Glamorous, cold and calculating, I saw her dazzle – but she was never a girls’ girl and it was always men who defined her
As the old year comes to an end, the world has witnessed a fall from grace so staggering that if it appeared in the dynastic drama Succession, it would seem far-fetched. Ghislaine Maxwell, the gilded girl, who grew up in a 53-room mansion in Oxford, now faces spending both the autumn and the winter of her life in prison, after a unanimous jury found her guilty of “one of the worst crimes imaginable – facilitating and participating in the sexual abuse of children”.
The darling of the society pages, who mixed with princes and presidents, partied with John F Kennedy Jr and was invited to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, is now, thanks to her “accomplice in crime”, Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted felon. The Maxwell name is once again traduced, an eerie echo of Ghislaine’s father, Robert Maxwell, whose corrupt behaviour appalled the nation in the late Eighties when he siphoned £500 million from his companies’ pension funds to fuel his excessive lifestyle. Like Epstein, who was found hanged in a New York prison in August 2019, Robert Maxwell also died in mysterious circumstances when he fell off the back of his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine, in the Canary Islands in 1991.
How did it come to pass that Ghislaine, a fully fledged member of the international glitzocracy, who has taken more private jets than the rest of us have hailed cabs, and was Prince Andrew’s guest at the June 2000 Dance of the Decades at Windsor Castle – which celebrated the Duke’s 40th, the Queen Mother’s 100th, Princess Margaret’s 70th and Princess Anne’s 50th birthdays – came to spend her own 60th birthday in what she described as the “hell hole” of a 10ft by 12ft prison cell in New York?
The key is surely Robert Maxwell who, incidentally, introduced her to Epstein in the late Eighties, when Epstein was working as an international arms dealer and possible spy, under the guidance of Maxwell himself.
I spent my early childhood in Oxford, where the Maxwell family loomed large. My older sister, Jane, went to prep school with Ian and Kevin Maxwell, and was invited to parties at the family home, Headington Hill Hall.
Always, the backdrop was the tyrannical and frankly terrifying figure of Robert Maxwell. Yet even if we lay the sins of the father at Robert Maxwell’s door – and while it might explain Ghislaine’s downfall to social pariah as she willingly enabled Epstein’s insatiable appetite for abusing girls – it doesn’t excuse her own heinous treatment of young women. Or the fact that she fell from the paternal protection of one monster, her father, into the embrace of another, Epstein, making no effort to change the patterns of her past.
She is, it seems, an extraordinary character – conjured almost from the pages of a novel – who only beats to the drumming demands of a rich man without questioning morality or consequence.
Ghislaine Maxwell’s fictionesque life story arc began when she entered the world on – of course, a sacred date – Christmas Day 1961, in Maisons-Lafitte in France. Like her eight siblings, she was deliberately born in France to take the nationality of her French mother, Elizabeth. (Interestingly at the trial, she was heard speaking with her siblings, Ian, Kevin, Christine and Isabel, who attended daily, in French.)
Her father, Robert, an impoverished Czech immigrant who became a billionaire newspaper magnate, always felt and indeed was an outsider in Britain. Maxwell was insecure, paranoid and cruel. He created a surveillance state in Headington Hill Hall – speakers were fitted in every office, so that he could bark commandments to his staff.
He was equally bombastic holding court, en famille, at Sunday lunch. Interrogating his children on news and politics, if they answered incorrectly, he would beat them in front of everyone, guests included. “Bob would shout and threaten and rant at the children until they were reduced to pulp,” his wife, Betty, wrote after his death. Yet she did not intercede.
Amidst the privilege, the neglect was palpable. Ghislaine’s birth was overshadowed by a horrific accident two days after she was born. The Maxwells’ eldest son, Michael, was critically injured in a car crash aged 15, when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. He died seven years later.
With Bob and Betty mired in grief, Ghislaine has claimed she felt invisible. Aged three, she said to Betty: “Mother, you’ve forgotten me. I do exist.” From then on, her father lavished her with attention to the point that in her late teens, she usurped her mother and became Maxwell’s escort to social functions and to meet heads of state.
