Virginia Giuffre was a teenager when she says Ghislaine Maxwell approached her near a locker room at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s private golf club, and told her she knew of someone looking for a personal ‘masseuse’.
‘You’ll travel,’ the socialite promised her, according to Giuffre in a 2016 testimony unsealed earlier this month. ‘You’ll make good money.’ But upon meeting the client for the first time it became clear that the actual parameters of the job were far different than she had been led to believe: Maxwell, Giuffre said in the sworn deposition, ordered her to ‘take off my clothes and to give oral sex to Jeffrey Epstein’.
Giuffre is one of several women who say that they were recruited and groomed for sex with the late financier and convicted sex offender by Maxwell, Epstein’s elusive ex-girlfriend and fixer who has become the focus of the disturbing case in the wake of his apparent suicide. Earlier this month it was claimed that Maxwell had even shown one victim ‘step by step’ the ‘exact way’ that Epstein liked to be sexually serviced.
The youngest child of British fraudster and media mogul Robert Maxwell, she was known as ‘smart, witty and charming’ among the wealthy and powerful party circuit in which she moved, a circle that included the Clintons, the Kennedys, British royalty — and everyone in between. It was recently claimed that Prince Andrew, whose close friendship with Epstein is under intense scrutiny, had entertained the billionaire and his entourage, including a woman who gave Epstein sexual massages, at Balmoral in 1999.
‘Epstein didn’t have natural warmth and didn’t seem to care about people,’ the investment banker Euan Rellie, who was an acquaintance of Maxwell and encountered Epstein at parties, told me recently. ‘But [Maxwell] was fun, easy and likeable. She was an easy friend to have.’
Epstein’s arrest this summer has triggered considerable attention to be focused on the rich, influential people with whom he was close, including Trump and former president Bill Clinton — both of whom were friends with the financier (they have downplayed their relationships with him following his indictment). Several other friends and associates of Epstein have been directly accused of participating in the abuse, though they have not been charged.
Epstein’s apparent suicide in his Manhattan jail cell, where he was found dead on 10 August, changed the trajectory of the case, putting the spotlight on Maxwell, his alleged accomplice. The 57-year-old has stayed under the radar amid speculation about her legal vulnerability, and it remains to be seen if authorities will charge her in connection with the case. But in the mystery that has surrounded this case and her involvement, one thing seems clear: as Epstein’s ‘right-hand person’, she has valuable stories to tell — and the prospect of her talking likely terrifies the wealthy elites who may have enabled or witnessed highly dubious behaviour.
Maxwell reigned as one of New York society’s most connected women for decades. Now even being linked to her social circle is deeply embarrassing. No one denies how crucial what she knows is to the Epstein case. ‘She was literally beside him every step of the way,’ Rellie says. ‘I assume everything Jeffrey did, she knew about.’
Maxwell was born in 1961 and grew up in the family’s Headington Hill Hall home, the storied mansion near Oxford where Oscar Wilde once partied. She was seen as the favourite of her father’s nine children — reflected in the name of his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Though close with her father, their relationship also showed signs of strain. He reportedly exerted control over Maxwell’s life, to which she responded by preventing herself from being seen with boyfriends — even as she attended Balliol College at Oxford, as she told the Robert Maxwell biographer, Eleanor Berry.
In 1991, when she was 29, her father’s body was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean close to his multi-million-pound yacht, after he was accused of plundering his Mirror Group’s pension fund of some £400 million. He was said to have fallen off the side of the Lady Ghislaine after suffering a heart attack, but the devastated Ghislaine Maxwell was suspicious: ‘I think he was murdered,’ she said in an interview years later.
Following the death of her father and subsequent revelations that he had been raiding his employees’ pensions amid rising debts, Maxwell fled to New York to an unassuming Manhattan flat — much of her family wealth and reputation gone. But her fortunes changed when she began dating financier Epstein, a former maths teacher and business associate of her father. It was, in some ways, a perfect match. He had money but lacked the social status he desired. She didn’t have the money to fund the lavish lifestyle she coveted, but was rich in social connections. ‘When her father died, she had no real economic resources, but, despite the family name being in tatters in the press, she had a lot of social resources,’ says Thomas Volscho, an associate professor of sociology at City University of New York, College of Staten Island, who is writing a book about the Epstein case. ‘She was supposed to introduce Epstein into higher circles of social prestige.’
