Why Didn’t Vanity Fair Break the Jeffrey Epstein Story? 

The former editor Graydon Carter and a journalist, Vicky Ward, give conflicting accounts of why the magazine didn’t publish sexual-abuse allegations in 2003.

“Ghislaine Maxwell is arguably the most hated woman in the world. And I knew her.” So begins Vicky Ward’s podcast, “Chasing Ghislaine,” which launched on Audible this past summer, as Maxwell prepared to stand trial in New York City on sex-trafficking charges. Ward, a British-born journalist who is also hosting and co-producing a Discovery+ documentary about Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, describes her experiences covering the pair for almost two decades. Ward also promises to reveal what happened in 2002, when, while working as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she interviewed two sisters who said they had been sexually abused by Epstein and Maxwell, but was unable to publish their stories. “I’m going to tell you why those claims never made it into print,” she says. “One big reason: Jeffrey Epstein.”

Jeffrey Epstein, who in 2019 was arrested on federal charges of trafficking minors.Photograph by Rick Friedman / Corbis / Getty

In her podcast, Ward claims that she was determined to expose Epstein as a sexual abuser and had the necessary evidence, but that Epstein convinced Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, not to publish the sisters’ accounts. (Vanity Fair, like The New Yorker, is owned by Condé Nast.) First, Ward says, Epstein threatened her, telling her, “I have reports here about you, your husband—I have everything under the sun that was sent to me by people who want to be helpful.” Despite this and other menacing remarks, Ward recounts, “I still thought that I was going to win. I really thought that I could expose Jeffrey Epstein.” But, according to Ward, Epstein and Carter “were talking to each other sort of behind the scenes.” Epstein and Carter spoke on the phone and, shortly after Ward filed a draft, they met at Vanity Fair’s office. Eventually, Ward says, an editor informed her that Carter had decided not to include the sisters’ allegations in the story. “I must have gone into the office, because I do remember being there and just crying,” she says. “They had been so brave, and we just let them down.”

Last December, after a jury found Maxwell guilty on five of six counts, I sent a message to Ward asking if I could interview her. I wanted to find out what she had made of the trial and to learn more about Vanity Fair’s decision not to run the allegations against Epstein and Maxwell. I also wanted to talk about a 2011 follow-up that Ward had written for Vanity Fair, in which she wrote playfully about Epstein, describing him as “not without humor,” and praised Maxwell, calling her “passionate” and capable of “vulnerability.” How could a journalist committed to exposing Epstein’s abuses have written so casually about the pair?

Ward and I spoke on the phone, and I asked her to forward e-mails that could verify some of her claims about Vanity Fair. Many of the things that she told me—and had told her podcast listeners—turned out to be untrue. All publications, including this one, at times look back on stories and regret not pursuing them further. But Ward’s claim that Vanity Fair prevented her from exposing Epstein misrepresents a more complicated reality. Carter, who now says that he distrusted Ward as a reporter, has offered conflicting explanations for his magazine’s decision not to run the sisters’ allegations. For her part, Ward has repeatedly misrepresented her reporting on Epstein, changing her story from year to year and at times from day to day, and was a far less heroic actor than she would have her audiences believe. “I am horrified,” one of the sisters, Maria Farmer, said last year, about Ward’s podcast. “She won’t stop torturing us, and it is hurting so badly.”

Ward’s reporting on Epstein and Maxwell began in 2002, when Carter asked her to profile Epstein, who was known for hosting friends such as Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and Kevin Spacey. Epstein claimed to manage the investments of billionaires, but his only known client was the Limited Brands C.E.O. Leslie Wexner. Ward, a British-born journalist, had moved to New York in 1997, where she worked at the New York Post and Talk magazine, before moving on to Vanity Fair. Ward told me that she was well positioned to report on Epstein because her social circle overlapped with Maxwell’s. “I was very close to one of her Oxford classmates, who is not a particularly powerful or staggeringly rich person but is a very decent person,” she told me. “So that possibly warmed me to her. You judge people by their friends.”

Ward’s impression of Epstein was different. During her reporting, she says on the podcast, Epstein told her that he could get her husband—the venture capitalist Matthew Doull—fired, because he knew her husband’s boss (also her husband’s step-uncle), the media mogul Conrad Black. Ward was pregnant at the time, and she says that Epstein also made inappropriate remarks about her pregnancy. He repeatedly asked where she was giving birth and at one point informed her that, “when you give birth, as your vaginal canal opens, you have this chemical released into your system with oxytocin. . . . It actually causes you to fall in love with the thing you see coming out of it.”

