The Ghislaine Maxwell story has proved irresistible to documentary makers and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come. Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster, Channel 4’s latest take on this grisly morality play, arrives at an especially newsworthy moment, however, with the ex-socialite having recently received a 20-year sentence for conspiring to traffic young girls.
It also does better than many of the previous films about Maxwell and her abhorrent co-conspirator, Jeffrey Epstein, in mapping Maxwell’s twisted psychological terrain. This is achieved through old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. Former friends and associates of Maxwell from her time at Oxford and her days running with the Manhattan smart set are tracked down and persuaded to share their recollections across a three-part series that delivers a gripping profile of Maxwell without slipping into grubby prurience.
It is quite a gallery. Michael Crick, future political correspondent and author, recalls tutoring Maxwell at Oxford. “She was very self-assured. Incredibly bright... but she just didn’t do enough work.” He remembers her submitting a page and a half of an essay he had expected to run to seven pages. He sighs: “She’s probably written it in 10 minutes on the bus.”
Oxford was her playground. And, as the daughter of press baron Robert Maxwell, she had the material means to dazzle her peers – even if the blue bloods never entirely accepted this child of an East European emigrant as one of their own. “A lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs, a lot of sex. It was pretty wild,” says newspaper columnist George Monbiot, who briefly intersected with Maxwell and her gang before running for the hills. “A lot of them had serious money. At its heart, among other people, was Ghislaine.”
After Oxford, she blazed a glamorous trail through London, where she rubbed shoulders with future TV presenter Mariella Frostrup. Ghislaine, Frostrup says, “seemed to be the life and soul of the party... one of the boys in a way.”
In London, her father secured her a job at one of his newspapers, The European. In his shadow, she showed a different side. “The voice she used with Bob was different to the one she used with other people. Schoolgirlish – a sing-song voice,” says former colleague Tim Walker. “I got the impression she was a bit of a blank canvas whose only sense of identity was being her father’s daughter. She was a spoiled brat: abrupt, rude.”
The picture that emerges is of an outwardly confident yet hollowed-out individual, with a void inside her that all the shindigs in the world could not fill. There are also chilling portends of the sexual predator she would become when taking up with Epstein. One party she threw at her father’s house culminated in a squalid parlour game involving the men wearing blindfolds and the woman partly disrobing. “If a man suggests it, I don’t think the women would have done it,” says Nicola Glucksmann, who made her excuses and left. “That experience left me wondering about what was going on with her.”
In New York, reeling from her father’s death, she fell in with Epstein. He became a surrogate father-figure, though their relationship was, at its core, a Faustian compact. He would keep her in the luxury to which she was accustomed provided she supplied a conveyor belt of teenage girls for him to abuse.
Unleashed upon Manhattan, she continued to play the part of captivating hostess. Occasionally, however, the mask cracked and something squalid slithered through. The writer Jesse Kornbluth describes Maxwell propositioning him, with his wife “four or five feet away”. “It was brazen. As the Brits would say, ‘cheeky’,” he says. “Talk about a power play – that’s a power play.”
Just as unsettling was her conversation with the writer and fashion designer Christina Oxenberg who she approached with the proposal of writing her biography (which, she desperately hoped, would make her seem more interesting to Epstein). Maxwell told Oxenberg that one of her duties as Epstein’s girlfriend was to arrange “women” for him – but that they were “nothing but trailer trash”.
The portrait that emerges is of a woman raised in the shadow of an overbearing, possibly sociopathic father, and whose moral compass had at some point become dangerously slanted. “I would never describe her as a victim,” says David Boies, lawyer for several women trafficked by Maxwell and Epstein (including Prince Andrew’s accuser Virginia Giuffre). “I would describe her as a damaged human being. What caused that damage, I don’t know.”