The BBC's Emily Maitlis interviews Prince Andrew.Mark Harrison / BBC

Prince Andrew has, clearly, made many poor decisions in life: traveling to royal engagements in Britain in a helicopter, rather than taking the train; criticizing the government’s attempts to combat corruption over lunch with British businessmen in Kyrgyzstan; captaining a team in a medieval-themed game show broadcast on national television.

Yet his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein—which continued after the latter’s conviction for solicitation of prostitution involving a minor—is disturbing on another level. The prince’s decision this weekend to give an interview to the BBC about that friendship, which entirely lacked empathy or remorse, compounds the offense.

From the start, it was apparent that the queen’s second son dwells not on Earth, but on Planet Aristocracy. It is a land governed by rules and codes that are unfathomable to the rest of us. When the BBC’s Emily Maitlis asked whether he had invited Epstein to a party, Andrew quickly corrected her: “It was a shooting weekend … a straightforward shooting weekend.” The distinction—between an evening event and staying with friends to fire guns in muddy fields—is meaningless to anyone who grew up outside the English upper classes. Throughout, he seemed to adhere to an honor code where ghosting a friend is unconscionably discourteous, but exploiting underage girls is merely a “manner unbecoming.” It is essentially a two-tier view of the world, where people are divided into equals and human chaff.

In 2011, the scandal surrounding Epstein, a former hedge-fund manager, cost Andrew his job as Britain’s trade envoy, a role that involved indiscriminate schmoozing of dictators, oligarchs, and business leaders. Questions about their friendship have dogged him ever since. He presumably thought the interview would help refute the persistent allegation that he had sex with a minor—Virginia Roberts (now Virginia Giuffre), then age 17—in 2001. In a court filing, Roberts said she was essentially trafficked by Epstein, and forced to have sex with his friends, including Andrew.

A secondary motive might have been to show remorse for the friendship, which continued long after it was clear exactly what kind of person Epstein was. On the surface, the millionaire’s lifestyle was glittering—donations to tech research, dinners with public intellectuals—but its darkness ought to have been obvious to anyone who saw it up close. Epstein attended Andrew’s daughter Beatrice’s 18th-birthday party at Windsor Castle in 2006, two months after an arrest warrant was issued for his sexual assault of a minor. (He was given a plea bargain, allowing him to serve just 13 months in prison, as well as immunity from future prosecutions not just for him, but for “any potential co-conspirators.”)

When protesting his own innocence in the BBC interview, the prince floundered. He sounded queasy and evasive. He could not have slept with Roberts on the date she alleged, he said, because he was at a pizza restaurant in a town near London. Why did he remember that so specifically? “Because going to Pizza Express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do.” (Never mind that Woking is only 30 miles from London, putting it about an hour’s drive from Tramp Nightclub, where he is alleged to have met Roberts that evening.) Her memory of him as sweating also threw the story into doubt, he believed: “I didn’t sweat at the time because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at.”

On the second count—expressing remorse—the prince also failed. Maitlis asked Andrew straight out whether he regretted the friendship. “Still not,” he said. “The people that I met and the opportunities that I was given to learn either by him or because of him were actually very useful.” (No room in the picture for another set of people: Epstein’s victims.) She tried again later, and got essentially the same answer.

As an interviewer, Maitlis was calm and forensic. The prince said he and Epstein were not “close friends.” And yet Andrew had been on his private plane? “Yes.” Had stayed on his private island? “Yes.” Had stayed at his home in Palm Beach? “Yes.” After Epstein was released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for procuring a minor for prostitution, Andrew stayed at Epstein’s house in New York, and was photographed walking through Central Park with him. “I went there with the sole purpose of saying to him that because he had been convicted, it was inappropriate for us to be seen together.” Maitlis was politely incredulous: “You went to break up the relationship and yet you stayed at that New York mansion several days?”

Although the interview will be remembered for the weirdness of its details—the pizza and the sweat—its true value lies elsewhere. It provided, through an apparently unaware narrator, a portrait of the whole toxic brew that fed the Epstein scandal and others like it. When historians try to understand the interplay of celebrity and sexual predation in the early 21st century, it will be as revealing a document as the recent books on Harvey Weinstein. Every abuser requires enablers. Every abuser requires silenced victims. Every abuser requires blind eyes.

