Within 72 hours of her birth, Ghislaine Maxwell’s life was twisted by tragedy.
Baby Ghislaine was the ninth child born to Robert Maxwell, the self-made millionaire publisher, and his wife Betty. Though he had left his former name and identity far behind in a blighted corner of Czechoslovakia, Maxwell had been determined to sire a brood of nine children and recreate the family of his birth after Adolf Hitler’s forces slaughtered his siblings, both parents and a grandfather in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
On Christmas Day 1961, Ghislaine’s arrival was the gift that achieved that goal. At age 38, Maxwell was at last the triumphant paterfamilias, the prosperous lord of a grand 53-room mansion in Oxford, England — 1,400 miles and a world away from his own childhood in a two-room, earth-floored shack.
Three days later, the newborn’s eldest brother, 15-year-old Michael, was crushed in a car accident that left him comatose for the next six years. “This was the moment the family started to break apart,” said John Preston, author of “Fall: The Last Days of Robert Maxwell” (HarperCollins), out Feb. 9.
“What had hitherto been a pretty happy family became very fractured. And Ghislaine was completely overshadowed.”
In his book, Preston traces Robert Maxwell’s tumultuous rise and mysterious 1991 death, while uncovering the forces that produced his manipulative, flirtatious youngest daughter.
Consumed by his son’s condition, Maxwell clamped down on his surviving children. “They led this hermetically sealed life,” Preston told The Post, “and they lived in increasing dread of incurring his disapproval, his wrath.”
Michael was installed in a hospital less than a mile from the family home at Headington Hill Hall.
“This terrible dark specter hung over the family, unspoken, for the next six years, until Michael finally died of meningitis,” Preston said.
For years, Ghislaine’s shattered parents could barely muster a glance in her direction.
“She was basically ignored,” her brother, Ian, told Preston — and she even developed anorexia while still a toddler, mom Betty later revealed in her memoir.
“Finally one day when she was 3 or 4, Ghislaine stood in front of her mother, stamped her foot and said, ‘Mummy, I exist,’ ” Preston said.
The dramatic scene struck a chord in her brash father, who may have seen himself in Ghislaine’s willful outspokenness. Guiltily, he started showering her with attention to make up for his neglect.
Much later, Betty admitted how spoiled the girl became. But Robert Maxwell never saw it. “She became her father’s clear favorite,” Preston said. In 1987, when Robert bought a $20 million, 190-foot superyacht, he dubbed it Lady Ghislaine — “ an incredibly divisive thing to do, with a wife and three other daughters at home,” Preston noted.
A similar dynamic tore at Ghislaine’s father, born Jan Ludvik Hoch in 1923 to a desperately poor Jewish family in a village now in Ukraine.
“I was never young. I never had that privilege,” Robert Maxwell said decades later. “I remember how cold I was, how hungry I was, and how much I loved my mother.”
Young Jan’s flair for languages gave the family hope that he might become a rabbi. But at age 16, he snipped off his sidelocks and left home as World War II loomed.
He made his way to England, where he adopted a new, vaguely Scottish name, blustered his way into the British Army, and saw action in France and Germany — leaving his family to be swept into the maw of the Holocaust. Only two sisters managed to survive.
“Everything to do with his past was still an open wound,” Betty wrote in her memoir. Robert “never managed to reconcile himself with his grief, or overcome his guilt.”
Instead, he set out to “become a gentleman and a squire,” as he put it. His fluency in Russian, English and French landed him assignments from Britain’s intelligence services and a job running a propaganda operation in postwar Berlin.
There, Robert launched his publishing empire by buying up a huge catalog of German scientific research — with the help of an unprecedented investment from MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency.
“He effectively became our agent,” Desmond Bristow, a former British intelligence officer, tells Preston in the book. It was a role that Maxwell apparently played for years, using his publishing perch to seed disinformation to Soviet contacts and pick up data on new technology.
Pergamon, the company he founded, established Britain’s modern scientific publishing industry. But it wasn’t enough for Maxwell, who soon began his lifelong practice of asset-stripping — borrowing in the name of one of his businesses to make another appear more profitable.
By 1969, his fiscal double-dealing came to a head. When an American company on the verge of buying a Pergamon subsidiary got a look at its books, Maxwell was pushed out of the parent company, which was, most awkwardly, headquartered on the grounds of his Oxford home. Ghislaine was 7 at the time.
“The children had the run of the house and grounds,” Preston said. “Suddenly they go down to the basement and there’s this bloody great iron gate there. Outside there’s a wooden fence topped with barbed wire. It was sort of a one-man version of West Berlin.”
Pergamon’s new owners had installed the barriers to physically exile Maxwell from the company’s offices, located in an outbuilding that shared a cellar with the family home.
“They were dark times,” Ian Maxwell said. “There seemed to be a fear in the air: a fear that we would be ostracized.”
Robert Maxwell rebounded — again, by dint of some shady fiscal maneuvering. He used one of his minor companies to siphon funds out of Pergamon and sequester them outside Britain. After five years of lawsuits and slow fiscal strangulation, he regained control of his company.
