been led to believe. (Siegal has celebrated birthdays by distributing guidebooks to aging—most recently, How to Look Like Me at 70— that feature her favorite plastic surgeon and beauticians. Listings include “the best toe reductions,” “my third set of veneers,” “a new neck,” and “a newer neck.”) “I used to be a powerful woman, but now I just go to lunch with other powerful women,” Siegal announced, displaying the event’s program.
For the record, here is Peggy Siegal’s Jeffrey Epstein story, according to Peggy Siegal: She no longer remembers when she met Epstein. (A statement released in July indicated the year as 2005. Siegal told me she does not recall making that statement.) In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting a 16-year-old for sex after an investigation that began with a complaint from a 14-year-old. Siegal says she knew he served time for something in 2008 but can’t remember whether she knew he pleaded guilty to soliciting sex with a minor. “I had no idea about the underage girls,” she said. She knew that his prison sentence was part-time. Epstein served 13 months in Palm Beach County Jail with work releases that allowed him to leave for 12 hours a day. He returned to New York in 2010. “I’m sure I had said something like, ‘You better change your ways,’ ” Siegal said. “I mean, I knew him, but I didn’t know much about him. Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone. He came to some screenings. I was never privy to his private life. I knew nothing about the girls. Nothing at all.”
In the July statement, released through McKenna, Siegal said she and Epstein were “social friends.” She defined the term for me: “I can call them on the phone. They can call me. I can send him an invitation without being embarrassed because it’s not a cold invitation. I can greet them at the door. I can talk to them after the movie.”
To believe Siegal had no idea about the girls requires some credulity. Before and after Epstein’s guilty plea, Siegal spoke glowingly of him in articles that described his alleged crimes and the ages of his victims. Either she didn’t read those articles, or she didn’t absorb much of the information above and below her name. A 2011 story about Prince Andrew’s 2010 visit to Epstein— during which Siegal played host—appeared on the front page of the New York Post with the headline “PRINCE & PERV.”
News coverage at the time of the visit was thorough and straightforward. The prince’s ex-wife, the Duchess of York, clarified that she “abhor[s] pedophilia.”
“It’s so much easier in hindsight, 10 years later, to digest all this information and say, ‘Well, of course they knew that,’ ” Siegal said. “The times have changed so much, in the past five years, that [which] was normal bad behavior between genders is completely out of the realm of possibility today.”
Gossip columnist George Rush, then of the New York Daily News, remembers speaking to Siegal about Epstein while his original criminal charges were pending. “I don’t know whether that was willful blindness, or she really just didn’t take the time to find out,” Rush said of the accusations against Epstein.
Sitting at Bert Fields’s table, Siegal did her best to explain how Epstein hid in plain sight in her social circle. But to understand how Epstein fits in, Siegal said, I would have to understand the life of a woman who built her career before #MeToo. In subsequent weeks, she devoted herself to self-explanation, sometimes calling and emailing daily. On Thanksgiving, she sent a soul-searching 1,200-word email that used the story of the holiday as a parable for her plight: a legendary dinner party that, in retrospect, masked a much darker reality.
“The men are fine,” she said, referring to Epstein associates such as Gates, Wexner, and Leon Black. “They’re moving on with their billions, and their jets, and their families, and their businesses. It’s—it’s a little—it’s just odd that a single woman who’s done nothing but kill herself for filmmakers has had to suffer like this. It’s completely unfair.”
“I am a publicist, in the perception business, and I have been a victim of perception,” she said.
SIEGAL GREW UP in a Polish Jewish family in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. She landed her first job at 16 as a showroom model for Seventh Avenue dress company Suzy Perette. “All day long, I put the dresses on, and took the dresses off, and twirled around the showroom,” she said. To understand her childhood, Siegal instructed me to watch the 1969 film adaptation of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, starring Ali MacGraw as a Jewish American Princess. Her conversations are peppered with such suggestions, underscoring what the director Barry Levinson described as her “honest enthusiasm” for film. Her father’s family owned a light bulb factory that resembled “a scene from Norma Rae.” Their family in Poland, all of whom died in the Holocaust, had a foundry “exactly like the factory in Schindler’s List.” “She is absolutely, compulsively, and dedicatedly interested in movies and show business,” said actor and producer Bob Balaban, who has known Siegal for 40 years. “And royalty, basically. But really movies.”
