I could not have imagined back in 1973 that the shy 12-year-old girl in a patterned white frock creeping fearfully down the wide staircase of Headington Hill Hall in Oxford would become globally notorious for trafficking under-aged girls to a paedophile.
Standing in the hall with her father, disgraced tycoon and former Labour MP Robert Maxwell, I watched with amazement as Ghislaine Maxwell waited for his permission before she headed into the huge dining room for Sunday lunch with her brothers and sisters.
Every week, Robert Maxwell turned that lunch into merciless theatre. Questioning his children about world affairs, he erupted in a rage if he heard a mistaken answer. The tyrant physically beat any guilty child in front of the others.
Even as her father’s favourite, Ghislaine could expect little protection.
‘Bob would shout and threaten and rant at the children until they were reduced to pulp,’ Betty Maxwell would write about her husband after his death.
While she collaborated with the beatings of her children just as she connived in her husband’s career of deceit and fraud, Betty admitted that she neglected Ghislaine.
‘I was devastated,’ Betty would later recall when her daughter had exclaimed to get attention: ‘Mummy, I exist.’
Today, almost half a century on, Ghislaine Maxwell faces the rest of her life in prison. Many will wonder whether the disgraced socialite, who turned 60 on Christmas Day, is the victim of two monsters: her father and Jeffrey Epstein.
Standing in the hall with her father, disgraced tycoon and former Labour MP Robert Maxwell (right), I watched with amazement as Ghislaine Maxwell (left) waited for his permission
Was this intelligent, engaging woman fatefully destined to be shackled to two men perverted by their lust for money and power?
History might say that Ghislaine’s destiny was inevitable. That, as the child of a crook she would inevitably end up spending years sharing a cell with crooks.
She could only live and love rich, powerful, domineering men – and that weakness had drawn her to Jeffrey Epstein.
Others would say that as a well-educated adult, she should have discovered the difference between right and wrong by now.
Her life’s ambition was to be famous – not infamous. The mystery remains why the dream went wrong.
Either way, it has been a shocking turn of events to those who once knew her and to Ghislaine herself who, for the past few weeks, has been forced to limp into her seat in court, her movements crippled by leg irons.
Born on Christmas Day 1961 with a golden spoon in her mouth, she grew up amid extraordinary wealth.
As a soldier, spy, publisher, Member of Parliament, film producer, printer, football club owner and newspaper proprietor, her father achieved huge wealth and fame.
Yet even by 1971 he was notorious, condemned as dishonest by a Government inquiry.
Most people in the City and Westminster assumed Robert Maxwell was permanently destroyed as a result. They misjudged his determination.
Known as ‘Jungle Man’, Maxwell was an astonishing survivor, a characteristic he taught his children.
Through shrewd deals and with the help of breathtaking opportunism, Maxwell rebuilt his fortune during the 1980s.
Undated handout photo issued by US Department of Justice of Ghislaine Maxwell with Jeffrey Epstein
Ghislaine enjoyed the benefits: chauffeur-driven cars, flights on Concorde, a private jet, holidays on his luxury yacht Lady Ghislaine and seemingly unlimited money.
Renowned as a bombastic megalomaniac and global powerbroker, Maxwell moved between the White House, the Kremlin, Downing Street and the leaders of France, Germany and Israel.
Immersed in Maxwell’s life, Ghislaine became a junkie for power, money and celebrity in her own right.
But her father’s legacy was poisonous. With Maxwell’s blessing, Ghislaine adopted his worst characteristics: selfish arrogance and rudeness tempered by an ability to charm when required. She was unwilling to see right from wrong, or fantasy from reality.
She grew to worship her father’s extraordinary charisma. Accompanying him as his friend and confidante, she watched Mr Fixit win honest people’s trust by flattery, seduction, manipulation and deception.
Media proprietor and fraudster, Robert Maxwell (1923 – 1991) at a party on his yacht with daughter Ghislaine and wife Elisabeth (1921 – 2013) circa 1990
Lies were his common currency. Philip Okill, a senior employee, once dared to tell Maxwell to his face: ‘Mr Maxwell, you’re the sincerest liar I have ever met.’