When the couple broke up (one rumour was that Epstein refused to marry her) Maxwell was promoted to the person who organised much of his life. Through him, she was able to build up a respectability in New York that would have been impossible in Britain, where her father’s crimes have been far less easily forgotten. A source quoted in Vanity Fair said: ‘Jeff took her in and when she felt better she looked around and realised he could replace the lifestyle she had had… Previously the price of that had been having her father. Now the price was this guy. What they both enabled her to do was be herself. She could go off and be this madcap spirit.’
Maxwell reportedly had a Manhattan townhouse, purchased in 2000 for $5 million by an anonymous firm at the identical address as Epstein’s company.
Rellie, co-founder of the investment bank BDA Partners and a fixture of the New York social scene, met Maxwell in the early 1990s. They had attended Oxford at the same time, but didn’t meet until they were both British ex-patriots living in New York.
‘Ghislaine was pretty close to the epicentre of quite a socially well-connected, fairly fun-loving party crowd,’ Rellie recalls. ‘I’d see her at every party.’
She was a ‘connector,’ Rellie says, and to be in her company was to be exposed to ‘fascinating’ people. Though Maxwell and Epstein broke up, she remained close to the financier, acting as his ‘fixer — almost like running Jeffrey’s household for him’. It was through her that Epstein was introduced to many of the famous, powerful figures with whom he surrounded himself — and the under-age girls he abused and lent out to his wealthy friends, alleged victims have said in lawsuits.
Giuffre, Sarah Ransome, Maria Farmer, and Jennifer Araoz have all accused Maxwell in court of recruiting them and other young girls for sex with Epstein and other prominent men. In some cases, Maxwell herself was said to have participated in the sexual assaults. All have denied wrongdoing.
Though she has not been charged, Maxwell and other alleged co-conspirators have come under close scrutiny, with speculation in the media that she could soon be indicted. If she is indeed brought down in the case, it would seem likely that she could implicate any other high-profile figures who may have been involved. Not to mention continue to embarrass her close friends by virtue of association. But it’s not clear that she’s as legally vulnerable as she might seem based on the parade of reports and accusations linking her to Epstein’s abuse.
‘I think it’s highly unlikely she gets criminally charged,’ says David Ring, an attorney specialising in sexual assault cases who is representing one of the women accusing disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of rape. ‘I think the criminal case dies with [Epstein].’
The bar to obtain a conviction is high, Ring says. And with Epstein dead, it could be far more challenging for prosecutors to obtain sufficient evidence to prove her culpability beyond a reasonable doubt. ‘I think it’s going to be a lot tougher,’ he says. ‘I think all those people who were somehow involved in what he was doing, they all took one big sigh of relief [when he died] and said, ‘Phew.’’
Still, others have suggested Epstein’s death could make Maxwell more vulnerable, making it easier for other alleged victims to come forward with their stories. That would perhaps give prosecutors more incentive to pursue apparent co-conspirators in an effort to get victims the justice that was denied them when Epstein killed himself. ‘My gut sense is there’s a case here,’ former federal prosecutor Nick Akerman said in a phone interview, ‘and I think the government is going to go ahead and pursue it.’
For now, though, Maxwell is surrounded by mystery. Following Giuffre’s 2015 lawsuit alleging she participated in Epstein’s abuse, she largely receded from the public eye. She had continued to put money into her oceanic non-profit, The TerraMar Project, but it ceased operations days after Epstein’s arrest in July. That month she asked a federal court to keep case files related to Giuffre’s lawsuit against her sealed. But her effort failed and a trove of the documents was made public. Epstein was found dead in his cell the day after the release of the files, having apparently hanged himself.
At the time of going to press, Maxwell’s whereabouts were unknown. A recently released photo appeared to show the elusive socialite at a Los Angeles fast food restaurant, but the picture appears to have been staged, according to the Daily Mail, which also reported that she has actually been living in the Massachusetts mansion owned by tech boss Scott Borgerson. Borgerson, in turn, has denied being romantically involved with Maxwell or that she is living with him. An attorney for Maxwell did not respond to a request for comment for this story. A number listed for TerraMar appears to have been disconnected.
Last week Buckingham Palace released a statement that read: ‘The Duke of York has been appalled by the recent reports of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged crimes. His Royal Highness deplores the exploitation of any human being and the suggestion he would condone, participate in or encourage any such behaviour is abhorrent.’
Meanwhile, investigators have continued their probe into Epstein and his co-conspirators. Whether that results in criminal charges against Maxwell remains to be seen, but she is already facing a new pressure in civil court: Araoz, who says she was raped by Epstein aged 15, filed a suit against the financier’s estate, members of his staff and Maxwell on 14 August. ‘I’m angry he won’t have to personally answer to me in the court of law,’ she wrote in a recent op-ed. ‘But my quest for justice is just getting started.’