Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein
Photo credit: Adapted by Mathilde Fallot for WhoWhatWhy from Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department / Wikimedia, Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / Wikimedia, Donegalscott / Wikimedia (CC BY 1.0), and Navin75 / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Long before she became public enemy No. 1, Ghislaine Maxwell was an heiress with a dark past. Her motivations are as difficult to determine as her life is difficult to believe.

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Ghislaine Maxwell is used to being the woman of the hour. The 59-year-old British aristocrat was a fixture of the London and New York social scenes throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, rubbing shoulders and champagne flutes with an international cast of power players that included two US presidents and at least one prince. In her jet-setting, party-hopping days, she allegedly lived a double life as a groomer of girls, serving up underage victims to Jeffrey Epstein and the megawatt men who moved alongside him. 

All eyes are again on Maxwell as her trial opens in Manhattan federal court, just steps from the lower Manhattan jail where Epstein was found dead in his cell two years ago. The charges against her for her role in Epstein’s decades-long international sex abuse ring include six counts related to child sex trafficking in the decade spanning 1994 to 2004, involving four girls — the youngest aged 14. The alleged crimes occurred at Epstein’s residences in Manhattan, Palm Beach, and New Mexico, as well as Maxwell’s London apartment. 

Maxwell faces a separate trial, as yet unscheduled, for an additional two counts of perjury for statements she made in connection with a long-settled 2015 defamation suit against her. If convicted on all counts, Maxwell could face 80 years in prison. She has always denied any involvement in, or knowledge of, Epstein’s crimes, and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Epstein’s death in federal custody in 2019 left Maxwell bearing the brunt of public outrage at the chronic mishandling of his sex crimes by law enforcement and the courts. Still, Maxwell’s time with Epstein raises many questions: If she did indeed assist in his crimes, what motivated her? Was she in love with him? Was she aiding and abetting him in exchange for financial support? Apparently, not even Maxwell can explain the nature of her partnership with Epstein. We know that they were lovers, and at one point she was managing his households. But when asked in a 2016 deposition if she was Epstein’s girlfriend, she responded, “That’s a tricky question. There were times when I would have liked to think of myself as his girlfriend.” 

Contradictions abound. On the one hand, she is a wealthy, Parisian-born heiress with an Oxford education and an enviable black book. On the other hand, she is, like Epstein, a person “mysteriously made and mysteriously protected.”

So Maxwell goes to trial in Epstein’s stead. The challenge for her defense team will be to wash away that guilt by association — to sever her public image from Epstein’s. But Maxwell without the Epstein tinge is still a strange figure with a strange past. And a closer look at the woman of the hour brings up more questions than answers. 

War, Espionage, and a Rich Man’s Death

Maxwell appears to have entered Epstein’s life in the early 1990s, at around the same time his sophisticated sex trafficking operation began in earnest. According to his victims, it was Maxwell who recruited minors from schools, spas, and the streets, and delivered them to Epstein. Sometimes, the girls claim, she participated in the abuse, and trained them to recruit still more girls. 

But how Maxwell entered Epstein’s orbit is itself a strange story. It may have something to do with the death of her father, media baron Robert Maxwell.

A Czechoslovakian Jew born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch, Robert Maxwell fled to France as a teenager during the early years of World War II and eventually joined the British army, earning the rank of captain and a prestigious medal in 1945. While most of his family perished in the Holocaust, Maxwell became a naturalized British subject after the war and built a billion-dollar publishing empire that included the Daily Mirror and the New York Daily News

Maxwell had a mythic capacity for self-invention. He Anglicized himself, changing his name, adopting a posh British accent, and living like a lord at Headington Hill Hall, the massive Maxwell family estate in Oxford. 

In 1991, he was found dead in the sea off the Canary Islands. It was believed that he had fallen from his yacht — named the Lady Ghislaine after his supposed favorite child. 

There had long been rumors that Maxwell was an Israeli, Soviet, or British spy (or perhaps all three at once). These rumors compounded when he was given a state funeral in Israel and buried on the Mount of Olives. Reportedly, six current and former heads of Israeli intelligence were in attendance. 

Whispers of espionage reached a fever pitch when, weeks after his death, it was revealed that “Captain Bob” had looted nearly £500 million from the pension fund of his Mirror Group Newspapers. Today, speculation still swirls: Did he jump from his yacht? Was he pushed?

How They Met

The shadows of Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein flank Ghislaine Maxwell’s public image: The loss of one mysterious man led her straight into the arms of another, so the story goes. 

Some theorize that Robert Maxwell and Epstein knew each other before Ghislaine came into the picture. There are rumors that Maxwell had in fact introduced his daughter to Epstein. Miami Herald journalist Julie K. Brown, whose bombshell reporting brought massive additional attention to the Epstein case, claims in her new book that Maxwell hired Epstein in the 1980s to hide his money offshore. Maxwell’s status as a suspected spy, combined with the claims that Epstein’s sex trafficking ring operated as a honey trap for powerful men across the public and private sectors, make this theory, if true, a game changer in the Epstein case. 