As Okill would later recall: ‘Maxwell took that as a compliment.’
‘The ego has landed’ was the memorable newspaper headline over a photograph of the fat tycoon, known as Captain Bob, stepping off his helicopter on to the roof of the Mirror Group’s headquarters in Central London.
An ambitious status-seeker in her own right, Ghislaine resembled him. Educated at Balliol, one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges, Ghislaine was far from stupid.
After a London policeman stopped her for drunken driving, she congratulated the startled officer for spotting her – and got away with it.
‘She’d ask for a cigarette,’ complained one of her father’s secretaries in the Mirror’s headquarters, ‘and walk off with the packet.’
Ghislaine had good reason to be oblivious to those who called her a ‘21-carat spoilt brat’.
At the height of Maxwell’s wealth and fame in 1988, her father confided that if she failed to become a millionairess at 30 ‘and falls flat on her face, I’ll be there to help her up and tell her to try again’.
Although she probably did not know that he was gambling away the Mirror Group’s pension funds through a series of grotesque frauds, she must have been suspicious when, on November 5, 1990, her father put her on Concorde to New York with an envelope.
Inside were share certificates which she handed to lawyers. After spending the day indulging herself in Manhattan’s shops, she flew back to London and handed the signed documents to Maxwell.
And so she found herself enmeshed in Maxwell’s plot to plunder about £2billion from his companies’ shareholders.
In that same spirit of obedient egoism, Ghislaine represented him at dinner in New York honouring Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi-hunter.
Robert Maxwell and his daughter Ghislaine watch the Oxford v Brighton football match, October 13, 1984
Afterwards, she telephoned Maxwell, who at the time was visiting President Gorbachev in Moscow. Her reward was a bizarre tirade. ‘I am very sorry that my description of the dinner this morning was inadequate and made you angry,’ she said in a written apology.
‘I should have expressed at the start of our conversation that I was merely presenting you with a preliminary report of the evening and that a full written report was to follow.’
The 29-year-old then gave a long description of how every guest praised her father and ended: ‘I will call you again tomorrow to receive your precise instructions for the Kennedy wedding.’
Soon afterwards, she moved to New York – a city which had only recently been made aware of her overbearing father, when he bought New York’s Daily News for an inflated price in March 1991. Every TV station broadcast clips of Maxwell boasting of his wealth, while Ghislaine partied ceaselessly.
That changed on November 5, 1991 when Maxwell’s body was found floating off Tenerife.
‘I’m in charge of the yacht now,’ Ghislaine told the yacht’s captain. ‘You’ll take your orders from me. I’m thinking of doing charters in the Caribbean.’ Such ambitions evaporated as Maxwell’s frauds were exposed and toys such as the yacht were seized and sold.
Back in New York, Ghislaine was determined to rise from the ashes. While seeking comfort from friends, she met Jeffrey Epstein, a 38-year-old financier suspected of involvement in a $450million fraud.
Although his partner was jailed for 20 years, Epstein had inexplicably escaped prosecution. Better still, he had become the financial manager of Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of Victoria’s Secret, from whom Epstein would eventually steal at least $42 million.
The introduction to Epstein was a godsend. She needed money – and was smitten. Epstein, meanwhile, needed someone to organise his life, someone with the sort of contacts book that would enable him to approach the rich and powerful.
Many will wonder whether the disgraced socialite, who turned 60 on Christmas Day, is the victim of two monsters: her father and Jeffrey Epstein
As the court has found, Ghislaine was his pimp, too, helping orchestrate what her accusers described as ‘a pyramid scheme of abuse’. In a bygone era she would have been dubbed the Mobster’s Moll.
Epstein had much in common with Maxwell. Both were sophisticated conmen. The big difference was that Maxwell’s businesses – publishing, printing and the media – started honest.
Epstein’s operations were shady from the beginning, based, as they were, on moving funds offshore to launder dirty money and evade taxes due.
