Ghislaine Maxwell: out of the shadows and into the spotlight

June 29, 2021
At her forthcoming trial, the documentary suggests Ghislaine Maxwell’s defence team will play the victim card

A new documentary promises to shed light on the Manhattan socialite whose association with Jeffrey Epstein helped turn her into a pariah

Ghislaine Maxwell is sitting on a bench in New York in 1992, fresh-faced and vulnerable. Filmed by an Israeli camerawoman, this will be the only taped interview that she gives after the mysterious death of her father, tycoon Robert Maxwell, the year before.

She has fled here to reinvent herself as a Manhattan socialite, after it has emerged that Maxwell siphoned £500 million from his companies’ pension funds. Yet, when asked what that notorious surname means to her, a grieving Ghislaine declares: “I’m proud of it – I shall remain proud of it forever.”

This Daddy fixation sets the opening act of a gripping documentary seeking to understand who Ghislaine Maxwell really is: not to excuse her, but to explain her. How did this glamorous figure become a social pariah who allegedly enabled paedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s appetite for abusing young girls?

Moreover, the socialite who introduced the Duke of York to Epstein, culminating in that car-crash Newsnight interview, has also wreaked indelible reputational damage on the House of Windsor. Contributors to the documentary claim that Ghislaine “will not take the fall alone,” so the question remains how she might yet extricate herself from the murky web of her own creation? Will she serve Prince Andrew up as collateral damage?

Filled with fascinating never-before-seen archival footage, including Robert Maxwell’s 65th birthday party where 27-year-old Ghislaine assumes the role of hostess, the programme races around the socialite’s rarefied world, charting her dysfunctional childhood, (according to her mother, Betty Maxwell, Ghislaine was anorexic at the age of three) her halcyon days at Oxford, the jetsetting as Epstein’s best friend and accomplice, to his arrest and suicide in a New York prison in August 2019. The culmination is the FBI raid, when 25 officers stormed Ghislaine’s aptly named house, Tuckedaway, in New Hampshire, in July 2020. It’s like a real-life version of HBO’s media-mogul drama Succession. Behind all that glittering privilege lies shocking emotional privation.

The new documentary suggests that Ghislaine’s defence team will play the victim card; that she was as much under Epstein’s Svengali control as the girls he abused. A former CIA officer predicts Maxwell will strike a plea deal because of her connections to “too many important people.” Is Ghislaine, one wonders, currently sitting in a Brooklyn prison awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges, still as indelibly proud of her surname?

The woman who possibly knows better than anyone is award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Shearer, who devised and directed Ghislaine Maxwell; Epstein’s Shadow. Based in Toronto, Shearer has spent 20 years making crime documentaries, including the HBO hit Women Who Love Killers. Her fascination with Epstein began in 2016, when a source in Palm Beach, who “socialised in a tight-knit circle with Ghislaine and Jeffrey”, told Barbara the full grisly story of the innocent young girls that Ghislaine allegedly lured to the mansion for Epstein.

Ghislaine had already been accused of acting as a madam for Epstein in victim Virginia Robert’s 2009 civil suit. Roberts then sued Maxwell for defamation in 2015, settling out of court. Thus, Ghislaine managed to stay in Epstein’s shadow until mainstream media leapt on her after Epstein’s death in 2019, propelling her into the spotlight. He had mysteriously hanged himself in his prison cell, sparking an 11-month international manhunt for his “fixer” and friend.

“When Jeffrey was arrested and pleaded guilty to soliciting and procuring a minor in 2008,” says Shearer, “he got 18 months in jail that he spent 12 hours a day outside of. I could see that there was a huge cover-up. It was another rich man who just got his wrists slapped.”

Shearer couldn’t sell her original concept for a documentary on Epstein on the grounds that it was “too tawdry” due to the under-age sex. “One executive told me that I would have had a better chance of getting it greenlit if a murder had been involved.”

The story gained international traction in 2019, with a second investigation into Epstein by the FBI. “While everyone was focused on Jeffrey Epstein,” recalls Shearer, “I thought that the more interesting character was Ghislaine.”

But it wasn’t until Ghislaine was finally arrested last year that the project took off. One of the fresh revelations relayed by a former Israeli Intelligence operative who knew Robert Maxwell, is that Ghislaine actually met Epstein in the late 1980s through her father, when Epstein was doing business in London, not in the 1990s in New York, as is commonly believed. According to Shearer, Ghislaine was attracted to Epstein and “he was interested in the influential daughter of a media baron as he clawed his way up.”

I first met Shearer over Zoom last October, when she asked me to contribute to the documentary. I knew Ghislaine only to air-kiss her at Oxford parties; we crossed over in my final year. I remember her as coldly charming; always looking over your shoulder for someone more influential.

Off camera, chatting with Shearer, I was impressed by her forensic understanding of Ghislaine. She interviewed more than 200 people for the programme, of whom 30 appear. “The biggest challenge was getting people to talk on camera,” she told me last week. “Even if we offered to film them in shadow, at the last minute they would pull out because the association with Ghislaine and Epstein is so toxic. We then had to vet those who did contribute, and verify what they said. Our team combed through 1,000 pages of deposition material and court transcripts to make sure that everything that is on screen is factually correct.” It feels redemptive that the team was entirely female for this project.

The most powerful testimony comes from the survivors of Epstein’s sex addiction. Maria Farmer, who worked for Epstein and Maxwell for 18 months before she was allegedly sexually abused by them, says: “Ghislaine is a monster. Either she gets away with everything or she gets killed.” Farmer is convinced that Ghislaine’s fate will mimic Epstein’s, meaning either she will get a plea bargain, or could die in equally mysterious circumstances because of everything she knows. Farmer saw cameras in the bedrooms at Epstein’s and believes he filmed powerful people to blackmail them.

The trial has been delayed due to new allegations that came out against Maxwell in March. The documentary posits theories that Ghislaine might not even end up in court on November 29; that she will take a plea bargain because many people do not want the information that Ghislaine has being made public.

Spencer Kuvin, the lawyer for nine victims, says: “There is more to this story than anyone knows. Ghislaine Maxwell has the answers and until she talks; we may never know the full story.”

Shearer will not be drawn on what she thinks will happen, partly because she’s aware of scrutiny from Maxwell’s team of “really strong lawyers” but more, she says, because as a documentarian she presents evidence to enable the audience to decide. “I don’t excuse any of Ghislaine’s behaviour but I seek to explain her journey; a woman shrouded in mystery for years who lived in her father’s shadow, then Epstein’s shadow.”

What does she think the audience will conclude? “That Ghislaine is complicated. That her early life informed her life with Epstein. She was raised by a father who was either abusive or spoiled her, so she learned at a young age to navigate difficult, despicable men.

“There is a fearlessness and a recklessness about Ghislaine. This is a woman who jumped out of helicopters with skis on. She’s got a helicopter licence. She lived for a proximity to power.”

If Epstein was alive today, would Ghislaine have been left alone? “I don’t have the answer to that, but many of our subjects have theories,” says Shearer. “The million dollar question is: ‘will she get off?’

“I definitely feel that Ghislaine is sitting on a tinderbox of information. After all, she did spend almost 20 years with Epstein. I’ve spent five years solidly immersed in this subject and still have questions. This story hasn’t ended.”

As a slew of upcoming documentaries on Ghislaine confirm, “It’s ever evolving,” Shearer concludes. “I think it’s a bigger beast than we realise.”