In psychological terms, this is called becoming the Oedipal winner. She was more important in her father’s life than her mother, which gave her a feeling of power and obliterated traditional familial boundaries. The consummate Daddy’s Girl had learned at her father’s knee how to please and placate a devilishly difficult, perverse man. A talent which she would go on to replicate with Epstein.
Ghislaine was educated at Oxford High School, then Marlborough. She spent a gap year working for her father’s publishing company Pergamon Press before studying French and Modern History at Balliol. A college contemporary was Boris Johnson.
Although a few years younger, I met Ghislaine when I was an undergraduate at Oxford. I remember her as glamorous, cold and calculating. She was never a Girls’ Girl – I don’t remember her with a tight coterie of girlfriends. And she never exuded emotional warmth. Moreover, women were used as a conduit to meet and mix with more powerful men. Yet she was seen as exotic and compelling in the dry aristocratic circles we moved in due to Robert Maxwell’s power and wealth.
It seems wholly ironic to me now that post-Oxford she started the all-women’s club Kit Kat Club, named after an early 18th-century political club. Her club hosted a gathering of women in smart London addresses to listen to a female speaker invited by Ghislaine.
I attended a few of these gatherings, where Ghislaine dazzled. At the time, I felt in awe of her for championing women. It’s a thought that chokes me now, when she went on to betray the sisterhood in such a despicable, depraved way.
Aged 22, her father made her a director of Oxford United Football Club. Then, in the spring of 1991, he put Ghislaine in charge of “special projects” for the American tabloid he had acquired, the New York Daily News.
But that gilded existence came to a stunning halt barely six months later when Maxwell fell to his death into the Atlantic Ocean.
Ghislaine’s world looked to implode. After her father’s lavish Mount of Olives funeral in Israel, she returned to America by Concorde, giving little thought to the optics as those financially ravaged by the pension scandal struggled to survive. She was determined even at that point it seems to carry on with the life she and her father had clearly mapped out, and began by reinventing herself as a Manhattan socialite.
And among those she linked up with was her late father’s contact Jeffrey Epstein, a college dropout who grew up in Coney Island, eight years her senior. He was enthralled by Ghislaine, who opened up not just doors but entire Upper East Side avenues of glittering social contacts.
Without her father’s funds and protection, Epstein – a self-made multi-millionaire – became her holy grail, leading her up a path so treacherous as to beggar belief. Yet Ghislaine, who was clearly in love with him, never questioned his sex addiction. Instead, she facilitated it, procuring endless young girls from fractured families for him to abuse. The trial revealed the full force of Ghislaine’s adoration of Epstein, showing endless photographs of her gazing at him in besotted awe.
Their relationship was certainly mutually beneficial. She introduced Epstein to royalty while in return Epstein gave Ghislaine $30 million, a Manhattan townhouse and the life of private jets, Palm Beach mansions and privilege she relished. No wonder, during the trial, the judge dismissed the defence’s view that Ghislaine was manipulated by Epstein, concluding “she was a grown woman who knew exactly what she was doing”.
In my opinion, her crimes are worse than Epstein’s. He could never have accessed so many vulnerable women without Ghislaine, whom these girls looked up to and trusted. She has yet to exhibit an ounce of remorse, just like her blindly loyal family, who still proclaim her innocence.
Perhaps none of us should be surprised. Ghislaine’s incredible lack of human empathy or concern for anyone or anything but her own material comfort and status was always there in plain sight.
At the height of her reign as Epstein’s partner, Ghislaine was walking in Palm Beach with the journalist Barbara Amiel, wife of then media mogul, Conrad Black. Suddenly she turned to Amiel and said: “I bet I’m in charge of more bathrooms and lavatories than you.” When Amiel looked astonished at what she realised was a gauge of wealth, Ghislaine enquired: “You haven’t counted?” How aptly devastating for Ghislaine, as she sits in her prison cell today, that there are no more bathrooms to count, only a solitary lavatory to stare at. Her downfall is complete.