JOHN SWEENEY: Ghislaine Maxwell went on hunt for girls Epstein liked

JOHN SWEENEY: Ghislaine Maxwell went out on the hunt for girls Epstein liked, just out of puberty. She’d say: ‘I’ve got to get the nubiles’

At 29, Ghislaine Maxwell was a broken woman – by grief for the father she adored and the disgrace that now dogged anyone bearing the Maxwell name. Her gilded life of money and influence had gone up in flames when he drowned after falling from the Lady Ghislaine – the yacht he named after his youngest and favourite child – off the Canary Islands.

Then had come the awful truth: that he was a crook who had been systematically robbing company and pension fund assets. He was an utter fraud who, if he had not died, would have ended up in jail.

A devastated Ghislaine was at her wit’s end. And it was in that state of mind she flew to New York to woo the dodgy billionaire Jeffrey Epstein.

She had lost everything when the first monster in her life died. Then she got everything back: private jets, swish parties, powerful friends. All she had to do was feed the second monster with the fresh children he craved to satisfy his lust.

Ghislaine has always denied knowledge of Epstein’s paedophilia, both its nature and vast extent. But the scale of the operation to serve him was like running a factory. In his house in Palm Beach – one of four luxury properties he owned, including a private Caribbean island – teenage girls were processed like battery chickens.

Phone logs show Ghislaine at that house while under-age girls serviced Epstein. The flight logs of Epstein’s Boeing plane, nicknamed The Lolita Express, show that Ghislaine shared journeys with very young women.

At 29, Ghislaine Maxwell was a broken woman – by grief for the father she adored and the disgrace that now dogged anyone bearing the Maxwell name

If so, did Epstein’s voracious sexual appetite for under-age girls never strike her? Not once? That seems close to impossible to believe. The writer Christina Oxenberg alleges that in 1997, Ghislaine asked her to ghost her autobiography. For Christina, it was a no-no but for a while she strung Ghislaine along, during which time she says Ghislaine started talking about Epstein.

She said he needed three orgasms a day and that she had to drive around trailer parks in Florida looking for girls. Christina, appalled, asked for an explanation, at which Ghislaine replied angrily, slicing the air with her hands: ‘The girls? They are nothing! They are trash!’

Friends say Ghislaine was in love with Epstein and wanted to marry him, but he was having none of it. She tried her best to entice him.

According to a source, she used to joke about keeping herself painfully thin because Epstein liked thin girls. She said: ‘I do it the way the Nazis did it with the Jews, the Auschwitz diet. I just don’t eat’ – a crass thing to say for someone whose father’s family had perished in the Holocaust.

But why, you cannot help asking, would Ghislaine want to be with a man who was so very keen on having sex with other women, especially ones much younger than her? Ghislaine, I suspect, blinded herself to what was going on.

One of her friends was more blunt: ‘She wouldn’t be 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.’

And the rewards were eye-watering. At her trial, a banker from J. P. Morgan, Epstein’s banker, said Epstein paid Ghislaine $18.3 million in 1999, $5 million in 2002; and $7.4 million in 2007 for an executive Sikorsky helicopter for her company, Air Ghislaine Inc.

In all, she had received $30 million. If she was a victim, as she claimed, she was a very rich one.

In Epstein, Ghislaine had alighted on a man who had so much in common with her father it is uncanny. Like her father, he came from a poor Jewish family very much on the wrong side of the tracks but made his own way in life. Like her father, too, Epstein had cunning, drive and intelligence.

And like her father, there was a huge question mark over where the wealth – his property portfolio alone was worth more than $100 million and he owned two private jets and a helicopter – came from. Later, like her father, he would be exposed, though in his case it would because of his obsession with having sex with under-age girls. He died by his own hand – in prison while awaiting trial.

It was just three weeks after the death of Robert Maxwell – perhaps also by his own hand – in November 1991 that Epstein and Ghislaine were first pictured together, at a gathering in the Trump Plaza hotel in Manhattan. She stares at him with a fascinated look on her face.

