She was there at the socialites’ do’s: Cornelia Guest’s holiday bash, Georgette Mosbacher’s party for the writer Michael Gross. At real-estate mogul Aby Rosen’s birthday, at Bergdorf Goodman’s 111th anniversary, at Harvey Weinstein’s cocktail for William and Harry: Behind the Palace Walls. At film screenings and store openings and fashion shows, at Tina Brown’s home and Arianna Huffington’s home and the Time 100 Gala and the Alzheimer’s Association’s Rita Hayworth Gala. For years — though not lately — Ghislaine Maxwell was a constant on the New York social scene in its most Upper East iteration. She was a friend of everyone, if an intimate of few.
“I know her just socially,” growled the furrier Dennis Basso, who swathes the wealthy in mink. “Alone. She’s been to my fashion shows. But some hundreds of people come.”
Alone — that’s the party line now. Because Maxwell’s closest associate, her intimate, her maybe-employer and now the albatross keeping company with the jewelry around her neck, is Jeffrey Epstein. The disgraced financier, who has been accused of sexually abusing underage girls, is currently awaiting trial at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy. Maxwell seemed to know many rich and powerful men — articles mention her dining with Bill Clinton, photos show her partying with Elon Musk and deep in conversation with Stephen Schwarzman — but her most durable connection has been with Epstein. She was there at his gargantuan townhouse on East 71st Street, there on his private plane, there with him and Donald Trump and his then-girlfriend Melania at Mar-a-Lago. She was, as he put it in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile, his “best friend.” Maxwell, 57, has been accused in civil suits of serving as his procuress, luring women and girls into Epstein’s web. Maxwell has denied these allegations and has never been criminally charged. Her attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In court documents, Epstein’s accusers allege that Maxwell acted as a recruiter, an instructor, and in some cases a participant in the abuse he practiced. Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who claims that Maxwell recruited her on behalf of Epstein when Giuffre was a 16-year-old spa attendant at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where Epstein has a home, said much of her grooming came from Maxwell herself. “The training started immediately,” she said in a video interview with the Miami Herald. “It was everything down to how to give a blowjob, how to be quiet, be subservient, give Jeffrey what he wants. A lot of this training came from Ghislaine herself. Being a woman, it kind of surprises you that a woman could let stuff like that happen. Not only let it happen but to groom you into doing it.”
After Maxwell disputed Giuffre’s earlier statements to the press and called her a liar, Giuffre sued her for defamation. The two settled the case — as did Maxwell and Sarah Ransome, another woman who claimed Maxwell groomed her — and many of the filings from these suits are sealed or redacted. Earlier this month, just before Epstein’s arrest, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordered filings from the Roberts case to be unsealed, thanks in part to efforts by the Herald and other news organizations, which Maxwell opposes. The files could be made public in a matter of weeks. “The one person most likely in jeopardy is Maxwell, because the records that are going to be unsealed have so much evidence against her,” David Boies, Giuffre’s attorney, told the Herald. He suggested she might have an interest in cooperating with the authorities — “though she may have missed that opportunity.”
Those who knew Maxwell only as a friendly face on the social circuit were wholly unaware of this side of her. “I have nothing bad to say about her,” one former acquaintance said. “Nobody knew any of this creepy sex stuff,” said another. “No one I knew had any idea.”
Those who knew her in connection with Epstein saw her as nothing more sinister than a social matchmaker.
“Every pretty girl in New York in those days, Ghislaine would invite to Jeffrey’s,” said Euan Rellie, an investment banker and social fixture who has known Maxwell for years and who, along with his wife, the author and socialite Lucy Sykes, was a fellow guest at a dinner for Prince Andrew at Epstein’s townhouse in the early aughts. Maxwell and Epstein had been attached, but she was “now an employee of his, as I understood it,” he said. “Her job was to jazz up his social life by getting fashionable young women to show up.” He presumed the young women to be in their 20s.
Was Maxwell an employee of Epstein’s? No one seemed entirely sure. Their lives were certainly closely entwined. Tabloid reports on her claim that she managed Epstein’s properties — besides the houses in New York and Palm Beach, Epstein has homes in New Mexico and Paris and his own private island in the Caribbean — from his office on Madison Avenue, which appeared for many years as one of Maxwell’s addresses in public records. Court documents show Epstein’s bills going there, too.
Epstein, for his part, once said she wasn’t on the payroll. Yet she did errands for him: hunted for a yoga teacher in California, according to Vanity Fair, or acted as intermediary when he wanted to give his friend the billionaire Les Wexner a family portrait painted by Nelson Shanks, whose previous commissions included Bill Clinton, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and Pope John Paul II. (Shanks sued Maxwell, Epstein, and the Wexners when Epstein refused to pay for the finished painting; the case settled out of court. Wexner has said that he cut ties with Epstein more than ten years ago. Shanks died in 2015.)
Maybe these were simply the favors of a devoted friend. When Maxwell donated to Hillary Clinton’s presidential-primary campaign in 2007 ($2,300, the maximum individual contribution allowed at that time), she listed herself as unemployed; when she gave to Gary King’s congressional bid in New Mexico a few years before that (furnishing an address, in Saint Thomas, associated with Epstein), she was “retired.” (Epstein and several associates also donated to King’s various races, including his runs for governor and his successful campaign for attorney general; King has twice had to return money either from Epstein or from companies related to him. Epstein bought his ranch in New Mexico from the family of King’s father, the state’s former governor. And Epstein, who was required to register as a sex offender as part of a 2008 plea agreement with federal prosecutors, managed not to do so in New Mexico.)
In the social world, questions of profession are secondary anyway. “Half of my friends, I don’t even know what they do,” said one social regular who knew Maxwell casually. “It’s just not done to even ask those things.”
