“It would be a considerable stretch to say that he was a very, very close friend,” Prince Andrew said of the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in Manhattan, in August, while awaiting trial for sex-trafficking girls as young as fourteen years old. Prince Andrew, who is also known by the title of the Duke of York, attempted to classify the degree of his friendship and the nature of his association with Epstein in an extraordinary televised interview on “Newsnight,” the BBC’s flagship current-affairs program, broadcast this weekend. The interview was conducted with forensic scrupulousness by Emily Maitlis, and, when it ended, roughly three-quarters of an hour later, the Prince had supplied some useful data points by which the degree of his intimacy with Epstein might be judged. He had, he acknowledged, stayed at Epstein’s homes in New York and in Palm Beach on multiple occasions; he had attended intimate dinners with Epstein and his friends; and he had gratefully received Epstein’s introductions to useful contacts, presumably in business and finance. He had flown on Epstein’s private jet and had accepted Epstein’s hospitality at his compound on Little St. James, a private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
What the Duke of York insisted that he had not accepted from Epstein was the pimped sexual favors of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has sworn under oath that eighteen years ago, starting when she was seventeen, she was induced by Epstein to have sex on three separate occasions with Andrew, who was at the time fourth in line to the British throne. (Upstairs, in a house in Belgravia, London; at Epstein’s Manhattan mansion; at Epstein’s Caribbean retreat.) As the interview progressed, Andrew insisted that he had no recollection of ever meeting Giuffre, who has given an account of the Prince buying her drinks and dancing with her at Tramp, a members-only night club in Mayfair, on the first occasion of their acquaintance, on March 10, 2001. He also gave a whole slew of reasons why the evening could not have taken place as Giuffre alleged: he does not even know where the bar inside Tramp is located, so could not have bought her drinks at it; and he could not have sweated profusely while dancing, as Giuffre recalled, because, having experienced “an overdose of adrenaline” while coming under fire in the Falklands War in 1982, he had been rendered physically incapable of sweating. Most conclusively, he could not have been at Tramp on the night of March 10th because he was home with his tween-age daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, having taken Beatrice to a birthday party at Pizza Express in Woking earlier in the afternoon.
It may be impossible to offer a precise American parallel to the Pizza Express in Woking, though, if you think of a T.G.I. Friday’s in Fairfax, Virginia, you’re on the right track. Woking is a commuter town in Surrey, about half an hour from Central London by train, and about ten miles south of Sunninghill Park, the country house in which the Prince lived with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, after their marriage, in 1986, and which remained the Duchess’s home after their divorce, in 1996. Pizza Express, for readers not familiar with the U.K.’s fast-casual dining landscape, is a chain of restaurants first established in 1965 with a single outpost in London’s Soho, and is largely responsible for introducing British consumers to pizza. As Maitlis nodded in response to the Prince’s explanation of his whereabouts that day, you could imagine her stifling the reflexive question: Did he order the Fiorentina, with spinach and egg, or the Giardiniera, with artichokes and mushrooms?
In the immediate wake of Andrew’s gustatory revelation, the Woking branch of Pizza Express was inundated with since-deleted fake Google reviews: “It’s really a very memorable night out, unlike some other places one has been!” “Had a lovely sausage pizza back in 2001 with my friend Jeffrey and didn’t break a sweat!” Given that only a couple of years ago the American public was confounded by the gothic fantasies of Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy theory which claimed that Hillary Clinton was at the center of a sex-trafficking ring based out of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C., it is a peculiar irony that a member of the Royal Family should invoke pizza-eating as an alibi for his insistence that he had no knowledge of the sex-trafficking activities of his American sort-of friend, Jeffrey Epstein.