The first video of the couple together is from 1992 and on it you can see Ghislaine’s great skill at slipping into the shadows. It’s an out-take from an NBC TV news package featuring Donald Trump throwing a party at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. A sweaty Trump is ogling the women when Epstein walks in, and Trump fawns all over him, seemingly craving his good humour, seeking his blessing. Then a woman in a white blouse, with dark haircut in a Peter Pan style, momentarily peeks out behind the president-to-be and the paedophile-to-be-convicted.

She’s camera-shy, but for a moment the lens captures her dark eyes a-glitter: Ghislaine Maxwell. And then she’s gone.

This is classic Ghislaine. You catch a glimpse of her in the background, you’re intrigued but by the time your mind registers her presence, she’s vanished. By now, she was running Epstein’s diary, if not his life, for him. In 1993 the magazine Yoga Journal ran an advert for a yoga instructor for ‘a private individual’. The phone number given was for Epstein’s office; the person to ask for was ‘Miss Maxwell’.

She was his some-time lover but her main role was as his uber-secretary. From at least 1992 to 2005, she organised his diary, and that was super-complicated with all his fancy friends – people such as Trump, former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, captains of finance and Nobel-winning scientists – coming and going. Epstein and Maxwell were constantly moving between four points of the compass – his mansion in Manhattan, his ranch in New Mexico, the place in Palm Beach and the island in the US Virgin Islands. And for much of that time, he was having three massages a day from under-age girls.

On his behalf, she was a relentless networker, their combined address books full to overflowing.

Nicholas Coleridge, her friend from Oxbridge days, recalled how, about 20 years ago when she became Epstein’s gatekeeper, he received a fax from her Manhattan office. It asked for ‘the addresses and landlines for your principal residences, your weekend homes and ski chalets’, and then the questions became yet more surreal – ‘the mobile numbers of your pilot on your private jet, your yacht captain, your butler. It was dispiriting to have to write ‘N/A’ against so many of them’.

The form was sent to some 300 of Maxwell’s university friends.

‘Now,’ says Coleridge, ‘inclusion in Epstein’s infamous little black book is an embarrassment, and many of us are regularly rung by newspapers to ask how often we frequented his parties and massage table.’ He says that none of his set ever met Epstein or had really heard of him before the scandal erupted.

There is, of course, no suggestion that people in Maxwell’s address book ever knew they were hobnobbing with a pimp for a paedophile. But I cannot help but wonder whether she used her connections to provide a smokescreen for Epstein’s sociopathy.

There are more than a hundred telephone numbers in Maxwell’s black book under the heading ‘Massage’ – the cover Epstein used to hide his crimes against young girls. So it’s an address book. And it’s a spider’s web.

As for Maxwell, for all her love and loyalty to him, Epstein had no compunction in humiliating her – such as the occasion when on a trip with important political contacts, he had his private jet land in Chicago and disappeared for two hours with a young blonde, leaving Maxwell dissolved into a flood of tears and inconsolable. Eventually, he reappeared – without the blonde – and everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. But Maxwell was publicly humiliated.

Though she and Epstein both had homes in Manhattan, they never shared a house or lived together. ‘He had his place,’ her brother Ian says, ‘she had her place. If she was going to see him, she had to ask. This enabled him to lead his life, the life he wanted. This was a man who was highly compartmentalised.’

Maxwell was renting her own apartment in the Upper East Side, where she threw her own parties. Meanwhile, the obscenely rich Epstein had moved into a vast mansion, perhaps the biggest private home with its own front door in the whole of Manhattan.

He hung a lifesize female doll from a chandelier and decorated the mansion with snaps of his pals, Clinton, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Woody Allen… moral titans one and all.

He lined the vast entrance hall with row upon row of glass eyes manufactured for blinded Tommies in the First World War. How you decorate your home tells you a lot about someone. Any visitor to chez Epstein must have been disturbed by the glass eyes. Epstein may have been extremely rich, funny, charismatic. He was also sick.

My sense is that he was a particular kind of sadist, not one of the flesh, but of the mind. He got sexual gratification out of watching people wrestle with anxiety. The younger and more innocent the girl, the more scared she was, the better the hit for him. He took pleasure in their fear.