Nevertheless, emotionally needy Ghislaine sought approval from this new father figure. When her lunch was interrupted by a telephone call from Epstein whining about a cold, she burst into a frenzied effort to find him the best chicken soup in New York.
The mystery is the sexual side of their relationship. She was besotted, yet her interest does not seem to have been reciprocated.
Epstein did not hide from Ghislaine his passion for under-age girls or his unusual habits, although there is little doubt that she was also attracted to sexual perversion.
When she and Epstein ceased to be sexual partners in about 2000, she continued to manage his operations. That was interrupted in 2007, however, when Florida’s state police arrested Epstein for sex offences with under-aged girls.
Initial fears began to wane when Epstein’s lawyers negotiated an astonishing deal with the prosecutors.
Instead of receiving a long prison sentence, the financier was sentenced to just 18 months in June 2008 in return for his guilty plea.
Moreover, his plea bargain protected named female staff from prosecution. Ghislaine, though, was not named. She assumed she was not a target for the prosecutors.
After he emerged from prison in 2010, Epstein set about resurrecting his reputation. Harvard university allowed him to establish an office on its Boston campus.
Guests at his various properties included Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Wall Street bankers, renowned scientists and, thanks to Ghislaine, Prince Andrew.
Ghislaine Maxwell, youngest child of media proprietor and fraudster, Robert Maxwell, holding a framed photograph of her late father, Jerusalem, Israel, November 9, 1991
They flocked to his hospitality in Manhattan’s biggest private house, aboard his giant yacht, his private jet and on his own sun-kissed island.
The presence of beautiful girls was, to some, an added attraction. For her unwavering loyalty, Epstein gave Ghislaine about $30million, from which she bought her own Manhattan townhouse.
And she had every reason to believe her gilded life would be everlasting. That world came crashing down in 2011.
Newspapers published a picture of Andrew with his arm around Virginia Roberts, then a 17-year-old girl regularly used by Epstein.
Taken in 2001, the photo also showed Ghislaine smiling in the background. The location was her London house. Roberts would claim to have had sex with Andrew in Ghislaine’s bath – an allegation which Andrew strenuously denies.
Just as Andrew’s reputation was shredded, so Ghislaine’s social life in America evaporated. Overnight, she was dropped by the Clintons and almost everyone else.
As a Maxwell, however, she refused to be beaten. The survival gene kicked in. Determined not to be tarred by Epstein’s notoriety, she began appearing at international conferences, campaigning to clean the world’s oceans.
It was around this time that I last met Ghislaine at a riotous property developers’ party in St Tropez.
During our conversation, she appeared detached, hard and totally uninterested in her father’s past. Maxwells don’t show emotions. In hindsight, she looked lost. She could not have imagined what was to come.
In 2014, Virginia Roberts sued both Epstein and Maxwell. Then she made the sort of fatal mistake which Robert Maxwell would have avoided.
Instead of taking the best legal advice to save herself, Ghislaine agreed to give sworn testimony in support of her benefactor Epstein.
Things got worse. In November 2018, Epstein’s crimes and the sweetheart deal he had struck with Florida’s benign prosecutor were exposed in The Miami Herald.
Under pressure, the FBI reopened the case. About 40 women were interviewed. Nine months later, Epstein was arrested.
Even then, she believed she was safe. Instead of flying to safety in France from where, as a French passport-holder, extradition was impossible, she remained in hiding in America.
If Epstein had lived, she might have walked free. Instead her fate was sealed. Epstein was found dead in his prison cell and the embarrassed prosecutors turned their sights on his accomplice.
Arrested in a blaze of publicity, Ghislaine had already lost the option of striking a deal with the prosecutors against Epstein.
Here in Britain, she might well have persuaded a jury that her accusers had failed to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. But in New York, the time she’d spent in close proximity to a convicted paedophile was to prove fatal.
There are plenty who believe that she deserves everything she got. There are also some, like me, who think her monstrous father should have been alongside her in the dock, in spirit if not in person.
Tom Bower is the author of Maxwell: The Final Verdict.