Ward was soon alerted to something even darker about Epstein. A friend told her that an artist named Maria Farmer had had a “bad experience” with Epstein, and urged Ward to reach out to the young woman. Farmer, who had met Epstein and Maxwell while she was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at the New York Academy of Art, had been hired by Epstein as an art adviser. Farmer told Ward that, in 1996, she stayed at an Ohio mansion with Epstein and Maxwell, where Epstein had sexually assaulted her while Maxwell held her hand. Epstein and Maxwell had also taken an interest in her younger sister, Annie. Ward talked to Annie, too, who told her that that same year, when she was sixteen, she had stayed with Epstein and Maxwell at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch. Maxwell had told Annie to remove her clothes and massaged her breasts; Maxwell also showed her how to give Epstein a foot massage, which she did. Annie also said that Epstein had entered the bedroom where she was staying and pressed his body against hers.

In 2002, Annie and Maria Farmer spoke to Ward on the record, as did their mother, who said that her daughters had told her about distressing encounters with Maxwell and Epstein. According to Ward, she also spoke to two other sources, David Schafer and Eric Fischl, who knew Maria through the New York Academy of Art and had some knowledge of what had happened in Ohio. Neither Fischl nor Schafer responded to my requests for comment, but in 2019 Fischl told the Times that Maria had called him from Epstein’s house and described a disturbing physical encounter with Epstein. “I just kept telling Maria, ‘You’ve got to get out of there,’ ” Fischl said.

The article that appeared in Vanity Fair, in the March, 2003, issue, did not include the Farmers’ allegations, noting only that Epstein tended to surround himself with young women. Ward claims that this was a result of Epstein’s influence on Carter. After Epstein visited Vanity Fair’s office, she claims, Carter told her that Epstein was “sensitive about the young women.” Epstein denied the Farmers’ allegations, and, according to Ward, Carter said, “I believe him.”

Carter tells a different story. “I edited the first draft of Ms. Ward’s story,” he said, in an e-mail. “There was no mention of young women in it. When she tried to add these facts late in the process—we were about to go on press—her editor, our chief of research, and our legal editor, all felt she did not have credible evidence that would stand up in court.” After Carter sent this statement, Ward shared e-mails between her and Vanity Fair staffers. In a pattern that became familiar, the e-mails indicated that dates and details Ward had previously provided were incorrect; she went on to offer four different accounts of when the Farmers were removed from the piece, eventually admitting that she didn’t remember what had happened and then returning to her initial claim. But the e-mails also showed that Ward presented the magazine with their allegations by early December, weeks before the article closed. In mid-December, Ward was discussing the Farmers with fact checkers, and a photo editor asked for assistance obtaining “Maria Farmer’s photos.”

When I shared this time line with Carter, he replied, in an e-mail, “Well, this is my mistake, then. Remember, this was almost 20 years ago.” He then suggested that he had not been involved in decision-making about the article: “What I do know is that I had complete trust in my editors, our legal editor, our head of research, and our researchers. And I gave them a great deal of latitude in what could be included in a story and what could not. In 99% of the cases, they made the decisions among themselves.”

Carter and I also spoke on the phone, and he told me that the decision not to run the Farmers’ allegations was likely influenced by Ward’s professional reputation: “My staff, to a person, did not trust her.” I spoke to numerous people who played some role in the production of Ward’s article, which for such a story always includes fact checkers, editors, and lawyers. None felt able to go on the record to discuss the magazine’s handling of the piece, but several said that Ward had not gathered evidence that would stand up in court, and others echoed Carter’s remarks about Ward’s journalism. “Vicky had zero credibility with the fact-checking and legal departments,” one person who worked at Vanity Fair at the time told me. “They had too many bad experiences.” Another then staffer said that Ward had provided inaccurate quotations and had had disputes with sources about when they were speaking on the record. A third person, who worked extensively with both Ward and Carter, told me that he thought Vanity Fair could have done more to pursue the Farmers’ allegations, but also that Ward seemed not to understand “basic journalistic rules.” In response to these statements about her work, Ward said, “I worked for Vanity Fair for a decade after this. That speaks for itself.”

Ward was not the only person who said that Epstein exerted pressure on Carter. John Connolly, a former Vanity Fair contributing editor, who died in January, told NPR in 2019 that, in 2003, Epstein was “torturing” Carter, telling him not to report on the young women. After Ward’s piece was published, Connolly added, Carter told him that he had found a bullet outside his house in Manhattan and viewed it as a threat from Epstein. In 2006, Connolly was pursuing his own story about Epstein for Vanity Fair when a cat’s head appeared on the stoop of Carter’s country home. According to Connolly, Carter expressed concern about his own children’s safety, and Connolly decided to drop the story. Carter disputed Connolly’s account, telling New York that he recalls the bullet appearing the year after Ward’s story was published, that he and his wife attributed the bullet and the cat to “aggrieved George W. Bush supporters,” and that “to suggest that either of these incidents affected my editorial judgment is flatly wrong.” Another former Vanity Fair staffer told me, “Graydon was definitely not intimidated.” When I asked whether Carter would have any reason to protect Epstein, the former staffer responded, “Graydon had a small circle of people he was very loyal to, so maybe he would protect one of them, but absolutely not with Epstein.”

