Wealthy English socialite, Ghislaine Maxwell, was sentenced to 20 years in prison this year for her partnership role in the Jeffrey Epstein human trafficking scandal. The complexities behind a woman who presented herself as educated, competent and charming – will forever be remembered in the same way that Shakespeare wrote about wealthy, powerful people who succumbed to their own human failures and weaknesses. From that perspective, it is a cautionary tale about humans being blinded by their own driving forces.
Shakespeare’s plays often covered the fault lines in parent-child relationships. We see it in Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. What’s disturbing in this story is that this is the 21st century, and England is no longer the vastly patriarchal society that it used to be in Shakespeare’s time – and yet – the story about Ghislaine Maxwell and her father, Robert Maxwell (set in England), is a classical repetition of the pitfalls of autocratic, powerful fathers who rule their households with aggression, intimidation and fear.
Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine’s father, appeared on television’s ‘60 minutes’ some years ago with Mike Wallace. In the interview, Wallace referred to all the adjectives that Maxwell had been called. He described him as ‘flamboyant, vulgar, insufferable, ruthless, brazen, fiery, humorless, impatient, intolerant, a bully, a tyrant and rude.’ When asked to respond, Robert Maxwell proudly confirmed every word by saying, “Guilty”. He treated his wife and most of his children with indifferent cruelty. He saved his affections for his favorite daughter, Ghislaine, even naming his luxury yacht after her – ‘Lady Ghislaine’. She in turn played to her father’s weaknesses by using coquettish behavior to ensure that the gifts and the money continued to flow her way.
Robert Maxwell’s indulgence of Ghislaine spawned a manipulative, spoilt daddy’s girl whose moral compass – if there ever was one – evaporated. The cantankerous Maxwell was a despised media mogul, a former member of the British parliament, and a dishonest fraudster. Despite his damning reputation, Ghislaine continued to idolize him – even after his death. He had given her an opulent lifestyle and it was her immersion in that opulence that took Ghislaine down a deeply dark hole. Money without a moral handbrake is a particularly dangerous combination.
Ghislaine also had the advantages that come with intelligence. She studied at Oxford University in England and breezed through the curriculum carelessly and with little effort. She mixed in high society, rubbing shoulders with English royalty on a regular basis. But there was an interesting thorn there: her father was despised by Britain’s top echelon because of his crassness, and the Maxwell name drew criticism and some cold shoulders from the people that Ghislaine most wanted to impress.
Her social-climbing agenda wasn’t always smooth sailing, so she polished her social skills to make herself that much more attractive. She was compellingly engaging in conversation, interesting, witty and dynamic. Those attributes were her passport to a world that she craved and relied upon for her sense of self-worth. The only habit that exposed her insincerity at upper echelon social gatherings was her roving eye. As she spoke to people, her eyes constantly looked past them as she surveyed the room, looking for the next important person she could beguile.
In many ways, Ghislaine was a chip off her father’s block. She simply packaged her agenda more civilly (without the overt tyranny)and crafted the art of being charming and amusing
In many ways, Ghislaine was a chip off her father’s block. She simply packaged her agenda more civilly (without the overt tyranny) and crafted the art of being charming and amusing. Later in her life, Ghislaine would become increasingly more authoritarian – particularly with the young girls she propositioned for Epstein. Initially, even though she crossed boundaries with the wives of men she found attractive, she went about her flirtatious game without the fear of consequences. Her life was about entitlement and procurement, and she mostly always coveted and garnered what she wanted.
The fault lines began to appear when Ghislaine’s father died mysteriously off his private yacht off the Canary Islands. Her grief was overwhelming for complex reasons. She appeared to want to deny Robert Maxwell’s monetary improprieties, choosing to rather deify the man who had kept her in the style to which she had become accustomed. His death was the end of the road to a limitless bank account, and that must have frightened Ghislaine because her value system relied upon large quantities of money.
She moved to New York – away from all the scandal of her father’s suspicious death. She claimed to be broke, despite her new residence in one of the most expensive New York neighborhoods. Acquaintances of Ghislaine in the documentary ‘Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?’ describe her as needing to be the center of attention in a shocking way. Men describe how Ghislaine would proposition them just five feet away from their wives – in a brazen, cavalier manner. Her language was often coarse and shocking in the sense that she commoditized human-beings. She viewed both men and women as useful acquisitions and her conduct often appeared to be soulless. Humans were a numbers game and victories were notches on her goal path.
If there is an empathetic view of Ghislaine Maxwell, it might be the assessment of the timing in which she met the man who would seal her fate – Jeffrey Epstein. There’s no question that her father’s death left a massive void in her life, and it was about to be filled by another man without a moral compass. The relationship platform was tainted from the start by an unsaid quid pro quo arrangement. Jeffrey Epstein had the quantities of money that Ghislaine wanted, while she had the social cachet that he lacked. The package she offered fitted in perfectly with the Upper East side parties of New York. This was another commoditized relationship in which the benefits were being carefully measured. Ghislaine could supply her father’s contacts to an always-hungry-for-money Epstein, and he could provide her with the lavish lifestyle she loved. Ghislaine was effortlessly glamorous and her hosting skills at parties were expertly honed. Dinner parties at Epstein’s impressive New York apartment drew illustriously powerful people who enjoyed the company of the charming Ghislaine Maxwell.
