Michael Wolff on Bombshell Book That “Conveys Being in That Room With Jeffrey Epstein”
Michael Wolff — whose dispatches from the 2016 campaign trail for The Hollywood Reporter led to his controversial 2018 best-seller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and two follow-up books on the former president — is back again with Too Famous: The Rich, the Powerful, the Wishful, the Notorious, the Damned (Henry Holt).
Pulling from decades of columns published at outlets like THR, New York Magazine and Vanity Fair, as well as incorporating a good deal of new material, Too Famous paints a portrait of 21st century media leviathans, covering everything from the rakish exploits of Rupert Murdoch to Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani.
Most sensationally, the book culminates in an extended section that places Wolff — looming from his signature, fly-on-the-wall perch — inside the residence of Jeffrey Epstein in the months leading up to the financier’s July 6, 2019, arrest on federal charges of sex trafficking minors.
In those chapters, Wolff re-creates — sometimes in straight dialogue exchanges free of any narration at all — how Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist currently in headlines once again for ignoring a subpoena from the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, leaped into action to help improve Epstein’s public profile. (Bannon has dismissed the characterization of those videotaped sessions as “media training,” telling The New York Times they were for a planned documentary about Epstein.)
Elsewhere in Too Famous, Wolff recounts how Harvey Weinstein desperately attempted to enlist his services as an official biographer — this amid the disgraced former movie mogul’s rape trial, in which he would ultimately be found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Finally, Wolff takes aim at Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, whose reporting in The New Yorker has been awarded a Pulitzer prize and contributed to the toppling of such towering figureheads as Weinstein, CBS CEO Les Moonves and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, amid the sweep of the #MeToo movement. To Wolff, however, Farrow’s rapid rise in journalism is suspect, his motives questionable.
Wolff, 68, recently spoke to THR about Too Famous.
You have quite the assortment of familiar figures here. But what is the overall thesis? Why are you putting Hillary Clinton next to Arianna Huffington next to Epstein next to Weinstein?
I think that these are some of the most influential people of our time, but more that these are the people who have hungered for attention in a certain kind of way. I think we have this idea that celebrity culture has been toxic in all kinds of ways. But the thing that we probably don’t think about so much is how toxic it is and has been to the people who seek to be these celebrities. So I was interested in this almost in a dramatic sense: Who are these people who have hungered for this attention and this celebrity, who have been out there so greedily overreaching, and what happens to them?
I imagine the final section on Jeffrey Epstein is going to be the one that gets most talked about. So why don’t we just jump right to it? You have entire exchanges here where there’s almost none of you in it — it’s just conversation. So I imagine the source of this was some kind of tape or were you present for it?
I’ve just taken a recent look at a piece that’s always been very influential for me and it’s Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. The story of that is a party at the home of Leonard Bernstein and his wife in 1969, which they host for the Black Panthers. It’s told very much inside the room, [has a] very novelistic scene-setting [and is] descriptive. But it’s completely omniscient, so you don’t know where the writer is.
I’ve always thought that was a very powerful approach because while it’s journalistic, it’s also novelistic, which is to say that it brings you into the room, into the experience. So, that’s what I was trying to do here. I kind of think it’s almost better if the reader doesn’t know where the writer is sitting. So, in a way, that interrupts it. It gets in the way of reading this as a full piece of character-making and scene-setting.
Traditional journalists and other footnote users would say, and indeed have said, regarding your work, “Well, then how much of this is true?” Or are we not to take it as the truth? [Many of the subjects in Fire and Fury disavowed comments Wolff attributed to them and multiple factual errors came to light following its publication.]
Yes, we’re absolutely to take it as the truth. It is something I saw. Matter of fact, I think I’d argue my truth, because I’m a witness and with my nose pressed less to the glass, I’m feeling this. I’m closer than so many other people trying to cover people of power. Why did I manage to get the Trump story? It’s because everybody who I knew so terribly disapproved of this man. And I knocked on the door.
Is that why all these guys keep opening up to you? You just keep knocking on the door?
I think so. And also, listen, I literally — and it’s so hard for people to understand — have no agenda. One person, who you would know, I once called up, and I said, “I’d like to come and talk to you about whatever the issue was in the interview.” And he said, “No.” He said, “I don’t want to talk to anybody.” And I said, “OK, you don’t have to talk to me, just let me come and smell you.”
I think that there is a kind of divide in this journalism world. The journalism community isn’t free to do the kinds of things that I’m trying to do. Although I think many people would like to. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s partly that there are no magazines anymore. What I’m really doing is old-fashioned magazine writing, and I seem to be lucky enough to continue to do this.
Did Epstein approach you at some point to write a book?
I began a series of conversations with Epstein in 2014. I think it was his idea that I would, at some point, write a book about him. I was always certainly open to the possibility of this because he led such a peculiar life and it was at the center of so many other powerful people. I was close to this and certainly have been in Epstein’s house many times and wholly know the tenor of his conversation and of his friends. I think that of all of the people now who have written about Epstein, among the problems of people who write about Epstein is that they tend not to know him at all —and not to know people even who have known him. So I think this is certainly as close as we’ve gotten to Jeffrey Epstein, the real person, as to date.