But proof that Ghislaine Maxwell and Epstein knew each other before her father’s death is scant. One piece of documentary evidence, however, might hold an eerie clue. It’s the first known photograph of Maxwell and Epstein, published by the Daily Mail in 2020. The photograph was taken in late 1991 at a memorial dinner for Robert Maxwell at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Epstein is seated next to Maxwell, and they’re smiling at each other. 

That photograph could be a tip-of-the-iceberg document. Why would Epstein be seated at her table, at her father’s memorial, if he were only a casual acquaintance? It’s a tantalizing narrative, to be sure: What if Robert Maxwell — a Jewish immigrant who elbowed his way into British aristocracy, built a massive (if rickety) empire, and is rumored to have had ties with Mossad and various figures in the international arms trade — knew Jeffrey Epstein, a college dropout from Brooklyn who built a similarly inscrutable empire from nothing and seems to have had ties to US intelligence? 

However they met, it’s said that Ghislaine Maxwell was the bridge between Epstein and the upper echelons of society — that she put an aristocratic gloss on Epstein’s image. Together, they were photographed at parties, charity galas, and fashion shows from 1991 to 2005. They were even invited by Prince Andrew, a friend of Maxwell’s, to the Queen’s beloved Sandringham estate (where the royal family traditionally spends Christmas) for a “straightforward shooting weekend” in December 2000. 

(Prince Andrew is currently locked in a civil suit with one of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Giuffre, née Roberts, who has long claimed that she was trafficked to the prince as a minor.)

Maxwell’s social graces and British charm are the very things that allegedly put Epstein’s victims at ease. Here was “the most elegant thing in the world,” as one of Maxwell’s accusers describes her, offering a job, easy money, or a modeling audition. She’s wearing Chanel or Ralph Lauren, sporting a perpetual pixie cut — swank but sophisticated in an old-world way. What’s not to trust? 

Just days before Epstein’s arrest, court records from Giuffre’s defamation suit against Maxwell were ordered unsealed, and the first batch of documents was released to the public in August 2019. The next day, Epstein was found dead in his prison cell.

Bonded in Crime

Although Epstein was allegedly sexually assaulting minors long before he and Maxwell met (one ongoing lawsuit places his earliest assault in 1978), it was during Maxwell’s tenure as his sometime-girlfriend and employee that he allegedly received massages from three girls a day, every day. His victims claim that he sexually assaulted them during these massages.

Dozens of Epstein’s accusers have spoken both on and off the record about the structure of his sex trafficking operation. Each girl received $200 for every massage she gave Epstein and $300 for every new girl she recruited. Some claim to have recruited upwards of 50 other girls from places like shopping malls and schools. And many allege that Maxwell was effectively managing the operation. 

All the while, Epstein’s proclivity for young girls — very young — was an open secret.

The dam should have broken in 2005, when the mother of one of his 14-year-old victims called the Palm Beach police. Michael Reiter, police chief at the time, launched an investigation. When he suspected state prosecutors were stalling, he contacted the FBI. That’s when Alex Acosta, then-US attorney for the Southern District of Florida, took over the case. In 2007, Acosta decided not to charge Epstein with federal sex crimes and instead signed a nonprosecution agreement, despite the fact that the FBI had interviewed some 40 victims. The “sweetheart deal” allowed Epstein to avoid federal prosecution by pleading guilty to lesser state charges. It also granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators,” named or unnamed. 

Instead of lewd acts with a minor, Epstein was formally convicted of soliciting prostitution and procuring a minor for prostitution in 2008. The conviction has since been roundly criticized for, at the very least, flagrantly faulty logic: How can a minor (who, by definition, cannot consent) be rightly referred to as a sex worker? 

Epstein was sentenced to 18 months in the Palm Beach County Stockade — an odd landing place for a sex offender. He served just 13 months in custody, during which he was allowed to leave the jail on work release six days a week. 

With Epstein’s case closed and immunity granted to all co-conspirators, Maxwell was in the clear. Her time with a convicted sex offender didn’t seem to stain her reputation: She was photographed attending charity galas, the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, and Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding. She popped up at policy events around the world between 2012 and 2015 promoting her ocean nonprofit, TerraMar. Under its auspices, she gave a TED Talk, attended the Clinton Global Initiative, and advocated for saving the oceans at the UN. Ostensibly a grant-making foundation, TerraMar never gave out more than a few hundred dollars. It was dissolved in December 2019, shortly after the New York Post reported that the charity was under FBI investigation for ties to Epstein. 

The Woman of the Hour Comes Into Focus

It wasn’t until 2015 that Maxwell’s protective bubble began to shrink. The timeline of mounting pressure was quick. In December 2014, Virginia Giuffre accused Maxwell of grooming and sexually assaulting her, beginning when Giuffre was 16 years old. Maxwell called Giuffre a liar and, in January 2015, Giuffre sued Maxwell for defamation. Crucially, Maxwell gave depositions in this suit in 2016. The perjury charges against her today stem from statements she made under oath in those depositions.