These 45 minutes of television laid out the whole sorry dynamic. Take an aristocrat and offer him access to an exciting whirl of glittering people. Remember that he is used to, from birth, the constant presence of “staff,” so that he invisibly divides the world into his peers and those shadowy beings who fulfill his every whim. (“I don’t wish to appear grand, but there were a lot of people who were walking around Jeffrey Epstein’s house,” he told Maitlis. “I interacted with them, if you will, to say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good afternoon,’ but I didn’t [ask], ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Why are you here?’ ‘What's going on?’”) Then offer him the use of a house, a plane, an island, an implicit transaction of money for royal stardust. He is a trophy, rarer even than a stuffed lion, to show off to friends.

This is a world where houses are busy, as Andrew put it, like “a railway station”—run by staff, of course—and are much more convenient than staying in a hotel. A whole class of humans, just so much moving scenery, keeps the world turning. A stratified approach to humanity was evident throughout the interview. Repeatedly, Andrew missed opportunities to express sympathy for Epstein’s victims. (His PR adviser quit two weeks before the interview, after advising against it.) They didn’t seem to exist as vividly as he and his friends.

If the prince had not come across so unsympathetically, there might have been another lesson to be drawn from his words: the deforming effect of Britain’s obsession with its royal family on the members of that family. They are treated with extreme deference and extreme resentment, a divide that threatens to shear their psyches in two. Kate Middleton is praised and reviled for the flat dullness of her public image. For every cruel column accusing Meghan and Harry of narcissism, there are huge numbers of supporters who adore them uncritically. For Prince Andrew, there is a sharp disconnect between the fawning millionaires with whom he surrounds himself and the relentless hostility of a press that sees him as a spendthrift playboy.

Buried in Andrew’s words were plenty of reasons to pity him. He grew up, he said, in an “institution”—using the same word for the royal family that you might for a children’s home or youth prison. He was careful of having photographs taken, constantly on his guard. He could not tell if anything strange was happening around Epstein, because “if you are somebody like me, then people behave in a subtly different way.” (It reminded me of the old joke that the queen thinks everywhere smells of fresh paint.) His description of his inability to sweat after serving in the navy sounded like a hint that he found the experience traumatic. Despite his apparent lack of remorse, I did feel there was something tragic about his story: a man born into a role he didn’t ask for, given money and attention he didn’t earn, living a gilded, hyper-visible, fundamentally abnormal life.

Yet the sympathy stretches only so far. Prince Andrew said Epstein had taken advantage of his “tendency to be too honorable.” It is more likely that Epstein took advantage of his entitlement and self-regard. There are only two ways for Andrew to explain the friendship. The first is that he knowingly associated with a convicted sex offender, because he did not regard that as a disqualification. The second is that he was too stupid, or too incurious, to comprehend the evil going on around him.

I lean toward the latter explanation. Privileged obliviousness is the royal family’s default setting. Some have escaped it: Andrew’s sister, Anne, refused royal titles for her children, as she was determined to bring them up outside the royal bubble. Andrew did not: His daughters are princesses. At her wedding last year, the younger one, Eugenie, chose a reading from The Great Gatsby, which she said reminded her of her future husband. “He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly,” observes the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, in the section of the novel read out by her sister, Beatrice. “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.”

How delightful—except that the man Carraway is describing is Jay Gatsby, a con man who weasels his way into high society through flattery and charm. “They were careless people,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald of two of The Great Gatsby’s other characters, Tom and Daisy. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In his interview with the BBC, Prince Andrew revealed himself as a man of vast carelessness. He was friends with a man who smashed up young girls’ lives, and used his money and influence to secure a plea deal that saw him treated with incredible lenience.

At the very least, Prince Andrew tolerated and indulged that impulse in Epstein. Now, after 24 hours of backlash over his disastrous interview, British newspapers are carrying quotes from the prince telling friends of his “regret” at the friendship and “great sympathy” for the victims.

Other people are now trying to clean up the mess he has made.

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