Empathetically speaking, some would argue that Ghislaine did develop deep feelings for Epstein along the way. It is doubtful that Epstein was capable of genuine love and witnesses don’t believe that he returned those feelings. She was the employee and he was the boss. Some say that Epstein molded an emotionally compromised woman who had just lost her father and he made her complicit in his scheme to lure underage girls to his residences. The slippery slope for Ghislaine Maxwell began its vast descent from 1994 onwards.
Schemes often feed off carnal bases. Epstein wasn’t trying to find the next cure for cancer or the answer to world peace. He was feeding his own basic addictions – using Ghislaine as the respectable frontline for his depravation. Young girls were not afraid of this seemingly polished woman with the posh voice and the well-educated English accent. They’d heard Princess Diana speak like her, and alarm bells didn’t ring as they met Jeffrey Epstein’s pimp. Some of the young girls drawn into the Maxwell Epstein web even believed that Ghislaine was Jeffrey’s wife, and that only enhanced their feelings of relative safety. The guise of invitations for relaxing massages drew in unsuspecting girls because of the large quantities of money that were being offered. Ghislaine deliberately chose girls from poor neighborhoods who needed money, not just for themselves, but for their families. The lure of money is great when people struggle to put food on the table or pay their monthly rent.
While it was well known that Jeffrey Epstein favored very young girls, during the 1990s, society in most sophisticated countries saw the pairing of old wealthy men with beautiful young women as acceptable. Male wealth attracted female beauty and in the 1990s, the age differences weren’t frowned upon. Some people even argued that if 18 was the age of consent, there really wasn’t much difference between an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old. Firstly, there is a difference, and equally as concerning was the inequity in the power balance. Choices are compromised when the power broker has so much more leverage over another human being. It’s a complex topic because there are different definitions of power. Beauty is viewed as a power of sorts. But when it comes to appropriate ages of consent, the argument becomes indefensible with anybody under the age of 18 – no matter the gender.
Just as she had revered her morally bankrupt father, she went on to revere another morally bankrupt man
Ghislaine’s scouting trips for young girls were predatory. She’s alleged to have combed through Central Park to find them or wait outside schools so she could entice them when they came out of class. When they were at Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion, she would scout the trailer parks for victims who could feed Epstein’s insatiable appetite. It was all about finding ‘models’ for Jeffrey, she would say.
Ghislaine wasn’t just one-dimensional. Her humanness was evident in some of the interactions she had with the professional masseuses she invited to Epstein’s residences. They describe her as being conversationally warm and open to sharing stories about her life. She was articulate and engaging. But then her fear of displeasing Epstein would surface afterwards as she said, “make sure you give Jeffrey what he wants. He always gets what he wants.” Ghislaine had a choice to leave Epstein but she chose not to because he provided a lavish lifestyle that she wanted above all else.
Ghislaine’s insecurities about her self-worth were apparent in numerous incidents. On Epstein’s Caribbean Island, she’s alleged to have referred to the young girls always present as the “bees around the honeypot” (Epstein being the honey pot). “But I’m the Queen Bee,” she’d emphasize to people listening. A confident person does not make that comment. It is asserted that she approached a credible writer in New York and begged her to write her autobiography because she felt it would impress Epstein – enough for him to want to marry her. She said, “I need Jeffrey to see me in a different light.”
When Epstein was charged with underage solicitation in 2006, and briefly jailed in 2008, Ghislaine planned her way out of the scandal by moving away from Epstein – to go and start a new life elsewhere so she could escape the charge net that was closing in. She became an overnight philanthropist – feigning massive interest in the fate of the ocean with The TerraMar Project, a non-profit environmental organization. Like many things in her life, it was a carefully curated plan to present an impeccable public image. During this supposed clean-up phase of Ghislaine’s life, her tainted side reared its ugly head after a night of philanthropy. She allegedly propositioned a man into her apartment with promises that if he did as she instructed, she’d tell him all the secrets of her father. Ghislaine’s cleanup act became quantifiably more hypocritical. There was a charitable event to raise funds for the victims of Haitian sex trafficking. Ghislaine attended the event and orchestrated photo opportunities with the most important people in the room, including the French Ambassador. She never gave a cent to the charity. Her manipulative abilities emboldened her and gave her a sense that she could always outsmart everything – including the law. But the law finally caught up with her in 2020 and in 2022, she was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence.
While Ghislaine now says she deeply regrets ever having met Jeffrey Epstein, it’s uncertain what she means by that statement. Her ethically tarnished bedrock was established early in her life – long before she ever met Epstein. Her choice of him mirrored her value system. Just as she had revered her morally bankrupt father, she went on to revere another morally bankrupt man.
At the end of her June 2022 trial, while Ghislaine appeared to sympathize with the girls who had been abused, she also said that Jeffrey Epstein should have been there on trial (had he not committed suicide) – inferring that he was the villain, and she was merely the scapegoat. At closing statements, the Judge noted that not once did Ghislaine Maxwell accept responsibility for her heinous actions. She expressed sympathy but never responsibility.
Money has the power to dilute our moral barometers if we let it. Jeffrey Epstein wielded enormous power with his money, and the privileged Ghislaine Maxwell was a willing accomplice to the travesties of justice. Their life of excess and moral degradation ended badly – just as Shakespeare’s tragedies resulted in the implosion of many powerful people. The same human failures repeat themselves every century, but the hope is that there are valuable lessons learned from human failures of this scope and magnitude.
Acknowledgment: ‘Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?’ STARZ