The three-story house at 3742 Maple Ave. is itself bigger than many of the others on the block, but it was divided into three apartments. The Epsteins rented the middle one. Jeffrey was the older of the two children and he was nicknamed Bear. His brother, Mark, was two years younger. Mark was nicknamed Puggie.
The father, Seymour, was the son of immigrants and started out working alongside his own father as a laborer in home demolition. Seymour then got a job with the city Parks Department, picking up litter. His former neighbors remember he had a stutter.
The mother, Pauline, was also the child of immigrants. She worked as a school aide. She and her husband are remembered by former neighbors as quiet and humble.
“They were so gentle, the most gentle people,” a former neighbor says. “Simple. The most simple people in the world.”
The former neighbor—who asked not to be identified by name—expressed continuing amazement that such a couple produced a math whiz such as Jeffrey.
“From simple to genius,” the former neighbor said. “How does that gene come in to play?”
The former neighbor and his brother disagree as to whether Jeffrey joined in the stickball games on the block. They agree that he was quiet.
“He was a little nerdy boy,” the former neighbor said.
A woman who grew up on the block recalled on Facebook that she and Jeffrey played punch ball in front of his house and in a local schoolyard.
“He was just an average boy, very smart in math, slightly overweight, freckles, always smiling,” she posted. “There was absolutely no indication at that time of the vile, disturbed man that he was to become.”
The fence at the foot of the block marked a perimeter that signified wealth and privilege when Sea Gate was founded at the end of the 19th century. Fabulously wealthy families with names such as Vanderbilt and Morgan and Dodge kept homes within this 90-acre enclave. The yacht club building was designed by Sanford White.
But by the 1960s, Sea Gate was largely home to working-class people such as the Epsteins. The fence had become a protective barrier against urban blight and its accompanying dangers. Coney Island had been transformed from a summertime paradise to a crime-plagued ghetto with the help of real-estate developer Fred Trump, who actively arranged for welfare recipients to move into what had been holiday bungalows. That caused residents of the year-round homes to flee, some of them to apartments at the new Trump Village that the developer had been having difficulty filling.
Street criminals still managed to cut through the chain link occasionally, but Sea Gate had its own private police force to patrol the streets and man the two gates, admitting only residents and guests. Sea Gate thereby remained an exclusive community in the sense that outsiders—particularly of the black and Hispanic variety—were excluded.
That caused Jeffrey Epstein and the other “Sea Gate kids” to be viewed as snobs by some of their classmates beyond the fence. He attended Public School 188 four blocks down Neptune Avenue from one of the gates, with the fence and gatehouses a constant reminder than not just everybody could pass through. He went on to Mark Twain Junior High School nearby.
Sea Gate kids had previously attended Lincoln High School just beyond the other end of Coney Island. But Lincoln filled with kids from the newly opened Trump Village. And Jeffrey Epstein was in the second class of Sea Gate residents who began going to Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst.
“They were kind of like the rich kids,” a non-Seagate classmate named Sam Himmelstein told The Daily Beast.
Epstein was a member of the math team, which competed with other schools in solving advanced problems in trigonometry, algebra, and calculus.
“It’s not normal math you get in a classroom,” teammate David Brathurst told The Daily Beast. “It’s brain-wracking, put it that way.”
Neither Brathurst nor other members of team interviewed by The Daily Beast had particular recollections of Epstein.
“There’s nothing real memorable,” said teammate Andy Hom. “He was on the team, but didn’t compete much.”
Epstein did share a social designation with the rest of the team.
“We were sort of classified as nerds,” Brathurst said.
In the math team photo in the 1969 yearbook, the other members seem delighted to be in the picture. Epstein stands at the far edge, gazing downward while the others beam into the camera. He seems ill at ease even among his fellow math whizzes.
The same remoteness is evident in Epstein’s solo yearbook picture. He again gazes slightly down and away, as if he needed to be inflated with something before becoming fully himself. He signed the yearbook of one female classmate, who would only vaguely remember him.
“Love, Jeffrey,” he had written.
Epstein went on to study at Cooper Union and then New York University without receiving a degree. He nonetheless was able to teach math at the private Dalton School, where kids really were rich and snobby. He is said by The New York Times to have worn a fur coat and a shirt opened at the neck to reveal a gold chain.
In other words, he dressed as he might have had he been one of the cool kids back in his own high school. He is also said by the Times to have attended Dalton parties. All of which brings to mind another convicted sex offender, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who used a high-school picture as his Twitter profile photo.
Apparently, connections that Epstein made during his short tenure at Dalton enabled him to move on to Wall Street, where team-level math was beginning to enable some whizzes to amass considerable fortunes.