Siegal’s mother raised her to believe “you’ll go to college, you’ll work for a year or two, you’ll design a few dresses, and then you’ll get married.” After attending Syracuse University, she moved to New York to pursue a career in fashion, at one point designing her own accessories line. Then she met publicist Bobby Zarem and went to work for him. She hung out at Elaine’s and delivered society news to gossip columnist Aileen Mehle. She studied New York society and the overlapping galaxies within it: film, fashion, art, finance. Each swirled alongside the others, interacting and colliding daily to shift the city’s center of gravity one way or the other. After Zarem, she worked for the publicist Lois Smith. Her first two clients were Billie Jean King (“adored me”) and Liza Minnelli (“hated me on sight”). Film became Siegal’s specialty. She worked on E.T. in 1982, moved to Los Angeles to work for Steven Spielberg, then came home to New York to launch a P.R. firm with Smith as her partner. Their first film was The Big Chill, which opened the New York Film Festival in 1983 and earned three Oscar nominations.
Smith left Siegal in the mid ’80s, and Siegal distinguished her business by leaning into events. She specialized in salon-style film screenings that brought together influential people from different social universes. Discussions of Siegal’s power invariably revolve around her list, a database of tens of thousands of potential party guests, categorized by the power tribes to which they belong: media, finance, actors, producers, and, of course, voting members of the Academy. She performed a sort of analog version of social media, encouraging influential people to influence one another. “She’s come up with this thing where she curates events with interesting host committees,” said Balaban. “For instance, she might have well-known bankers or business journalists host a screening of a movie like Wall Street or The Big Short.” Guests at a 2015 event for Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah included Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp, Jimmy Buffett, Jann Wenner, and Bill Clinton. As Siegal likes to say, “The mix is the message.”
When Oscar campaigning emerged as a multimillion-dollar subindustry in the 1990s, Harvey Weinstein led the way, and Siegal—and much of Hollywood—adopted his laser focus on appealing to voting members of the Academy. Siegal tailored her events to appeal to members of the Academy, earning more business and sway along the way. “She’s a bulldog. Or, better, a dog with a bone,” said Rain Man producer Mark Johnson, “if you couldn’t make a screening, and you couldn’t make the next one, it became too difficult to keep saying no to her, because she would just put such guilt on you.”
“The fact that she gets under people’s skin is kind of why she’s great to work with,” said a different producer, arguing that publicity favors the bold. Chuckling, the producer described Siegal’s annual tradition of arriving at the Oscars red carpet hours before the ceremony begins so she can greet and photobomb celebrities. In 2016, she hid on the floor of actor Alicia Vikander’s SUV to sneak into Guy Oseary’s Oscar party—from which she’d been banned two years prior. (“For the sin of being a publicist,” she said.) She later documented the feat in her Oscar diary for Avenue magazine.
Not everyone finds Siegal’s aggression charming. Many describe her as “brusque.” She has been known to berate her staff, others’ staffs, chauffeurs, assistants, and defiant guests. “She rules with access and fear,” said a professional contact who has experienced both. Her singular focus on A-listers comes at the expense of those she deems unworthy of her attention. “This is one of the reasons why people would think I’m a terrible person,” said Siegal. She says she knows every name that has appeared in Page Six in the last four months, and Vogue in the last year, but doesn’t always know the names of her employees. “Sometimes I put a little sign by [my] desk of all the girls because I’m going, this one, this one, this one,” she explained. “Probably I would be a better person if I had more small talk with them, and more empathy for them, and cared more about them,” she said. ” I don’t have time because my business is so competitive.” She demonstrated what updating her list looks like: “Here, put these guys in the computer,” she would say as an employee typed. “This one’s dead. This one’s hot. This one is so-and-so’s daughter.”