I recently spoke and corresponded with Annie Farmer about her and Maria’s experiences with Ward and Vanity Fair. Annie passed along a statement from Maria, in which Maria said that, when she saw the published article, “I immediately felt I was no longer safe.” Epstein and Maxwell now knew that Maria was willing to speak to reporters, Annie wrote, “but she didn’t have the safety of being on the record about them.” In 2019, Maria told the Times that, shortly after the story was published, Maxwell threatened her life: “She said, ‘I know you go to the West Side Highway all the time. While you’re out there, just be really careful because there are a lot of ways to die there.’ ” (Maxwell’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.)

During the next several years, the facts about Epstein’s abuse of minors began to emerge. By 2006, Florida police had found extensive evidence that Epstein was soliciting sex from teen-age girls at his mansion in Palm Beach. Facing state and potentially federal charges, Epstein secured a plea deal that allowed him to serve a brief sentence in a county jail. By 2011, he had been released and returned to his previous life, with Prince Andrew and other celebrities spending time at his Manhattan residence.

It was then that Ward decided to write about Epstein and Maxwell again, for Vanity Fair’s Web site. On her podcast, she says that she saw it as “an opportunity to actually finally get the Farmers’ allegations into the narrative about Jeffrey and Ghislaine.” But the piece, which was published in March of 2011, did none of that, instead flattering Epstein and Maxwell and making light of the Farmers’ allegations. Ward wrote that, after her 2003 piece, she had “gotten to know Jeffrey and Ghislaine far better after . . . I kept running into both of them, separately, at parties.” She did not seem to feel threatened by Epstein. Instead, she recalled joking with him about the young women who flanked him at events. Of Maxwell, she wrote, “Full disclosure: I like her. Most people in New York do. . . . She is always the most interesting, the most vivacious, the most unusual person in any room. I’ve spent hours talking to her about the Third World at a bar until two a.m. She is as passionate as she is knowledgeable.”

While reporting her 2003 piece, Ward wrote, she had heard “stories about the girls . . . But, not knowing quite whom to believe, I concentrated on the intriguing financial mystery instead.” She also wrote, “Sure, Jeffrey had his sexual peccadilloes, but then Ghislaine’s father”—the late press baron Robert Maxwell—“was not without his oddities.”

Maria Farmer’s reaction to Ward’s Vanity Fair post was one of extreme distress. In a statement passed along by her sister, she said, “When I first saw it I cried for hours and felt completely betrayed by someone I had trusted.” (A spokesperson for Audible said that the podcast “reflects Ward’s rigorous journalistic investigation as well as her personal recollections of her personal experiences.”)

On her podcast and in our initial conversation, Ward made claims about this second Epstein piece that were perhaps even more serious than her claims about the first. Her 2011 draft, she told me, was “quite different” from the article that appeared on the Web site: “This piece got sent to Graydon and somebody altered it dramatically. Really, really dramatically.” Ward claimed that she had not written that she had been uncertain of whether to believe the Farmers, and did not euphemize Epstein’s behavior by referring to his sexual “peccadilloes.” (Ward told her podcast listeners, “Given what Maria and Annie Farmer had told me in 2002, of course I wouldn’t have described Jeffrey’s sexual habits like that.”) She also claimed that Vanity Fair did not give her the opportunity to review this heavy edit before posting it; the first time she saw the final piece, she said, was after it had been published.

I asked Ward if she had proof of her claims, and she forwarded me several e-mails between her and Vanity Fair’s editors, and also what she said was her first draft. They directly contradicted what she had told me. The draft was extremely similar to the piece that Vanity Fair ran. It specifically said that she was unsure of whom to believe. The wording of the sentence about sexual peccadilloes was unchanged. And, far from expressing distress that the piece was posted without her seeing edits, Ward received a revision from her editor and then, an hour later, complained that it had not yet appeared online, adding, “It’s a blog . . . Sigh.”

Ward made one claim about the 2011 piece that was even more serious: she told me that she had included the Farmer sisters’ “precise allegations” but that they had been excised by someone at Vanity Fair. And, indeed, her draft did include several sentences about the Farmers’ allegations (without using their names), which also appeared in the version she received from her editor but not in the published piece. Those original sentences not only fail to show the sympathy for the Farmers that Ward says she felt; they also depict Maria and Annie’s allegations as less significant than they were.

