London, 1990. I have just arrived at a dinner in a newly opened Soho restaurant with people I barely know. I see a long table rammed with the deafening confidence of entitled rich young things. I sit down and immediately notice the atmosphere radiating around an attractive dark-haired girl. “Hi, I’m Ghislaine,” she says, with an electric smile that wants you to like her. But I already know who she is: the youngest and most favored child of the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, an Oxford graduate and the toast of social London.
As a naïve 25-year-old who had just started working in the City, I watched more than I spoke that night. Which was fine because Ghislaine barely drew breath. She was loud and great fun; dressed in black shorts, sheer tights and a top hat, with a touch of gold, possibly a scarf. She looked naughty and sexy, but tomboyish too, markedly at odds with the Dianaesque taffeta femininity around us. She was intriguing, an anomaly. After that I became a keen Ghislaine-spotter.
Hubris Played a Central Role
As I write, she sits in one of New York’s most inhospitable jails, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, following her alleged collusion in grooming vulnerable young girls for the late Jeffrey Epstein. Earlier this month she was charged with four counts related to transporting minors for illegal sexual acts and two counts of perjury. She pleaded not guilty and offered to pay to stay at a luxury hotel in New York while she awaits trial, scheduled for July next year, but she was denied bail after prosecutors argued she was an extreme flight risk.
How did this privileged, educated, charismatic person become embroiled with one of the worst sex offenders of our time? Initially I suspect hubris played a central role, a trait she inevitably picked up sitting round the kitchen table with her father, who drowned off the coast of Tenerife in 1991 after plundering his companies’ pension funds. But there was also desperation, a dissonance of character, born out of the extreme and particular circumstances following her father’s downfall, which she simply never got over.
She looked naughty and sexy, but tomboyish too, markedly at odds with the Dianaesque taffeta femininity around us.
If a piece of the puzzle was missing when I first met her, it was firmly in place by the time we met again, in New York in 1992, at a party in a downtown loft, not long after her father’s death. The previous November he had fallen, or had been pushed, or had thrown himself off (it is not known for sure) Lady Ghislaine, his 180ft yacht, named after his adored daughter.
At this party Ghislaine looked unkempt, shell-shocked, vibrating with anger and bitterness. Talking to her was hard work. It was not clear whether she had met Epstein by this point, but she was quick to mention that she was living in some style on the Upper East Side. I remember thinking, but with what money?
On Maxwell’s death it emerged he had siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from his Mirror Group pension funds to shore up corporate debts that ran into the billions. A clear conclusion as to where the entirety of that money ended up has never been reached. Epstein and his relationship with Maxwell may possibly hold the clue.
“I Think He Was Murdered”
Ghislaine was born on Christmas Day, 1961, in Maisons-Laffitte outside Paris — the ninth and youngest child of Maxwell and his French-born wife, Elisabeth, an academic. She was brought up at Headington Hill Hall, a 53-room country house in Oxfordshire that also served as the headquarters of her father’s Pergamon Press, and attended the co-ed public school Marlborough, then Balliol College, Oxford.
To get a sense of who Ghislaine really is, I speak to some of those who knew her best during her early years in London and Manhattan. I talk first to one of her oldest friends — the person who was with her when she first heard about her father’s death and who, at Ghislaine’s request, drove her straight to the Mirror Group offices so she could find out more about the circumstances of her father’s demise. On the way she sobbed uncontrollably in the back seat, hidden under a blanket, the friend tells me. She later flew out to where her father’s body had been found, where she declared to the media: “I think he was murdered.”
Her father was born Jan Ludvik Hoch in a Czech village into such extreme poverty, he and his six siblings took turns wearing shoes. Unlike most of his family he survived the Holocaust, reinventing himself in England after the war as Robert Maxwell. He chased success voraciously, using contacts he made during the Allied occupation to go into business. In 1951 he acquired the US and British distribution rights for the German scientific publishing house Springer Verlag. From there he built what would become a vast publishing empire, along the way being voted in as a Labour MP in 1964, and eventually buying Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984.
The economist, broadcaster and former British diplomat Peter Jay, who worked as Maxwell’s chief of staff for three years in the late 1980s, once referred to him as “like some huge, primitive animal that plodded on its way”. By the time his youngest child came of age, he was one of the great tycoons of his time — and a well-known monster and bully. To a great extent Ghislaine’s visceral character was formed, her morals inculcated, according to the diktats of a world-class sociopath.
