Three years ago, a socially prominent heir to a fortune told Jeffrey Epstein, “You need to call Couri Hay.” Epstein, a registered sex offender who had finished serving a 13-month sentence in a Florida lockup on prostitution charges, was plotting his return to polite society. And R. Couri Hay was a New York society publicist with a reputation for creating—and in some cases restoring—reputations among the plutocrat class.
“I don’t want ‘billionaire pervert’ to be the first line of my obituary,” Hay says Epstein told him during what would be the first of three meetings, the publicist recalls to T&C.
According to Hay, they spoke three times: three years, three months, and then three weeks ago. At least one meeting took place at Epstein’s mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where Hay noted the bizarre décor, including a mural of his would-be client in a prison yard.
The Epstein Connection
Hay says he outlined an aggressive strategy to launder Epstein’s soiled reputation, including entering institutional rehab for sex addition; receiving spiritual counseling from a rabbi; and signing Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge to donate the bulk of his wealth to good causes, which would involve not only liquidating his estate once he died, but also donating up to $50 million a year to charities relevant to his crimes while he was alive.
Audaciously, Hay even offered to arrange an audience for Epstein with Pope Francis. The idea was for a coup-de-publicité where Epstein would confess his sins and receive forgiveness from the highest earthly authority. (Whether he could deliver the Pope is another question entirely.)
Hay also encouraged Epstein to discuss this penance with the media: An exclusive interview with T&C perhaps, or maybe the New York Times. (This idea had not yet been pitched to either publication when Epstein was arrested last week on sex trafficking charges.)
Of course, the strategy came with a price—one that even Epstein balked at. “I told him, ‘PR is a luxury item,’” Hay says. “And the fastest way to get where you want to go is slow.”
Epstein was asked to sign on with Hay for a minimum of one year, and to pay in advance. “He didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no,” Hay says. “He called me three weeks ago and said something was going on, and that he would be ready to do it in September.”
What that “something” was, Hay may never know; they have not been in touch since his arrest last week.
(Epstein's representatives did not respond to our request for comment.)
A Notorious List of Clients
If Hay seemed like the right man to call, it may be because he has experience helping some of the more disgraced members of the upper crust.
In the last two years, those reportedly seeking his help with crisis P.R. have included Leslie Moonves, the ousted CBS chairman and chief executive; and Harvey Weinstein, the shamed Hollywood mogul. And he has been a booster for Michael Milken, the 1980s “junk bond king,” who successfully reinvented himself (after a stint in prison) as a philanthropist.
When not putting out fires, Hay is building heat in a different way.
He shepherded Ivanka Trump’s early career, 20 years ago, when she was the daughter of a local real estate investor trying to make her reputation as a fashion model and socialite. And he is credited with creating Tinsley Mortimer, a southern debutante who crashed Manhattan society in the early 2000s, before flaming out and resurrecting herself as a “Real Housewife of New York.”
One young would-be socialite told T&C that for such services—which includes guidance on which junior philanthropic boards to join, career and style advice, plus invitations to the “right” parties that an arriviste might not be able to score on her own—Hay’s fee can be around $5,000 a month. For dirtier work, of course, he charges more.
Early Days at Warhol's Factory
Robert Couri Hay, a native of Portland, Maine, is now 70. As he tells it, as a young man dining with his grandmother in the restaurant of a hotel, he caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who propelled him headlong into a fashionable beau monde.
Hay turns up in Warhol's diaries at parties with Barry Diller, Diana Ross, Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. At a dinner with Diana Vreeland for the designer Zandra Rhodes, Hay is somewhat mystifyingly referred to as her “fiancé.”
“So I brought up his wife,” Warhol writes, archly. “Oh, you know, his ‘wife,’ that boy.”
Beginning in 1976, Hay was able to parlay his access to the shiny set into a lucrative gossip column in the National Enquirer.
He claims credit for brokering the tabloid’s most memorable scoop of the decade: a photograph of Elvis Presley, lying in his coffin, which the Enquirer ran on its front page. Hay also claims to have been the first American print journalist to have earned a combined salary and expenses package of a million dollars.
His public relations work overlapped with the Enquirer column, which ended in 1983. An early junior socialite client was Cornelia Guest, daughter of the Truman Capote “swan” C.Z. Guest, for whom Hay claims to have coined the sobriquet “Debutante of the Decade.”
Hay never did stop combining journalism and public relations, penning articles and society columns for numerous publications while also being a source for the city’s many gossip columns. Former Daily News columnist George Rush recalled that in 1997, Hay phoned from the slopes of Aspen to provide an eye-witness account of the ski-accident death of Michael Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy.
“The Kennedys are on their knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer,” Rush quotes Hay saying then. (The family later put out a statement condemning “scurrilous and inaccurate” claims about the accident by an unnamed “individual,” widely believed to be Hay, “with his own transparent agenda and an elastic regard for the truth.”)
Epstein Didn't Sign on the Dotted Line
Nonetheless, Hay was skilled at inhabiting the intersection between media and would-be celebrities. In 2004, for example, a handsome unknown made the front page of New York tabloids by dirty dancing with then-first-daughter, Barbara Bush.
Hay swooped in to represent the wealthy young man, Fabian Basabe, and kept newspapers supplied with endless stories about the new “It-boy.” Basabe later said his arrangement with a “high profile PR man” cost him “$10,0000 per month.”
Such fees support Hay’s Upper West Side townhouse, where he lives and works, and which is decorated with portraits of his younger self by pop art mainstays from the Warhol crowd, including Peter Max.
In conversation, Hay won’t disclose the price he quoted Epstein, but says no contract was ever signed. According to Hay, "I turned the account down at the end, mostly because he wasn’t responsive to my mandatory plan. And I wouldn’t want people to think otherwise."
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