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Opinion The sordid saga of Ghislaine Maxwell

Ghislaine Maxwell in 2013.
Ghislaine Maxwell in 2013. (Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Ghislaine Maxwell arrived in New York some 30 years ago as the young and glamorous emissary of her wealthy and influential father, an international man of mystery. Robert Maxwell was born Jan Ludvik Hyman Binyamin Hoch in the meager circumstances of an Eastern European shtetl. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust, escaped the Nazis and earned combat honors while fighting as a volunteer in the British Army under his new name, Ivan du Maurier.

After Germany’s surrender, the resourceful young man persuaded the Czechoslovakian communist government to supply air power to the Israelis in their 1948 war for nationhood. At the same time, he was establishing himself under yet another name, Maxwell, amid the battered and dazed society of post-war England. He became a publisher, a dealmaker, a member of Parliament, an empire builder, a cooker of ledger books, a swashbuckler who persuaded the Oxfordshire council to lease to him a vast mansion donated for more civic purposes by the family of Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose salon hosted the likes of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot.

The youngest of Maxwell’s nine children, Ghislaine, hosted parties at the mansion, known as Headington Hill Hall, while attending nearby Oxford University. Thus she learned the power of money in making glamorous friends. Where the money came from was of little importance — her father was known to British satirists as “the bouncing Czech” on account of his finagled finances. Access to wealth made one matter.

During a news conference on July 2, 2020, federal prosecutors said Ghislaine Maxwell helped Jeffrey Epstein groom and abuse minors. (Video: Reuters)

She delivered magnificently on her New York assignment, introducing the Maxwell brand to Manhattan’s high society in time for daddy’s purchase of the most widely circulated newspaper in the city at the time, the Daily News, in 1991. Maxwell’s London tabloid war with Rupert Murdoch was going global. But no sooner had father and daughter scored their coup than it all fell to pieces. Mysterious to the end, Maxwell pitched over the side of his massive yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, on a quiet night off the coast of Spain as his empire collapsed into a rubble of looted pension funds.

Some said suicide. Some said murder. Some said heart attack. Some said a fat and sleepy old man had just lost his balance. Beyond dispute was the cold reality of Ghislaine’s predicament: Her patron was dead, her family was broke, and she was turning 30 in desperate need of a new financial wellspring.

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An indictment unsealed July 2 in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court picks up the story not long thereafter: “From at least 1994 through at least 1997, GHISLAINE MAXWELL assisted, facilitated, and participated in Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Jeffrey Epstein to recruit, groom and ultimately abuse victims known to MAXWELL and Epstein to be under the age of 18.”

The politically connected financier and registered sex offender apparently killed himself in jail, the Bureau of Prisons said on Aug 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

Nearly a year after the arrest and fishy jailhouse suicide of wealthy serial sex abuser Epstein, his longtime friend and alleged procurer Maxwell has followed him into the hoosegow. Her arrest is a welcome sign that federal prosecutors in New York are serious about their promise to pursue this scandal beyond Epstein’s death. The public still knows far too little about the sources of Epstein’s jet-owning, mansion-hopping wealth; about his relationships with powerful men, including President Trump, former president Bill Clinton, Britain’s Prince Andrew, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, and billionaire Leslie Wexner; and about the nature of alleged photographs and possible video recordings seized from the safe in his Upper East Side townhouse.

Maxwell likely knows as much about these matters as anyone living. However, after a lifetime of keeping up appearances on behalf of shady men, whether she’ll become a cooperating witness is very much an open question.

Still, those dates in the indictment suggest that there is vivid testimony to be had about a lesser-known period in this sordid saga. They cover the years before 2008, when Epstein’s Palm Beach sex-trafficking scheme resulted in his conviction for soliciting prostitution involving a minor — the gentle wrist-slap that Florida prosecutors settled on after a massive intervention by Epstein’s high-priced team of legal stars. Girls recruited girls, who recruited other girls in turn to “massage” a creepy guy in a mansion.

Each new circle of recruitment added a little distance between Maxwell and her friend’s insatiable, felonious perversion. The indictment returns to the beginning — before she allegedly assembled the hierarchy — when all the coaxing and misleading and hands-on instruction of vulnerable children, according to prosecutors, fell to Maxwell herself.

Ghislaine Maxwell is no slacker in the mystery department. Perhaps instead of inheriting wealth from her father, she inherited his gift for shifting identities in the struggle to survive. She tried “Epstein’s girlfriend,” according to people who knew the pair in the 1990s. At some point, however, he must have broken the news to her that he wasn’t into grown-ups. So, the indictment suggests, she adopted a more indispensable persona: his networker.

Now, as men in his cabal watch nervously, another identity beckons: betrayer of Epstein’s secrets.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

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Read a letter in response to this piece: Bring to justice Jeffrey Epstein’s network

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The Post’s View: Prosecutors should thoroughly investigate Jeffrey Epstein and his collaborators

David Von Drehle: The Jeffrey Epstein saga is far from over. Investigators must keep squeezing.

Alyssa Rosenberg: We need to know the truth about Jeffrey Epstein and his friends. All of it.