By late 2016, Maxwell had all but disappeared from the social circuit. She sold her New York townhouse and was married, in secret, to Scott Borgerson, a billionaire tech founder who has since stepped down as CEO of his maritime tracking company, CargoMetrics. 

Giuffre’s defamation suit was settled in 2017, with Maxwell reportedly paying millions. Epstein was bankrolling Maxwell’s legal bills until about 2017. And, last year, she sued his estate to recoup her legal costs, claiming that Epstein had promised to always fund her legal bills.

Then, in 2018, the dam broke for good when Julie K. Brown dusted off Epstein’s decade-old sweetheart deal. Brown’s Miami Herald exposé brought to light the expansive nonprosecution agreement brokered by Acosta (who was, by this time, serving as labor secretary in the Trump administration) that shielded Epstein and company from federal prosecution in 2008. The series sparked outrage, putting Epstein’s name back in the headlines and inspiring more victims to come forward.

In February 2019, a federal judge ruled that Acosta had illegally withheld the 2008 plea deal from Epstein’s more than 30 victims. The nonprosecution agreement that granted immunity to Epstein and “any potential co-conspirators” was thrown out, and all who were party to Epstein’s crimes became fair game. 

Five months later, Epstein was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. He had just gotten off a return flight from France. 

Just days before Epstein’s arrest, court records from Giuffre’s defamation suit against Maxwell were ordered unsealed, and the first batch of documents was released to the public in August 2019. The next day, Epstein was found dead in his jail cell. 

Maxwell is still fighting to keep documents from that defamation suit under seal, but they continue to be released to the public in batches. These documents — unsealed and largely unredacted — constitute the fullest picture we’ve had yet of Epstein’s sex trafficking operation. Among the documents are thousands of pieces of evidence: flight logs, email exchanges between Maxwell and Epstein, and, of course, Maxwell’s deposition transcripts. Those that have been unsealed can be read in full here.

Maxwell remained free for about a year after Epstein’s July 2019 arrest, and, in that time, the prosecution argues, she “made intentional efforts to avoid detection.”

She shuttered her nonprofit, TerraMar, and purchased her New Hampshire home, in cash, through an anonymous LLC. She moved hundreds of thousands of dollars around her accounts, registered a new phone number under “G Max,” and had packages delivered to her address under phony names. Court records show that she had a security detail of British ex-military guarding her home. 

The Knock She Must Have Expected

On the morning of July 2, 2020, the FBI raided Maxwell’s New Hampshire home, a sprawling property dubbed “Tuckedaway” for its wooded seclusion. They found a cellphone wrapped in tin foil on a desk — a move the prosecution called “a seemingly misguided effort to evade detection.”

Her arrest was the first major development in the Epstein case since the financier’s death in federal custody the year before. And Maxwell’s will be the first criminal case in the Epstein saga to make it to trial. (Her lawyers have not responded to a request for comment.) 

To date, Maxwell is one of two alleged co-conspirators to be criminally charged in relation to Epstein’s crimes. (The other is French modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, who was charged with rape and sexual assault of minors in December 2020 and is now in custody in Paris.) Given that she has an estimated $20 million across some 15 bank accounts, as well as British and French passports (France does not have an extradition treaty with the US), Maxwell was ruled an extreme flight risk. She has requested bail six times.

Maxwell’s trial is expected to last an estimated six weeks. As for her legal strategy, we know that “false memory” expert Elizabeth Loftus will testify as a witness for the defense, likely in an effort to dispute the recollections of Epstein’s victims. Loftus is known for having testified for the defense in many child molestation and sexual assault cases, including those of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Jerry Sandusky.

In the event of a guilty verdict, Maxwell’s legal team will most certainly file an appeal.

The Epstein saga is far from over, and our biggest questions remain unanswered: Who and what were really involved? And to what end? At any moment, a new piece of information could cause us to rip up everything we think we know about this case. 

And yet there is a sense that we’ve lived an entire lifetime with it — Epstein’s victims certainly have. Their fight for justice has been decades in the making, and it has included multiple state and federal investigations, a lawsuit against the federal government (that Epstein’s victims won), and countless other suits, countersuits, and appeals. So far, it’s caused a prince to step back from royal duties, a labor secretary of the United States to resign, and the heads of some of the world’s largest corporations to be ousted from their posts. 

Right now, we turn our attention toward Ghislaine Maxwell in anticipation of a spectacle that will likely prove short on answers. Perhaps only in the years of criminal and civil cases to come will we arrive at a fuller picture of the truth. 


  • Gabriella Lombardo

    Gabriella Lombardo is a New York-based reporter at WhoWhatWhy and a graduate of Harvard College. Gabriella has covered media and culture for radio, print, and digital outlets including Boston Common Magazine, The Harvard Crimson, and WHRB.

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