Little is known about her relationship with her mother and siblings. Her brothers Ian and Kevin worked for their father, eventually taking the fall for the Mirror Group empire, and their lives, both financial and romantic, never really recovered. “All her energy went into impressing her father, but she never quite managed it,” says the close friend. “I went to her parents’ house once and I was shocked by how hard she tried to get him to love her, notice her, to recognize her by giving her a serious job, like her brothers. But all she got, along with all she materially desired, was charity projects, social stuff.”
A High-Class Servant
Many I speak to point out the similarities between her father and Epstein: both were men who rose from nothing and who used Ghislaine for their own gain. Maxwell treated her like a show pony, more like a power wife than a daughter, using her to curry favor as an emissary with the great and the good, flying her to New York on Concorde to deliver letters on his behalf, and making her a director of his football club, Oxford United. Epstein similarly used her like a high-class servant. You could never characterize her as subservient — indeed, she acted with friends like she was Epstein’s boss, not the other way around — but ultimately she behaved with both men as if she was under their control.
A close friend, who requested anonymity, says despite her outwardly gregarious and friendly demeanor there was a toughness to her, a steely implacability. “She was needy like a Labrador puppy. She wanted everyone to love her, always a little too much in your face, but ultimately she was focused on getting her way.” Friends say that money became her drug, the one thing that validated her existence and that she would ultimately do anything for. A need to interact with the powerful played a central role too, as did her sexual appetite.
Someone she met in London in 1990 remembers arranging to go to a party with Ghislaine, who insisted the younger woman drive her car even though she didn’t have a license. “I was so nervous but somehow she convinced me,” the woman says. “It was a manual, so to help me as we set off she put her hand on top of mine — but it stayed there the entire journey. If one was that way inclined, it could have been erotic, a prelude to something. But every fiber of my being was clenched with fear. It was so weird. Coerced is too strong a word. She was more a bulldozer. If she could get someone like me to do something like that, which was illegal, with that natural skill set, she was capable of anything.”
Friends say that money became her drug, the one thing that validated her existence and that she would ultimately do anything for.
The subject of her sexuality came up often during my conversations with Brits and Americans. “She was one of the boys,” says an American friend, “she spoke the language of men.” A New Yorker who knew her extremely well, who went to dinner at Epstein’s Manhattan town house, puts it more bluntly: “She would not have been unique in being someone who lives well and possesses a sexual peccadillo of sharing women with her boyfriend. Underlying all of this was her libertarian sexual appetite.”
Another Manhattanite, who was at Oxford with Ghislaine, says: “At university whenever we went on a boys’ night out, she would be the only girl with us. Guys always loved hanging out with her. She was naughty, funny and very worldly. She was as comfortable at Buckingham Palace as she was at a hip-hop convention — a chameleon who fit in everywhere.”
It’s unclear how she first met Epstein. No one has quite been able to pin that down. But there is a theory, a plausible one, that he knew her father. Is that why she decamped to New York so quickly?
“My personal belief is that Epstein had been hiding money siphoned off by Robert Maxwell,” says the same New Yorker, who knew Epstein and his circumstances well before Ghislaine turned up in New York.
“She was as comfortable at Buckingham Palace as she was at a hip-hop convention — a chameleon who fit in everywhere.”
“Jeffrey was always very mysterious, and for years the only client he had was the Victoria’s Secret owner, Leslie Wexner. The point is, Jeffrey was never a money manager. What he did was structure offshore funds, not to manage them but to hide or recover money. I believe it was Jeffrey who laundered Maxwell’s money. I couldn’t work out at first how, the second Ghislaine landed in New York, she was all of a sudden — overnight really — very chummy with Jeffrey. Then he started spending on a different level, suddenly buying these extraordinary town houses.”
Observers remember Epstein starting to act differently too. He adopted a uniform of velvet slippers and jeans to meetings, which in the more traditional and formal 1990s (at least in financial circles) many found disrespectful, not to mention his extreme sense of self-importance. I was told a story about how, toward the end of the 1990s, the founding partner of a hugely successful private equity company received a phone call from Epstein even though the pair had never met. Epstein said, “I’ve heard great things about you,” and invited him to a meeting at his town house. Intrigued, this widely respected dealmaker agreed and arrived at the appointed hour. Epstein kept him waiting 30 minutes, then walked in as if he was doing him a favor, offering to give him a tour of the property. The visitor left soon afterward, vowing never to engage with Epstein again.
A Convenient Arrangement
My New York source is adamant that Epstein and Ghislaine were never in a romantic relationship, that it was a convenient front to dissimulate the real reason for their closeness — money.