And why would you, when Maxwell was great company, as one longtime power broker called her? An addition to any table, said another. “If there was one word, it was charming,” said Patrick McMullan, the society photographer. Vicky Ward, who wrote the Vanity Fair profile of Epstein (and who has said publicly that her reporting about Epstein’s abuse of two young girls was removed from it), returned to the subject of Epstein and Maxwell in a short, separate article. “Full disclosure: I like her,” she wrote. “Most people in New York do. It’s almost impossible not to.”
She was said to be wickedly funny and unusually knowledgeable, glamorous and, on top of that, British. (“I think New Yorkers are charmed by that high-end English accent,” McMullan said.) She could toss off a quip and a flourish worthy of Waugh, even when the occasion wasn’t. “I was drip-fed Shakespeare at Oxford,” she told a party reporter at the launch of book on Richard III by a Hollywood mega-lawyer in the late ’90s. “Just sniffing fresh ink gets me high.”
What’s more, she was exotic. She’d explored the seas and could pilot a helicopter, or maybe a submarine, one acquaintance thought, a MacGyver of the gala circuit. “The couple times we talked,” Tina Brown recalled, “she was always going on about intrepid voyages she took.”
Maxwell arrived in New York in the early ’90s, on the cusp of her 30th birthday. English-born and poshly educated, she was the favorite daughter of Robert Maxwell, the English media mogul, whose holdings included newspapers, notably the tabloid Daily Mirror in London and the Macmillan publishing house in the U.S. Ghislaine had founded a social club for women in London and worked for another of her father’s papers, and according to the New York Post, she came as his emissary to American society when he bought the New York Daily News in 1991.
But that same year, he was found dead — by accident (the official inquest’s ruling), suicide, or murder; opinions vary — in the Atlantic, off the Canary Islands. (He was last seen on the deck of his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.) Soon after, he was discovered to have plundered the pension funds of the Mirror to shore up his floundering empire. Two of his sons, Kevin and Ian, took over the family’s companies after his death; they stood trial for their alleged involvement in his fraud and were acquitted.
Ghislaine had fine taste and excellent connections, and a whiff of disrepute had never seemed to dim her prospects. “She was very popular at Oxford, absolutely famous,” said Rellie, who was at Cambridge a few years after. “England’s no different from anywhere else. You can have a dad everybody thinks is sleazy and rich and that’s sort of a plus, socially. In a way it made her more fascinating, not less.” She was reported to have an income for life from a family trust, but at ￡80,000, it would hardly be enough to sustain a high-flying lifestyle. (Infamously, she came to America on the Concorde.)
The meet-cute of Epstein and Maxwell in New York is unclear, and neither has historically gone into any great detail. By 1992, she and Epstein were already linked, showing up at a Mar-a-Lago party together in Palm Beach, where Trump and Epstein ogled women together in front of NBC cameras. Suffice it to say that they were romantically linked and then platonically linked. (Ward wrote that Epstein told people his former paramours move “up, not down,” to friend status.) Among socials, she was known to have been attached to Ted Waitt, the ultra-wealthy co-founder of Gateway Computers; one pointed out wryly that around the time his first marriage dissolved, Waitt was unstylish, with a bald patch, a ponytail, and bad clothes; afterward, he was sleek, shaved, and well dressed. (Waitt did not return an email seeking comment.) Part of the Maxwell appeal was savoir-faire: “She had an upbringing and taste and knew how to run a house and a boat and how to entertain,” an acquaintance said. (More than one remembered her entertaining on Waitt’s yacht, Plan B.) “You can’t buy that. You can’t buy access, either.” Maxwell had both.
Her passion was the oceans. For a woman seen everywhere about town, she is curiously silent in the press, except where conservation is concerned. In 2008, she hosted a cocktail party for the board of the nonprofit Oceana at her townhouse on East 65th Street. (Hers? “I’m not sure whose townhouse it was, but she entertained in it,” McMullan said.) And by 2012, she had launched the TerraMar Project, a conservation nonprofit of her own, of which, according to tax filings, she was president but from which she drew no salary. She gave a Ted Talk about its work and talked it up at the U.N. and in the press, which credited TerraMar as her “brainchild.” But her association, after years of bad press with Epstein, seems to have become a liability. While it remained active on social media of late, Maxwell’s name had been curiously absent from its website. On Friday, a tweet from TerraMar’s verified account announced it will cease all operations, and its website and Instagram account were taken down.
From the New York social world, too, she has vanished. “I have not seen her in a zillion years,” one acquaintance said. The trail of party photos dries up in 2016. Her 65th Street townhouse was sold, for just over $15 million, that year. (The seller was given as 116 East 65th Street, LLC, which once claimed offices at that same old Epstein Madison Avenue address.) Where is she now? One social-watcher guessed the islands; others think Europe. The way may have already been paved. In 2012, she incorporated Ellmax Enterprise Limited, with herself as secretary and director — the only director listed. In its filings with Companies House, the British registrar, she is described as a resident of the U.K., with a correspondence address in Salisbury, not far from Stonehenge. (The address given for the company is in London. It is a non-trading company, listed as dormant, and its net assets are ￡1.)
She was not, after all, bound to a particular city or country, and, whether driven by design or dubious circumstance, she was used to jetting freely and fabulously around the globe. “There was an independence about her,” said someone who knew her. “She kind of had to make her way in the world.”
Rellie, with the benefit of hindsight, saw a darker version. “Ghislaine was funny and didn’t take herself too seriously,” he said. “But she seemed like a woman who didn’t have any real job, didn’t have any real boyfriend, had lost her dad. A woman adrift who was clinging on to whatever she could find.”