Star seeking yielded high-flying friends. A person who knows Siegal described their phone conversations as glitterati Mad Libs: Hello, I’m in [fabulous location] with my dear friend [ultrarich person] and we’re on our way to [exclusive event]. An abbreviated list of names Siegal dropped in my presence: Barbra Streisand, David Geffen, Gloria Steinem, Andy Warhol, Julian Fellowes, Nora Ephron, Calvin Klein, Sienna Miller, Barry Diller, Eddie Murphy, Barbara Walters, Peter Brant, Mitzi Newhouse, Jerry Bruckheimer, Dolly Sinatra, Queen Elizabeth’s third lady-in-waiting, and several people she seemed to think could make or break my career. Locations included Luxor, London, Cannes, St. Barts, Michael’s, Studio 54, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s apartment building, the owner’s box at MetLife stadium, and the San Vicente bungalows. (Owner Jeffrey Klein “is a great friend of mine.”)
While Siegal was building her mix, Epstein was building his on a parallel track. He too had a reputation as a heat-seeking missile, particularly for scientists and statesmen. By the time he met Siegal, Epstein’s social status was snowballing: He had become friendly with so many socially socially desirable people that onlookers assumed he too was socially desirable.
“Bill Gates sort of normalized it,” said New York publicist R. Couri Hay, who says he considered, but decided against, taking Epstein on as a client. “Because you figure, Bill Gates can meet him [and] be his friend for two or three years. So why can’t you?”
“He was a very minor aspect of the mix,” Siegal said of Epstein. “He was one of thousands that came through. And in the billionaire level, hundreds of. He was nothing really special, except he was another wiseguy billionaire.” She paused. “Or said he was a billionaire.” Court records document Epstein’s assets at $550 million.
By 2007, as the Palm Beach investigation was playing out, Epstein’s profile was expanding. For a New York magazine article that year, journalist Philip Weiss met with Epstein in the office of Manhattan P.R. heavyweight Howard Rubenstein, who has represented Rupert Murdoch, Leona Helmsley, and Mount Sinai Hospital. (A spokesperson for Rubenstein’s firm says that after Epstein’s conviction, the firm dropped him and stopped returning his calls.) Titled “The Fantasist,” the article described the criminal accusations against Epstein, which included using a vibrator on a 14-year-old girl. Siegal is the first Epstein friend quoted in the article, in a paragraph that noted that girl’s age. Two months later, Epstein surfaced at another Siegal event. He returned to Florida to plead guilty later that year.
“No matter what it said in the paper, [that] was irrelevant to the fact that he wasn’t in the jail,” Siegal says in defense of her overall proximity to Epstein. “So how serious would you think that was?” The New York story provides a window into how Epstein’s social circle might have understood his crimes at the time. The article presented a theory that Epstein viewed and passed off his lechery as a version of the libidinous lifestyles that made men like Bob Guccione and Hugh Hefner famous a generation earlier.
Weiss ultimately paints an entirely monstrous vision of Epstein, but his early pitch to his subject was: “it’s the Icarus story, someone who flies too close to the sun,” as if sexual contact with minors was a symptom of overambition. (Epstein’s instantly infamous response: “Did Icarus like massages?”) I asked a different journalist, who ran in Siegal’s social circle at the time, whether the ages of Epstein’s alleged victims were common knowledge. “I think it was generally known,” the journalist said. “But it was like, ‘Oh, wow, you got away with it. Wow. Good for you.'”
“There was a whole group of guys that were bad boys, that had very bad reputations,” Siegal told me. ” They used to be called playboys. And my relationship with them was not about their social lives. I had a business to run. If they had legitimate social clout, and could make a difference and pass along a good word about these films, they were included in these events. I didn’t have time to get involved with the social lives of these guys.” More than one Siegal friend made a similar, if backhanded, argument: Peggy was too self-interested to enable Epstein.
“You know about the golden rule?” Siegal asked me during a discussion of men who abuse their power.
Do unto others?
“No. Those who have the gold, rule.”