“I can’t tell you how many times I said to Ghislaine, ‘I hear Jeffrey’s bought a house in Palm Beach.’ She would say, ‘Darling, that’s my house.’ I could never figure out why Ghislaine always acted like a boss towards him. I believe they had a business arrangement from day one. For a start he would never have been attracted to her. We know the kind of girls he liked. Also, why would she have been so interested in procuring girls for him? No girlfriend does that.” He remembers Ghislaine asking him about a beautiful Russian redhead he knew. “Ghislaine said to me, ‘That girl is very pretty, you should introduce her to Jeffrey.’ She was his wingwoman from day one. She went to New York to see Jeffrey, she didn’t go and then meet Jeffrey.”
Christopher Mason, a respected British-born New York Times contributor living in Manhattan who is known for the witty musical “roasts” he writes and performs, remembers once being hired by Ghislaine to write a song for Epstein’s birthday. “Normally I speak to as many people who know the person as possible,” he says. “But this time I was only allowed to speak to Ghislaine.” He was told that one line had to include how Epstein had been the object of schoolgirl crushes at Dalton, the private Upper East Side school where — improbably — he had worked as a math teacher from 1974 to 1976, while another should mention his 24-hour erections.
Ghislaine was, by all accounts, a complicated person; a seductive blend of charm and guile; a schemer, always working at full tilt, having traded one depraved master for another. Or as the friend who accompanied her to the Mirror Group says: “There was some kind of toxic control going on, a lifestyle she felt she deserved and in exchange she made a Faustian pact with Epstein that ultimately compromised any morals she might have had. She had a choice to remain the Ghislaine we all knew and loved, or become the other, for money and power. She chose the latter.”
Her Manhattan life was dizzying in its ambition. She went out every night, to every cocktail party and charity dinner, every restaurant. Everyone who knew her on the circuit remembers her single-minded assault on the rich and powerful, Bill Clinton among them. Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City, met her frequently. “She was very well connected and went around with a rarefied air,” she says. “She name-dropped this person and that person, so you always knew where you were in terms of status.”
Oddly, Ghislaine was rarely seen in public with Epstein. “That’s because he was a con artist who operated in this enormous house with its hidden caves — everything happened in that house,” says another Manhattan stalwart, who once attended a dinner in Epstein’s mansion. “For the men it was, like, ‘Come to my house and I’ll give you some candy.’ I was out seven nights a week and I never saw him once.” Ghislaine on the other hand entertained lavishly in her new town house. “It was very dark and she would have these parties, always dressed in a ridiculous sexy-at-home outfit. I remember thinking, what am I doing here, she’s creepy.”
Bushnell thinks part of the power Ghislaine wielded was her ability to deal with tough, shady men; because of her father’s example, they seemed normal to her. “She knew what to say to them, and a lot of women don’t because there’s always an underlying sexual thing going on, a vibe of sex. There are a lot of sleazy people in high positions everywhere, you have to look out for them. But once you engage in that world, you are sucked in. She got sucked in.”
The Royal Mess
A British couple remember staying with Ghislaine for a few days in New York. They were shocked by how extravagant her life was and surprised by the size of her Manhattan town house. “My first thought was, how did she afford this?” says the wife. “I asked her about her work and she was adamant that she’d earned it all herself, that it was her money. I tried to get to the bottom of it, but she was quite vague.”
Prince Andrew, who denies any wrongdoing, attended a party Ghislaine threw while the couple were staying with her. Guests, including a two-time Oscar-winning actress, played games of virtual tennis on the huge movie screen in the basement. The next night they ate at a neighborhood restaurant, where they were told Andrew would be joining them. “I remember seeing him sitting at a table at the far end with these three young [not underage] blonde girls when we walked in. He immediately got up, I imagined to join us, but instead he said goodbye and left with them in tow. It was all very strange.”
It’s easy to be distracted by all the glamour in Ghislaine’s story — the planes, the boats, the big names — that in the retelling of it the human cost, the victims’ stories, are in danger of being not so much forgotten but obfuscated. Initially Maxwell introduced Epstein to girls she knew in Manhattan who worked at places such as Sotheby’s. Many went on trips to Epstein’s houses, and their names appear in flight logs. But they clearly proved less malleable and more recalcitrant than had been hoped.
Later, allegedly assisted by Ghislaine, Epstein went for much easier and more vulnerable prey; girls who had nothing to lose. Many were motherless and homeless, and they were handed out like hostess perks, chocolates on a pillow at the end of the night.
Bushnell notes how easy it was to be distracted by Maxwell’s hubris. “Whenever I saw Ghislaine, she was either leaving New York or on her way back from somewhere fabulous. It all sounded rather grand, but also so believable. She had the perfect backstory, so no one questioned it.”