This being Britain and the royals, however, Pizzagate, U.K. style, is served with a side of class-bound implications. Much of the time under Maitlis’s questioning, the Prince was squirmy: when she asked him about his four-day house visit with Epstein in 2010, not long after Epstein had been released from prison, after serving a thirteen-month sentence for procuring an underage girl for prostitution, the Prince’s eyes flickered, as if he were casting about for divine intervention, or at least recollecting the counsel of his communications adviser. When, however, Maitlis asked why the Prince remembered the events of March 10th so clearly, he fixed her with a steady gaze. “Because going to Pizza Express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do—a very unusual thing for me to do,” he Prince-splained, a slight smirk playing over his lips. Maitlis and her viewers were supposed to believe that Andrew found his presence at a High Street favorite so unthinkable as to be almost comical.
That was one of several occasions when the Prince, who has a home on the royal estate at Windsor and an apartment in Buckingham Palace, sought to underline how unlike ordinary people he is, and how those distinctions should be considered as exculpatory evidence in the Epstein affair. Having insisted that he had “no recollection of ever meeting this lady,” referring to Virginia Roberts Giuffre, the Prince also insisted that he had no recollection of being photographed with her, despite the existence of a snap showing him in a shirt and dark pants, with his arm around her waist, while Epstein’s girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, stands grinning in the background. The photo is alleged to have been taken at Maxwell’s home in London. Though the Prince seemed unwilling to explicitly charge that the image was faked, he cast suspicion on its authenticity by suggesting that, although he might be seen dressed that way while travelling, he always wears a suit and tie while in London. Furthermore, his status as a member of the Royal Family means that he allows very few photographs of himself to be taken. “I am not one to, as it were, hug, and public displays of affection are not something that I do,” he added. (Who are you going to believe: royal protocol, or your own eyes?) Still more jaw-dropping was Andrew’s assertion that he may not have registered any untoward goings-on with young women in the Epstein residences because, being accustomed at Buckingham Palace to having lots of staff around, he assumed that anyone milling about an Epstein manse must be an employee, and therefore would not require his sustained attention.
There were many moments during the interview that left a viewer scratching her head in confusion or, indeed, finding herself beset by mounting surges of enraged republicanism. In what world does anyone, not least a father of two young daughters, accept the hospitality of a convicted pedophile because “it was a convenient place to stay”? What points did Prince Andrew possibly think he was scoring when he haughtily denied that he had hosted a birthday party for Ghislaine Maxwell, attended by Epstein, at Sandringham, the royal estate in Norfolk, forcefully insisting that it was “just a straightforward, a straightforward shooting weekend”? And what on earth were the “badges” that Prince Andrew was muttering about in the final incoherent moments of the interview, when he was offered an opportunity to speak about his own charitable projects? (I’ve read the project’s Web site now, and I still can’t make sense of it.) The Prince came off as charmless, self-centered, and entirely lacking in empathy: entitlement literally incarnate. When asked if he regretted his association with Epstein, he maintained that the friendship had been worth it for the useful contacts it provided. He was unable or unwilling to summon—or even to feign—a moment’s compassion for Roberts Giuffre or the other victims of Epstein’s depravity.
It was doubtless Andrew’s status as a senior royal—now downgraded to eighth in line to the throne, but still reportedly the Queen’s favorite child—that persuaded him of the wisdom of doing something as decidedly un-royal as agreeing to sit down for a televised interview with one of Britain’s most accomplished and rigorous journalists. Living at an elevated remove from the common people, in a sphere without mass-produced pizza and spontaneous hugging, perhaps he imagined that he would be able to make his case to those same commoners. He could not have been more wrong. Prince Andrew’s defense of himself was not the Trumpian one: that the rules do not apply. It was, rather, that his faithfulness to the rules—the conventions of royal life—was so absolute that he could not possibly have done the things of which he was accused.
The most riveting moment in the interview came at the very end. The Prince, finally acknowledging Epstein’s deeds, said, “Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes.” Maitlis immediately dispensed with the inappropriate euphemism. “Unbecoming? He was a sex offender,” she replied, forcing the Prince to reckon with the brute fact. Being challenged: Prince Andrew must have found that experience unsettling and unfamiliar—even further from his rarefied experience than eating pizza, taking selfies, and recognizing the personal autonomy of members of the serving class, those people passing through whom one doesn’t need to notice.