When Epstein returned to New York in August 2010, reporters noted his presence at a Siegal screening of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The guest list included Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Rudy Giuliani, and the late shopping mall magnate Alfred Taubman. The scene prompted one observer to joke to the Wall Street Journal about the “beautifully done meeting of the prosecutor and the felon.” (To be fair, they could have been talking about Taubman, who served time for violating price-fixing laws.) Epstein’s presence at Siegal events, or seemingly on her arm, periodically drew attention. The Hollywood Reporter dated its last such sighting to 2016. Siegal told the paper that Epstein had sometimes been a last-minute guest-list addition, in which case his name wouldn’t have appeared on the studio-approved list.
During Epstein’s second month back in New York, Siegal attended a post-Yom Kippur break-fast at Epstein’s home. The Daily Beast’s Alexandra Wolfe reported that “a group of 120 friends brought their children over.” Siegal said she recalled only that the event was a “serious religious gathering.”
Then there was the dinner for Prince Andrew. On the day of the party, in December 2010, Siegal said Epstein called to request her help. “And I’m like—” she fell into a hushed tone, “Prince Andrew? Yeah, I could do that. When is it?’ ” Tonight, said Epstein.
“I thought it was strange,” Siegal said, “that someone who actually had a prince in his house as a houseguest— couldn’t figure out a few people to invite for dinner? I thought that was odd. On the other hand, I had my own selfish reasons because I wanted to tell Andrew about The King’s Speech. ” She was promoting the film, which later won best picture. Its distributor was the Weinstein Company.
Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding was coming up, so Siegal called three journalists: Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos, and Charlie Rose. She also invited Chelsea Handler, Woody Allen, and Soon-Yi Previn. “I said, there’s this guy, Jeffrey Epstein. He has a huge house. It’s really beautiful, it’s one of the largest houses in New York, and he’s a financier.” And he was hosting a dinner for Prince Andrew. In the July Times article, Handler said, “it was just one of those strange nights.” Stephanopoulos described his attendance as a mistake.
Siegal said Prince Andrew was “incredibly polite” but would not comment on his interactions with Epstein. Then she asked me if I’d watched the third season of The Crown, which she recently binged. “Peter Morgan is a genius,” she said.
The New York Post published its “PRINCE & PERV” cover two months after the duke’s visit, prompting the Duchess of York to issue her statement abhorring pedophilia and to apologize for accepting money from Epstein. Around that time, Epstein hired another publicist, Los Angeles crisis manager Michael Sitrick, who has represented R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, and Theranos. Sitrick said that, knowing what he knows now, he would not accept Epstein as a client. He emphasized that his work for Epstein was “not a reputation restoration assignment.” He only fielded press requests, he said: “I never met him.”
Nobody has accused Siegal of enabling Epstein’s criminal behavior. Siegal says the dinner party was a favor. Rather, she is accused of enabling Epstein’s rarefied social life, which he in turn presented to his victims to manipulate them. “More than being just a movie screenings guru, she’s an important social connector,” a New Yorker who has known and observed Siegal for years told me. “And if you’re kind of gross and second-tier, or if your politics are out of step with the dominant allegedly progressive ethos of New York, she can do a lot to ameliorate and ease the way.” Especially, this person theorized, “if you’ve got a private plane or a beachfront property.” (Siegal says she was never on Epstein’s jet or visited his homes in Palm Beach and the Virgin Islands.)
I ran down a list of rumors and questions about Siegal’s relationship with Epstein. Did she see him with girls who appeared to be underage?
No, but: “It’s very hard to tell their ages. You don’t walk into a room and say, ‘Oh, right, how old are you?”‘
Did she accept Epstein’s financial assistance when she traveled, as she confirmed to the Hollywood Reporter in July?
“That’s a mistake,” said Siegal. “I thought I did, and I went back to the accountant. I never did.”
How could she confuse that?
“In my world, people send presents. In my world, people invite you to their homes in the South of France. They invite you on boats. Sometimes they invite you on planes.”
Did Epstein help her during a legal issue with her brother over her inheritance?
“Yes, he gave me help.” She would not specify its nature.
Did she hire a young woman as an intern in 2018 on Epstein’s recommendation? I provided the woman’s name.
“Everybody’s friend has a daughter who wants to be an intern. I don’t even know their names.”