The last time I saw Ghislaine was on holiday in 2012. I heard her shouting my name from across the street. “What are you doing tonight?” she asked. “Come to dinner on Akula.” The 200ft yacht she was staying on belonged to Jonathan Faiman, the Ocado co-founder, and his wife, Kira — a couple about whom no suggestion of wrongdoing is made. There was a mildly uncomfortable atmosphere all evening: She had invited her friends, but the hosts knew none of us. It was typical Ghislaine.
That night she was on her soapbox talking about her latest project, the grandiose-sounding ocean protection foundation she had created, TerraMar, which was going to save the world — but which was quietly closed down in 2019 with debts of more than $500,000. You so wanted to believe her, but something did not ring quite true. And that was the thing about Ghislaine — there was a vulnerability about her, maybe a desperation to make good.
She had invited her friends, but the hosts knew none of us. It was typical Ghislaine.
It’s not clear when the corrosive relationship between her and Epstein ended. They were photographed together with the disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein in the garden of Windsor Castle at Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday party in 2006. Epstein served 13 months in a Miami jail in 2008, with time free on work release, after pleading guilty to two charges, including soliciting a minor for prostitution. And while I had heard Epstein’s name mentioned in connection to Ghislaine many times, by the late 2000s he seemed a distant memory — one she seemed desperate to shake, at least publicly. (Various sources tell me they were in touch until the end.) Her most recent boyfriend, Ted Waitt, the tech billionaire she’d been so in love with, whose boat, Plan B, she had done up and populated with the great and the good, and whom she had hoped ultimately to marry, was now long gone.
“She was a bit too much for Ted,” says a friend of the businessman. “He wanted a much less complicated Californian girl. Their split devastated her.”
I spoke to a friend of Ghislaine who spent some time with her at the beginning of last year and who asked if she was still in touch with Epstein. “I haven’t seen him for years,” she replied. (Again, another of my New York sources says this is not true because she told him that Jeffrey appeared much humbler after his 2008 conviction.) “There was a pause, then she said, ‘There are things I regret, I was younger and I didn’t know …’ Her voice was cracking, she looked on the verge of tears, but then caught herself and stopped there. I really think she wanted to confide in me but couldn’t.”
By the late 2000s he seemed a distant memory — one she seemed desperate to shake, at least publicly.
Her old London friend last saw her a couple of years ago, their friendship mostly by then a thing of the past. “She swooped in to a party, made sure everyone saw her, and swooped out again.” When someone asked her if she had a boyfriend, she replied: “Nothing that isn’t battery operated.”
There have been reports of a boyfriend, namely the tech millionaire Scott Borgerson. He has always denied any romantic involvement, saying they are just old friends. During Ghislaine’s bail hearing, a bombshell was dropped by prosecutors that she was in a secret marriage. The rumor mill pointed to Borgerson as the spouse. One New York source tells me she believes that if the marriage did happen, Ghislaine would have had her financial convenience in mind.
The New York insider is in no doubt that the predictable twin corrupters of money and power are behind Maxwell’s fall from grace. “Ghislaine has never forgotten her father was a billionaire, it really formed her character from a very young age. She was living among luxury and important men, and overnight she became a pariah and that’s something she never got over. I had that discussion with her once — her fall from importance. I remember she was incredibly jealous of the Murdochs, she saw in them what her father could have been. Not just the immense wealth, but their political power too. At one time Murdoch and Maxwell were competing equals. Then Rupert went to the stars and Robert Maxwell self-immolated. I don’t think she has ever made peace with that, or ever will.”
So what now? There is nervousness among a certain group of men who socialized with Ghislaine and Epstein that one of the victims mentioned in the charges is privately seeking recompense so as not to spill the beans. “She is getting lippy,” was how it was described to me.
I asked an older member of London’s international business crowd about another widely circulating rumor that Ghislaine and Bill Clinton had an affair. If anyone was likely to know, they would. “Of course I heard about it, and it wouldn’t take a leap of faith to imagine it happened.” A spokesman for Clinton has said of the rumor: “It’s a total lie today, it’s a total lie tomorrow and it’ll be a total lie years from now.”
Prosecutors say Ghislaine, 58, faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted. One old friend I spoke to posited what might happen next: “Epstein’s brother, Mark, will likely instruct that the $600 million trust left behind by his brother be used to pay the victims. The American legal system is notoriously flexible, so Ghislaine will get a plea deal, if she hasn’t struck one already. That means a large sentence, which will eventually be shortened, and in the process she will likely seek to exonerate Prince Andrew. She’ll spend a few years dressed in an orange overall … she will survive.”