I remember Ghislaine Maxwell as a child in the 1970s, when she was not much younger than some of her accusers were when she is alleged to have been involved in their sex trafficking. She seemed a distant, beautiful, rather threatening figure, already wielding great power with little care.
Two years older than me, Maxwell was an exact contemporary of my sister at Oxford High School in leafy north Oxford, an unlikely figure of glamour among the dons’ daughters, a bird of paradise in a successful academic battery farm. Dame Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Maxwell’s polar opposite, morally and legally, was also a pupil. I wonder what Britain’s top police officer makes of her fellow alumna, now Britain’s most notorious accused pimp.
My sister would return from Ghislaine’s opulent birthday parties at Headington Hill Hall laden with extravagant goodies including, on one occasion, a box of Caran d’Ache pencils so long it would not fit in the boot of our Morris Minor. The 53-room Italianate mansion, where Oscar Wilde once danced with Lady Ottoline Morrell, was surrounded by barbed wire and guards, with its own swimming pool and tennis courts. The academics sneered at its Maxwellian pretensions.
Ghislaine was envied, admired, teased for her money, and mocked for her slow reading. But she was more than capable of bullying, perhaps inspired by her father. Robert Maxwell would often invite Ghislaine’s classmates up to the hall to take part in reading competitions with her. However good the other girls were, he declared Ghislaine the winner every time.
She left Oxford High and spent her sixth form at Marlborough College. When she went on to Balliol (where contemporaries included Dame Cressida), some sniggered that it was only because her father had endowed the college with the Maxwell Fellowship; they still do.
Of course we had no inkling of what life was really like in Headington Hill Hall — the combination of luxury and cruelty, the alternate spoiling and brutality inflicted by the monstrous Robert Maxwell, newspaper magnate, plutocrat and embezzler.
She was more than capable of bullying, perhaps inspired by her father.
Ghislaine was the ninth child of the press baron, born two days after a car accident that led to the death of her brother Michael: she was the replacement, the youngest, and the favourite. She seems to have escaped the worst of Maxwell’s wrath, the beatings he inflicted on his children when they disappointed him. “Bob would shout and threaten and rant at the children until they were reduced to pulp,” Betty Maxwell said of her husband after his death. Ghislaine became anorexic, according to her mother, while still a toddler.
But as every favourite in the court of a tyrant discovers, success is conditional on maintaining preferment, and self-abasement.
Maxwell set up Ghislaine in a corporate gifts company that consistently lost money. He gave her Oxford United football club to run, and was frequently pictured with her, embracing in the stands. In 1986, he summoned Ghislaine to a Dutch shipyard, where she was asked (or told) to mount some scaffolding with a bottle of champagne to name Maxwell’s new yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Hers was the only family photograph on display in his penthouse office.
But she was entirely dependent on her father, and he let the world know it. If she “falls flat on her face, I’ll be there to help her up and tell her to try again,” he said, a remark both supportive and undermining. Ghislaine was not allowed to bring boyfriends home, or to be seen with them in public.
She worshipped him. When she displeased him, he excoriated her. On one occasion, according to Maxwell’s biographer Tom Bower, after she had failed to provide an adequately detailed account of an important social event, she sent a grovelling letter to her father, more in the tone of a terrified employee than a beloved daughter: “I am very sorry that my description of the dinner was inadequate and made you angry …”
When Maxwell’s body was found floating in the sea off the Canary Islands in 1991, it was Ghislaine who flew to Tenerife to manage the grim paperwork. She claimed he did not commit suicide, and had been murdered. She was later photographed boarding Concorde for a flight to New York, enraging the 32,000 people from whose pension funds Maxwell had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds.
Hers was the only family photograph on display in his penthouse office.
I met her again briefly in New York at a party in the early 1990s, where she was rebuilding her life. She seemed as hard, glamorous and strange as she had seemed as a schoolgirl. By then, of course, she may have been in cahoots with Jeffrey Epstein, another dodgy millionaire who believed the lives of others could be bought and sold, another domineering figure who would cheat the courts by taking his own life, as Maxwell may have done.
Three years after Maxwell’s death, his widow wrote, “Everything was sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s genius, and in the end the children and I were to pay a heavy price.” If Ghislaine Maxwell is found guilty of procuring children for Epstein’s sexual gratification, then the heavy price paid for the damage inflicted by Robert Maxwell may go far beyond his immediate family.
Looking back, life in the Versailles on the hill above Oxford was not lucky or enviable, but the very worst childhood that money could buy.
None of this explains, let alone excuses, the dreadful crimes of which Ghislaine Maxwell stands accused. No child’s sins can be hidden behind those of a parent, just as no child should be punished for the sins of the father. Like everyone else, she is entirely responsible for her own actions. And, also in common with all of us, she is innocent until proven guilty.
Yet when Ghislaine Maxwell is finally brought to court, her father will be in the dock with her, perhaps facing a form of justice at last.