Some Epstein accusers have described performing jobs that might have resembled those of a household staff. Did Siegal notice that?
“You’re not supposed to notice the staff.”
At a recent press conference, a woman who alleged she was 15 when Epstein raped her said: “it was clear from the time I spent with Epstein that something was very wrong with his lifestyle, and it didn’t take a victim to see that. We were not hidden.”
They didn’t have to be. To socially ambitious guests whose attention, care, and compassion went in only one direction—up—they would have been invisible. “I didn’t have chains,” Virginia Roberts Giuffre said in her BBC interview “These powerful people were my chains.”
Siegal contemplated whether her admitted inattentiveness is a personal failure: “Part of this, this—I don’t know whether guilt is the right word—but remorse, just this nauseous feeling, is that I didn’t see it. How did I miss it? I mean, I’m extremely articulate. I am extremely perceptive. I’m in the perception business, and it was right in front of me and I didn’t see it. And it’s very hard to believe that. But it’s the truth.”
Epstein hanged himself in his prison cell on August 10. (Siegal does not believe Epstein committed suicide. “Where has the FBI hidden Ghislaine Maxwell?” Siegal asked, throwing up her hands. “I have been destroyed, and Ghislaine Maxwell is probably on some island, sunbathing! “) Less than a month later, at the film festivals in Telluride and Toronto, Siegal received no invitations to screenings or parties. Before a Jojo Rabbit showing in Toronto, she said “a dear friend” asked her to avoid the theater, lest her presence damage the reputation of a comedic movie about Hitler. Two months later, Siegal was uninvited from HBO’s premiere of the Ralph Lauren documentary Very Ralph at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“These are dear friends of mine, treating me like I have leprosy,” said Siegal.
To stay busy, Siegal hosted events pro bono for friends. She organized a fundraiser for a South African theater troupe that British director Stephen Daldry supports. She hosted a dinner for her dermatologist, Macrene Alexiades. At the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, she purchased 40 tickets to a screening of the Netflix film The Two Popes, invited a crowd that included seven voting members of the Academy, and hosted a dinner party at the East Hampton home of billionaire philanthropist Katharine Rayner afterward. If a studio hired Siegal to organize such an event, the bill would be between $20,000 and $25,000, she said: “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Why did Siegal fall so hard, so fast? All of her detractors—and many of her boosters— brought up her churlishness. “I don’t think that Jeffrey really undid her,” said the longtime observer. ” I think she mistreated people for so long, for so many years, so publicly, so flagrantly, that the minute there was…this little thing that nonetheless revealed something bigger about her, everybody pounced.” Two people noted that those who work with her sometimes feel leveraged. “She gets the confidence of a fancy director who’s being nominated for an Academy Award, then she gets the director to call the studio and say, ‘You have to hire Peggy Siegal.’ And they hire Peggy. And they’re annoyed,” said a producer who believes Epstein provides a convenient excuse for them to avoid her.
Some, including Siegal, point to sexism. Matt McKenna said Siegal’s gender made her a media target: “That it was a woman who helped Jeffrey Epstein come back? I think that narrative was too seductive for the trades.” Several people I spoke to argued that Siegal would not seem so “brusque” if she were a man and invoked seemingly unsinkable male Epstein associates such as Wexner and Black. But has gender protected those men, or has their status and wealth? Some men have lost prestigious posts: Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab, resigned after his role soliciting donations from Epstein came to light. MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman stepped down amid controversy over leaked emails discussing a different scientist’s Epstein-related sexual assault allegation. Prince Andrew may have been forced into early retirement. ” I think we wonder, are we somehow not giving her the pass that we would give to men?” said the observer who thought the scandal revealed Siegal’s larger issues. “But it’s like, no! She’s a person who had no issue kind of orchestrating the social reinvention of David Koch and Jeffrey Epstein,” this person said, referring to Siegal’s relationship with the late billionaire activist. “That’s a specific person. And sometimes ruthless ambition is loathsome.” There are publicists who rehabilitate criminal reputations for a living, a different publicist noted. But Siegal’s job is to bring people places. “She cultivates an audience. You want to feel good about that person.” When the mix is the message, there isn’t room for any error in judgment.