“Right,” Maxwell told the Pergamon board the day he won the battle. “We’re taking over now. You can all go.” That afternoon he had the fence and barriers torn down.
“There was something not so much amoral about him as pre-moral,” Peter Jay, Maxwell’s top aide in the 1980s, would later say. “As if he was . . . wholly unaware of things like good and evil.”
In 1984, Maxwell bought Britain’s top tabloid, the Daily Mirror. The acquisition established him as a political player — no Labour government could succeed without the Mirror’s support — and gave his enormous ego a stage to match his rapidly expanding girth. Maxwell’s face appeared in the Mirror’s pages 100 times in his first six months as publisher.
It also gave a new role to 22-year-old Ghislaine, who promoted the paper’s sweepstakes contests and became her father’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, boosting her social visibility as she hosted corporate parties and acted as the Mirror’s poster girl in promotions.
Maxwell’s urge for acquisition soon turned to America. In 1991, he pounced on the foundering New York Daily News. Ghislaine tagged along — first to run Maxwell Corporate Gifts, a New York-based vanity business bankrolled by her father, then to serve as his American social emissary, attending social events, like now-Gov. Cuomo’s wedding to Kerry Kennedy in 1990, on his behalf.
In March 1991, Maxwell made an impressive New York entrance on the Lady Ghislaine, sailing the yacht up the East River as he arrived to finalize the Daily News deal. But to keep the paper afloat, he sold Pergamon, his crown jewel — and secretly raided the Mirror’s pension funds.
Eight months later, Maxwell, 68, was dead.
He had taken a short cruise aboard the Lady Ghislaine through the Canary Islands — to try to shake a nagging cold, he said — ahead of a scheduled Nov. 5 meeting with the governor of the Bank of England. There he would have to explain the Maxwell Corporation’s billion-pound debt load, distributed among at least nine different international banks and investment firms, and the massive hole in its pension reserves.
But that morning, as the ship docked after an all-night sail, Robert Maxwell could not be found on board. Hours later, a helicopter crew spotted his naked, spread-eagled body afloat in the Atlantic. Two autopsies could not conclusively prove a cause of death.
The scandal that exploded in the days after Maxwell’s death led to the arrests of brothers Ian and Kevin, who both held top positions in the family’s now-bankrupt business empire but denied knowledge of their father’s dealings. (Both were charged with several counts of conspiracy to defraud and the case went to trial in 1995, but they were both acquitted the following year.)
But “Ghislaine was probably more affected by the death of her father than any of her siblings,” Preston said. She became his greatest defender — insisting that he could not have committed suicide, and that a conspiracy of rogue spies and contract killers had murdered him.
“In purely financial terms, she was left high and dry,” he noted. At age 29, Ghislaine had put more effort into socializing than developing a career. With the family’s business empire in ruins, she could count only on a trust fund income of 80,000 pounds a year, about $190,000 in today’s dollars — barely enough to cover one of the extravagant parties she threw in her society days as “Goodtimes Ghislaine.”
But she did have an enviable address book.
As public scorn rained down back home in Britain, Ghislaine settled in the relative anonymity of New York in 1992. She took an Upper East Side apartment and started rifling through her Rolodex to sell high-end real estate to members of her wealthy social circle.
Within months, she was dating financier Jeffrey Epstein.
“He saved her,” a friend told Vanity Fair. “When her father died, she was a wreck; inconsolable. And then Jeffrey took her in. She’s never forgotten that — and never will.”
The relationship was romantic for only a short time, but their alliance endured for years. Epstein gave her security; Ghislaine gave him entree to everyone from Prince Andrew and Naomi Campbell to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. She managed some of his many properties — a former employee of Epstein’s Palm Beach home called her “the lady of the house” — and sometimes used her helicopter pilot’s license to ferry him to his private Caribbean island.
There, he sated his appetite for sex with teenage girls — and Ghislaine reportedly enabled him.
Accusers say Maxwell acted as Epstein’s “madam,” recruiting girls as young as 14 to give him massages that soon evolved into sexual encounters, and to have sex with his friends. Some have said that she sexually abused them herself.
“The allegations made against me are abhorrent and entirely untrue,” she has repeatedly said.
Epstein avoided federal prosecution on sex-trafficking charges in 2007 with a sweetheart deal that saw him plead guilty to lesser crimes in Florida — but died under suspicious circumstances in a New York prison in 2019. Maxwell, busted last July in a raid on a New Hampshire hideaway, remains under arrest on charges of recruiting and grooming three teenage girls for sexual abuse between 1994 and 1997.
But she still has the support of her two closest siblings, Kevin and Ian. Both have been involved in the legal effort to bail their sister out of jail before her scheduled July 2021 trial, Preston said — and they staunchly insist on her innocence.
“It seems that she immediately gravitated from her father’s orbit to Epstein, but they were very different men,” Preston concludes.
“Maxwell was a tremendously overbearing, ogre-like figure, very much his own front man. Epstein preferred operating in the shadows.
“But Ghislaine, if the stories are true, was a kind of front woman for Epstein” — a skill she learned at her father’s knee.