Though she and Epstein both had homes in Manhattan, they never shared a house or lived together. ‘He had his place,’ her brother Ian says, ‘she had her place. If she was going to see him, she had to ask. This enabled him to lead his life, the life he wanted. This was a man who was highly compartmentalised’

In the mid-1990s, Epstein and Maxwell took a shine to Maria Farmer, a beautiful young artist in her early 20s whose speciality was ‘exploring figures of nudes and adolescents’. Her works included a voyeuristic painting of a man in a doorway looking at a woman on a sofa – inspired by a famous Degas piece known as The Rape. Epstein was keen to buy it.

They hired Maria as the receptionist at his New York mansion. At first, she found Maxwell very likeable – ‘most charming, most eloquent, delightful’. But then, as in a slow-to-develop horror movie, things happened that didn’t add up or, if they did, they were dark.

Beautiful women were very much a part of Epstein’s life, but Maria could not help noticing that some of them were very young, even wearing school uniforms. They would go upstairs to wherever he was at the time. When she questioned what was going on, she was told they were there to try out for modelling gigs for Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie chain with which he had financial connections.

Asked in a podcast how many girls, Maria replied: ‘Hundreds. Hundreds. Hundreds.’ How old? ‘Thirteen, 14, 15.’

She often witnessed Maxwell leaving the house, on the hunt for the girls Epstein liked, all of them just out of puberty: ‘She would say, “I’ve got to get the nubiles, I’ve got to get the nubiles.”

‘Several times I was in a car with her and she would ask the driver to stop, then dash across to a school or park, and she’d write down her number for a child, a young girl. And then I’d see that child in the house.’

When Maria challenged her, Maxwell explained: ‘They’re auditioning.’ Maria found it really strange because she saw a couple of them in braces: ‘I’d never seen a model in braces, and all of them were completely flat-chested.’

One day a girl came down crying, and Maria asked Maxwell why she was crying, and she said: ‘She didn’t get the job; she needs to toughen up.’

Maria herself was dragged unwillingly into their sordid activities. She was invited to an estate in Ohio belonging to Les Wexner, a multi-billionaire associate of Epstein, where she says she was sexually assaulted by Epstein and Maxwell working together:

‘Ghislaine escorts me to Jeffrey’s room and he’s lying there. Ghislaine sits on the other side. And they began assaulting me.’ She ran away to another room and piled up furniture against the door, barricading herself in.

She got away, but later discovered that her 16-year-old sister Annie had also suffered unwelcome attention from Maxwell and Epstein. Invited to Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico on the false pretence that other students would be there too, she discovered that the party consisted of just three people: Epstein, Maxwell and her.

Maxwell gave her a massage. Annie undressed: ‘She had me flip over to my back. And then she pulled the sheet down so that my breasts were exposed. This feels weird. This feels uncomfortable. I don’t think this is probably right but I don’t know.’

Then she became aware that someone else was in the room, watching – Epstein. ‘I could feel his presence. I was sure he could see me from where he was.’

The suggestion is that Maxwell carried out a sexualised massage without Annie’s consent while Epstein played voyeur.

And the voyeurism didn’t stop there. Maria recalled Epstein escorting her through a hidden door at the New York mansion to a secret media room, underneath the stairs, where she saw a bank of stacked TV monitors overseen by male operators.

On the multiple screens she saw ‘Toilet, toilet, bed, bed, toilet, bed’. ‘It was very obvious they were monitoring private moments.’ Here was the machinery for blackmail.

Maxwell’s supporters can plead that Epstein’s thousands of young victims – ‘the trash’, as Maxwell dismissed them – must have known or should have known what they were getting into, that many came back again and again, that no one died on Epstein’s massage tables.

They can argue that Maxwell has been the victim of a legal witch-hunt, that society’s anger and the media’s obsession with her story is out of kilter with what actually happened. This is the essence of a series of interviews given by her brother Ian before her trial.

 In Epstein, Ghislaine had alighted on a man who had so much in common with her father it is uncanny. Like her father, he came from a poor Jewish family very much on the wrong side of the tracks but made his own way in life. Like her father, too, Epstein had cunning, drive and intelligence

‘The Ghislaine we know has been buried in this caricature, this monstrous creature that has been invented as an abuser and a pimp,’ he said.