Ward left out Annie’s allegations that Maxwell had massaged her and that Epstein had entered her bed. The younger girl, Ward wrote, “claimed only that she had massaged his feet. Weird but not criminal.” “The other,” she wrote, “claimed that her breasts had been fondled”—Ward does not specify by whom—but, “in both cases, Epstein and Maxwell vehemently denied the claims, and the older girl had not been a minor at the time.” Ward concluded, “We left the strange sex out—and concentrated on the intriguing financial mystery instead.”

I called Ward after receiving these e-mails and asked her why she hadn’t included Annie Farmer’s claims about Maxwell in her draft. “I wish I could remember,” she told me. She also again denied writing that she wasn’t sure she could believe the Farmer sisters, so I read her the passage—which she had just sent me—out loud. “I was deliberately covering for Graydon,” she told me. (Carter denies that he asked Ward to cover for him.) “2011 was a year I made a lot of bad decisions. I was not mentally well.” She attributed this to getting divorced.

I was curious why Ward had decided to write the 2011 piece, given her account of her prior experiences with both Epstein and Vanity Fair. She didn’t say, as she had in the past, that it was to air the Farmers’ allegations. Instead, she told me, “I think the reason I did it was that the media industry was imploding. I was really worried about money and having a tricky time, and life at Vanity Fair always depended on Graydon’s moods. Everyone was desperate for content and wanted blogs.” She added, “This may seem bizarre, but by being able to write about it so flippantly I think it made me feel good, actually.”

I also asked Carter about the 2011 story. “I never saw this piece,” he said, in an e-mail. “It was written for the Vanity Fair website, which was then relatively primitive and which I looked at only occasionally. In those days I was still primarily focused on the print magazine.” He may not have read the piece, but Ward forwarded me an e-mail from an editor who said that he had heard about it from Carter, and another from a staffer who said that the editor was “running it by Graydon for his approval.” In his e-mail to me, Carter criticized Ward for writing “glowingly” of Epstein and Maxwell. I asked Carter if he regretted running the piece. “Yes, of course,” he replied.

In 2015, the Epstein saga entered a new phase. A woman named Virginia Giuffre filed a federal lawsuit against Epstein, alleging that she had been sexually abused and trafficked by him, with Maxwell’s assistance. It was at this point that Ward, who had left Vanity Fair, began telling a new story about her reporting on Epstein. In a piece published by the Daily Beast, she claimed for the first time that Carter had suppressed the Farmers’ allegations. “It came down to my sources’ word against Epstein’s,” she wrote, “and at the time Graydon believed Epstein.”

Four years later, Epstein was arrested on federal charges of trafficking minors. Ward did a round of press about the case, repeatedly stating her allegations of being silenced by Vanity Fair. In August, 2019, Epstein was found dead in a New York City jail, an apparent suicide. Ward, who had joined CNN as a senior reporter, spoke about Epstein and her experience at Vanity Fair on the network. Ward’s podcast is the most complete version of this narrative, and her decision to capitalize on the Farmers’ testimony is unmistakable. Over ominous music, she tells Maria’s story of being sexually assaulted by Epstein and Maxwell; afterward, she explains, Maria could not escape the Ohio property until her father was able to pick her up. “She had to stay trapped with them in the same house,” Ward says. “I remember her saying that they had told her there were sharpshooters outside.”

Listening to this again after my e-mail exchanges with Ward, I turned to her first draft of the 2011 story, which recounts the same events. Maria, Ward wrote then, “claimed that her breasts had been fondled—and then she’d leaped off the bed and run out of a house.” This was worse than the flippancy Ward had admitted to; it was a betrayal of two women who had risked so much to tell her their stories. Maria has said that for years after her experience with Ward she did not share the details of her assault again.

Today we know the extraordinary extent of Epstein’s sexual predations; more than a hundred and fifty women have accused him of sexual abuse, with many stating that they were underage at the time. This is in large part the work of the women themselves, who filed lawsuits and went public with their stories despite fears of reprisal. It was also accomplished by journalists—most notably, Julie K. Brown, of the Miami Herald—who persisted in investigating Epstein long after he was allowed to settle the initial case against him.

Brown, who began her reporting in 2016, combed heavily redacted police reports to identify eighty alleged Epstein victims and persuaded many of them to speak to her on the record. She also secured the coöperation of the Palm Beach police chief and the lead investigator on the case, which allowed her to piece together a critical part of the story: the deal Epstein struck with federal prosecutors which shielded him from serious consequences. Her work didn’t expose just Epstein but also the culture that allowed him to survive. When federal prosecutors finally did charge Epstein with sex trafficking, in 2019, Geoffrey Berman, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, “We were assisted by some excellent investigative journalism.”