You mention that after his arrest in 2019, that The New York Times basically said in an op-ed, “Anyone who’s been associated with him in any personal way is now worthy of scrutiny.” So that would include you, I guess. Does putting all this on paper concern you at all? That suddenly scrutiny will turn to you?
Well, I mean, two things. I think for one thing, what The New York Times said is totally shocking and appalling. And I’m sure that if they could take it back, they would. I mean, it sets up guilt by association. There’s nothing more than that there. As for me, I’m the reporter here, I’m the writer. I’m the guy who got the story and The New York Times did not.
And then to your point that no one has created an accurate portrait of him. So you feel that this one — and I would say that he almost comes across as sort of guileless, often funny, wondering who will play him on Saturday Night Live and generally not taking a very serious situation all too seriously — is an accurate one?
I think people will read this in very, very different ways. The people I have already asked to read it have read it in different ways: a portrait of a monster or the portrait of a rogue or the portrait of actually someone who is, I think, mostly unrecognizable to all of us. He lived in a way that is hard to appreciate, no less imagine. His concerns were certainly not the concerns of anyone I’ve ever known. And then the group of people around him was in itself kind of inexplicable.
So I don’t know what people will take from this. I think that was sort of part of the point when I wrote this. I didn’t want to set a standard for how I wanted people to see this. I just thought, let me try to convey the experience of being in that room with Jeffrey Epstein and the experience of a man in his predicament as options closed down. This all takes place in the few months before he was arrested.
What you depict is a close circle of his lawyer Reid Weingarten; Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel and a good friend; and then Steve Bannon — all of them, I guess, seemingly siding with what you write is Epstein’s point of view that he’s done nothing beyond prostitution and trying to formulate the best media strategy to combat that.
Yes. I mean, I think the broader point here is to see exactly how these guys talk. To get a feel for what it’s like to be in the room where Epstein is, where Epstein’s friends are. Of people dealing with a kind of bubble. It’s a bubble of influence and power — and insulated in these weird ways — that is about to pop.
And then in terms of Bannon, you write about him in another chapter and you kind of position him as almost purely engaged by his own desire to become a media mogul. Less so by white power, or whatever ideological leanings have been associated with him, and as much Trump’s enemy as his ally.
Exactly. I know Steve pretty well at this point. And having spent countless hours with him in conversation, I still could not tell you what Steve Bannon believes. I think he’s an adventurer, poser; he’s looking for excitement. He thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and to a degree, that might be somewhat true, or at least at moments, that’s true.
I’m almost saying that his goal is to have a good time. I do think he’s a one-man figure, a one-man band. And certainly, the idea that he has a strong vested stake in the ideology of Donald Trump is — well, it is true at certain particular moments and then totally untrue at other moments.
In the book, Bannon is media training Epstein for a supposed 60 Minutes appearance that may or may not ever happen. You’ve been a media observer and critic for however many decades. How would you rate Steve Bannon in terms of his media counseling?
He’s not very good, because he’s having too good a time with it. The thing about people who were in Epstein’s house — and almost all of these people have come under, as The New York Times says, severe scrutiny because of it — is that they were all having an incredibly good time. It was a good time because Epstein’s house was kind of a men’s club. And I don’t mean that in the Jeffrey Epstein sexual sense of men’s club. I mean, of a situation that sort of excludes women, or includes only people who admire each other in a certain way. It was a place, I think, where all of these guys, from Bill Gates down, it was a very leveled place. They were all incredibly pleased with each other’s company. So I think that got in the way of Steve as a disciplined and trenchant interlocutor.
At the end of the book, you talk about how Epstein died. You imply it’s physically improbable that he could have committed suicide?
No, I’m very specific about this. I say, it is almost impossible to imagine how he could have committed suicide. It is equally as impossible to imagine how he could have been murdered. So in the first instance, he would have to have rendered such incredible violence on his own body, that I think any logic would say, that’s probably not something someone can do. At the same time, in order for him to be murdered, that would in all probability require that many people in the Southern District and the FBI had to be complicit. Which by implication, I’m saying that’s entirely unlikely, if not ridiculous.
So he died as mysteriously as he lived.
You got it.
How did your wife react to you palling around with Epstein?
Appalled — but curious. By the way, “palling around” might be a misnomer, because the guy never left his house. It was more to be in attendance at his table.
Has Hollywood approached you about the Epstein material?
Yes. Discussions have been ongoing and have suddenly gotten intense. The mind crunch is that, so far, the Epstein story is told from the victims’ point of view, when the story I have is about the man himself. In some sense, you’re meeting him for the first time — and it’s a much crazier story than the crazy stories to date have even hinted at.
You cover a lot of other things in the book, some of relevance to THR. Let’s start with Ronan Farrow. In a highly critical, and sure to be controversial, chapter, you question his astonishingly quick rise from basically being known as the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen to NBC on-air personality and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Yes. I’m saying he’s a media product. I’m trying to point out some of the ironies and the contradictions in that — for Ronan Farrow to be the media avenger and also the media product. And I think, in the end, there are lots of substantial questions to be asked about his motives and his legitimacy. [Wolff has in fact been criticizing and questioning Farrow as early as 2013 in a series of columns for The Guardian — well before Farrow became associated with Weinstein and other #MeToo-related journalism.]