The counter-argument is that the child sexual abuse was not the figment of a witch-hunt but all too real. The public’s horror lies in the industrial scale of Epstein’s perversion: that so many girls, hand-picked to be more child than woman, lost their innocence.

Maxwell’s role was crucial. Epstein could not have got away with what he did for so long without two things: his money, tons of it, and Ghislaine Maxwell.

A New York investment banker who hung out with them in the 1990s found Epstein elusive to the point of imperiousness, only appearing at his own dinner parties when all the guests had sat down. The attraction was Maxwell, the ‘charming, likeable front person. A big part of the reason people talked to him was because of Ghislaine’.

The same went for the girls such as Virginia Roberts (now Giuffre), who became Epstein’s sex slave, and Sarah Ransome, who recalled the sadistic pleasure he took in his sexual abuse of her until she screamed and sobbed. She was repeatedly raped.

After he put Sarah up in an apartment building in New York, she began to suspect that other young and beautiful women were there on Epstein’s dime, too. She saw many walk in and out of the building, ‘tall, pimple-sized breasts, emaciated, white’ – Epstein’s type.

In all this, Maxwell was a chameleon figure, blowing hot and cold, switching between madam boss lady and nurturing mother figure.

‘Which face she displayed depended on who was in the room or on the phone – the human rubbish she regarded me as, or the high-society guests she and Jeffrey hosted. The posh people got the ‘Gracious Ghislaine’. We got the conniving tyrant.’

Sarah believes Epstein and Maxwell’s own personal cruelties reinforced each other. He was the sexual sadist; she was artful at psychological torture. Like Lord and Lady Macbeth, their joint darkness was all the more powerful because it was entwined.

But Epstein’s world then slowly unravelled and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to ‘procuring for prostitution’. For the next decade, Maxwell carried out a discreet but determined campaign to deny the existence of Epstein’s child factory and her part in it and to call out anyone who insisted that she had questions to answer.

Convicted paedophile though he was, Epstein continued business, with money and power until 2019, when he was arrested again on sex trafficking charges and jailed awaiting trial. A month or so later, he was dead, found hanging in his cell. His death was the single best moment for Maxwell to come clean, to say that she had been in thrall to and in fear of the second monster in her life, but now that he was gone she could admit to doing wrong.

She could have put forward the psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and ask people to forgive her. This would not have been a get-out-of-jail-free card but it would have lessened her prison time.

However, Maxwell did not face the music. Instead, she went into hiding and stayed out of sight for a year until, in July 2019, the prosecuting authorities in New York announced ‘charges against Ghislaine Maxwell for helping Jeffrey Epstein sexually exploit and abuse multiple minor girls from 1994 to 1997.

‘She pretended to be a woman they could trust, all the while she was setting them up to be sexually abused by Epstein and, in some cases, by Maxwell herself. Maxwell has been taken into custody early this morning. Today, after many years, she finally stands charged for her role in these crimes’.

At her trial, the prosecution described Maxwell as Epstein’s ‘lady of the house’, luring young girls into his orbit, and in return enjoying the grand lifestyle to which she was accustomed.

A number of photos of them were produced in evidence. One in particular caught my eye. In it, Maxwell looks very young, still in her 20s or very early 30s. She’s got the hots for him; he isn’t bothered.

She is riding pillion on the back of a motorbike. His hands are clasped on the handlebars, manly, in control; her hands are on his ribs. He is in a black jumper, she’s wearing a pale green shirt.

Epstein is growling at the camera; she is laughing at the comedy of this Easy Rider moment, but you can see that she is really in love with him.

There is an innocent joy about Ghislaine Maxwell’s expression that, now that we know what we know, is kind of heart-breaking. Her love for this man was real. It ruined her life.

© John Sweeney, 2022

  • Hunting Ghislaine, by John Sweeney, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 3 at £22. To pre-order a copy for £19.80, go to or call 020 3176 2937 before November 7. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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