In the mid-1970s, Epstein was doing well enough that he traveled about with a limo and a driver. His money may have helped him attract a woman his age from Coney Island who was lively and very pretty. But he had also acquired a quality that she was unable to abide.
“She said she just couldn’t handle his arrogance,” her friend Bernard Laffer told The Daily Beast.
The woman broke off whatever connection she had with Epstein.
“I guess he was a little obsessed with her, following her around,” Laffer recalled.
The woman went on a date with Laffer, then a twentysomething law student who could only afford to squire her by city bus. They thus crossed Brooklyn from Coney Island to the Kingsway movie theater on Kings Highway.
After the movie, Laffer and the woman emerged to see Epstein at the curb beside his chauffeured limo.
“He kind of confronted her,” Laffer recalled. “I kept saying, ‘Leave her alone.’ He said, ’This is none of your business.’”
Epstein started becoming what Laffer terms “a little animated.”
“So, I pushed him out of the way,” Laffer remembered.
Laffer was an athlete who had grown up not in Sea Gate, but the housing projects of Coney Island.
“I said, ‘I hope you’re paying your limo driver well, because when I start beating your ass, he’s going to have to jump in,’” Laffer remembers.
Epstein retreated into the back of his limo and rode off.
“I think he probably gave me the finger, [and] said, ‘You’ll regret it,’ or something like that,” Laffer recalled. “What was he going to do?”
Epstein went on to far greater wealth. His new pals came to include Donald Trump, whose father had devastated Coney Island so as to fill an apartment complex, triggering an influx at one high school and thereby causing Epstein to attend another.
Epstein is said to have retained a number of friends from Sea Gate days, at least until he became a registered sex offender. Four of them were contacted by The Daily Beast. None would speak on the record.
Some years ago, Epstein was to have attended a casual Sea Gate reunion at the Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant in Manhattan.
“However, he decided to take a flyer on it, figuratively and literally, and Jet down to his Private Island, aboard his Private Jet, in order to dodge a Nor’Easter that was forecast to hit New York City,” a participant afterward wrote in a Facebook post.
The participant reported that Epstein called one of his better Sea Gate buddies and said he would have his secretary drop off a videocamera.
“For the purpose of [the buddy] being Jeff Epstein’s ‘videographer’ for capturing the highlights of our informal reunion,” the participant further recalled.
“Our friend did the table shots and then took quotes from the attendees and when he got to me, my comment was, ‘Jeff, sorry you couldn’t make the reunion; it’s very nice. It seems to me that with all of your wealth, you have proven that Class and Grace cannot be purchased and you clearly lack both, having your good friend videotape the reunion for your private viewing pleasure. If you had any Class whatsoever, you would have had your Personal Assistant perform the Videography and offered to pick up the check for this evening’s gathering.’”
The participant added, “My Wife, sitting next to me was punching me on my Legs under the table, but she knows now that I was right to speak my mind.”
The participant was referring to Epstein’s subsequent conviction in Florida for sex crimes involving underage girls. Epstein got an unconscionable deal of the kind that only money and influence could secure. But he has since been arrested on new, federal charges in Manhattan. His lawyers are actually whining that he is being treated unfairly because he is rich and well-connected.
The new case has refocused attention on Epstein’s assets, including a private jet sometimes referred to in the press as “the Lolita Express.” Flight manifests show that along with a number of girls, Epstein flew his mother on the plane on several occasions.
Online records show that Paula Epstein died at the age of 85 in 2004, a year before police in Florida began investigating her elder son for victimizing underage girls. Records indicate Seymour Epstein died in 1991, at age 75. Both parents seem to have been spared knowing that their brilliant elder son would end up widely reviled as a monster.
There remains the other son, Mark, who has offered his own home to help his brother make bail. Former neighbors on Maple Avenue have only good things to say about the Epstein they still call Puggie. They report that he went ran a business silk-screening T-shirts and then went into real estate and for a time served as chairman of the board at Cooper Union. Maybe it would be unfair to read anything into him having also incorporated a business called Saint Model and Talent.
The current residents of 3742 Maple could not have anticipated any irony when they placed three mosaic circles emblazoned with words that should guide everybody.
If “Maple” is a kind of real-life “Rosebud,” for Jeffrey Epstein, then maybe his money is not the root of all his evil. Maybe Epstein’s particular evil is not just rooted in his wealth and the arrogance it engendered, but in whatever happened in those years while he was raised on Maple Avenue by a mother and father who seemed to their neighbors to harbor only humility and decency.
Whatever the answer, there is a portent at the end of the block in that chain linked fence topped by razor wire and that sign reading “DEAD END.”