But you even go so far as to suggest at one point, that he might in fact think that Woody Allen is innocent and be doing this out of self-interest.
I’ve hopefully set up the fundamental ironies here, in which you have a situation, in which the world is divided — almost generationally divided — into [camps that believe] Woody Allen is guilty, to this other side of the world who says, “Wait a minute. There’s literally no logic to that at all.” … Do we really want to make this person the sheriff? And of course, he goes on, in instances that I’ve pointed out, to kind of merge in this weird way with Weinstein behavior.
Yes, that was a particularly incendiary comparison. How do you justify that?
Ronan Farrow has done [the same “catch and kill” tactics that inspired the title of his book on Weinstein, Catch and Kill, in which damaging stories about individuals are covertly buried by powerful media companies], obviously. I mean, notably, having his father’s book canceled and going to New York Magazine when his sister, Soon-Yi Previn, Woody’s wife, gave them an interview. Farrow pressured the magazine into making a whole series of changes in the article. To me, this is a media story. It’s a story of how people use the media, of how the media lets itself be used, and of the kind of people that the media produces. [Contacted via The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow declined to comment to THR.]
But there are a few things that you don’t really acknowledge in the book, one being, isn’t Woody Allen a personal friend of yours?
Woody is somebody I know. I don’t like to say this — but I know everybody. So, yes. I certainly know Woody. And every time I’ve been with him, I find him to be gracious and an interesting figure. But I would not say that he’s my inner circle of friends. He’s a movie star.
And then the other thing being, you don’t really acknowledge what’s been accused of Allen at all, or what his daughter Dylan Farrow has repeatedly said he’s done.
At this point, you can’t relitigate this. You either believe it, or you don’t. But what I’m saying is that it’s kind of black and white. I’m not going to argue that because, yes, we know there’s a lot of people who believe just the opposite, like there’s a lot of people who believe Donald Trump is the savior of the country.
You have to know that you’re going to make yourself a target for this chapter. Why are you putting yourself in this particular firing line?
I think that’s a peculiar question. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? It would never cross my mind not to. You write what you write, you know? This is easy for me.
On to Harvey Weinstein. So for whatever reason, Harvey Weinstein, while he was in the middle of his rape trial, reached out to you to write a book that he thought could make you millions of dollars. He was treating this arrangement like just another movie deal. [Contacted by THR, Weinstein’s attorney Mark Werksman “respectfully decline[d] to comment.”]
The scene here is essentially seeing Harvey in full, even at the moment when he is on the verge of being destroyed. The story is he called me up to come see him. He said, “I want you to write this book about me,” and I’m like, “OK. Yeah. Hold your horses here.” And he says, “No, no, no.” Then he says the immortal words, “You keep domestic and I’ll take foreign.”
It was, oh my God, has there ever been anyone possibly as delusional as this? Then it went on and there’s just a mind-blowing story of him inviting me to the trial, which he called “the show.” “Come down to the show.” He was going to get me “VIP seats” for it. It was just an extraordinary show of everything that seems to have made Harvey, Harvey. To see it at this moment in which he is no longer Harvey. He’s lost everything. It’s extraordinary and appalling but there is a piece of human drama here that I was also attracted to.
At one point he produces a screenplay for you to read. A screenplay that he wrote himself.
That was another thing. The screenplay was unspeakable. He kept dismissing everybody. He was the real writer of all the screenplays that he had produced, and to prove this he had this screenplay he partly wrote and was making me read, which was incoherent. I could not even now tell you what this screenplay was about. At endless length. So, this was going to have to be an epic film. It seemed virtually illiterate.
Do you remember the title?
There was one line in that chapter that really stuck out to me and it’s when you’re noting his ability to just ramble on at length forever. You write, “Talk is the power, talk makes things happen. You don’t know what is going to happen but if you talk to enough people something happens.”
It’s not just talking, it’s selling. You’re constantly selling. Harvey is this fascinating example of this because obviously he’s had this extraordinary career and he’s been brought down by his incredible bad behavior and constant cruelties. But in truth, he should’ve probably been brought down long before by the fact that he’s an idiot. Harvey is one of the stupidest men I have ever spoken to. He knows nothing about anything. He actually is incredibly Trump-y in this.
Harvey’s somewhat set up as this tastemaker. Harvey, he has no taste. I’ve known Harvey for quite a while. I’ve never known him well, but I’ve known him well enough to be in situations where you think: What is it with this guy? What do people see in him? This is incomprehensible. But maybe it is just the talking. You just keep talking. You just wear everybody out.
He’s probably talking to someone behind bars right now.
Yeah. I try to sometimes imagine that. What is his life behind bars? And it just must be that he believes that he will get out tomorrow, something will happen and it will all go back to how it was. Or he’s found somebody to talk to.
Too Famous: The Rich, the Powerful, the Wishful, the Notorious, the Damned is available now.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.