Hollywood isn’t a town known for its vast reserves of loyalty. “For her business to be threatened because she invited Jeffrey Epstein to parties is just such bullshit!” a producer who is fond of Siegal told me. ” It’s morally reprehensible to take Peggy down because of what Jeffrey Epstein did. Every fiber in my body says that’s wrong.”
“Unless, by the way, have you uncovered more?”
Meanwhile, the film industry is changing. Intimidating bosses with big personalities aren’t tolerated as they once were. As theatrical releases lose their power, so do adjacent traditions such as screenings. And the Academy is changing too: Under pressure to increase diversity, the group has added thousands of new members in the last few years. Siegal’s power base, as she readily admits, is old white Jewish men—their votes still matter, but less than before. “She is one of the direct causes of #OscarsSoWhite,” said an ex-employee.
Can Siegal make a comeback? Several people I spoke to pointed out that only a few months have passed since her P.R. crisis; maybe she’ll have better luck next year. “I have been told to go away,” Siegal said. ” ‘Go away for a year so everybody forgets.’ Well, I’d like to know where I should go.”
A fellow publicist observed that Siegal may be her own worst enemy: Is she having a publicity crisis or publicizing a personal crisis? “She came up to me at a party and said, ‘You know I can’t get any work,’ this whole kind of pity thing,” said a person in Siegal’s social orbit. “Woe is me. Feel sorry for me. And you know what? I almost did.” But, “there are a lot of much nicer people that this happened to, that deserve our sympathy and support.”
Siegal can talk for hours about being treated unfairly. During our interviews, she went out of the way to name three ex-employees she believes spoke to the press and are poaching her clients, including one she believes stole her list. Ironically, Bobby Zarem has long held that Siegal stole his list. He’s 83, working on his memoir in Savannah, Georgia, and still mad. (“I did not steal his list,” said Siegal.)
In December, Siegal attended the world premiere of Cats, her first major studio premiere since her fall. It took work. She lobbied NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer by email before securing the invitation. Before the movie, she stopped by a cocktail party in the Manhattan home of Greece’s exiled crown prince—across the street from Epstein’s town house. She observed that the lights were still on.
Why not retire? I asked Siegal. Be a full-time lady who lunches? She glanced at Fields, who is 18 years her elder and still goes to the office, “if I would be happy with that, I would have married a dentist 50 years ago and moved to Scarsdale like Marjorie Morningstar,” she said, referring to the 1958 film in which Natalie Wood, in the title role, plays a Jewish American actor deciding between career and marriage. Defying her mother’s vision for her, Siegal never married.
At the end of our first sit-down, Siegal asked me to turn my recorder back on. The sun had set during our two-and-a-half-hour interview, prompting Barbara Guggenheim to joke that we looked like we were having a seance. To get that first job as a showroom model, Siegal said, she’d been forced to stand in a bra and slip in front of the store’s owner, who came too close, looked at her lasciviously, and touched her shoulder. “I was 16, and that was the first time I experienced fear of a man who I didn’t know,” she said.
When she was 24, Siegal said, she would walk to the factory that manufactured her jewelry line. “The truck drivers always used to whistle. And I always used to say hi to them because I wanted to just be so cool.” One summer day, she said, one of the whistlers followed her. When she got into the factory building elevator, he jumped in, trapped her, held a knife to her ribs, and demanded to see her breasts. He pinned her to the wall. She screamed. He repeated his demand, and she kept screaming as he held the car on an empty floor. Eventually, he ran off, she said. She broke down and cried. “To this day, I will not stand in an elevator with a single guy,” she said. “I never went in a subway again. I took taxicabs everyplace. I never walked home alone after an event or a movie.” She was teary and shaking as she told me this.
At our next sit-down, Siegal was more composed as she discussed Epstein’s victims. “The idea of these women, what he did to these women, is so incomprehensible to me,” she said. “To be a part of this, and to be accused of being part of this, it’s so humiliating.”
“I keep thinking, What did I do to deserve this?” she said. “And then I say, ‘Nothing.’ “
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