December 30, 2021   7 mins

Always young, always blonde. In this story the girls are a selected type, not human beings. They had loose lives that rattled like spare change. Easily discarded, easily lost. Most of these girls had nothing at all, and even that would be taken from them.

They’ll be sitting outside the school gates, or in the resort where they are doing holiday work, or on a bench at a summer camp. Head down in a book. They want to be singers, or anything to get away from home.

The approach is made by a couple, or by an older woman on her own. Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell: friendly, worldly, wealthy. Ghislaine is armoured with a classy accent, a Yorkshire terrier, and expensive clothes. She plunges into their lives. One of the accusers did not “have the reading ability” to say Maxwell’s first name. But forget that. Ghislaine wants to play the giggly older sister; pal and confidante.

The accusers’ testimony suggests that Ghislaine seemed young in herself. She offered wooing gifts: preppy shirts, loafers, Victoria’s Secret underwear, cashmere sweaters. They become friends with her in malls and cinemas. Their ages when Ghislaine allegedly facilitated, and occasionally participated in, Epstein’s sexual abuse of them, were: fourteen, fourteen, sixteen and seventeen. Jane, Carolyn, Annie, and Kate.

Ghislaine Maxwell was from a different universe. The question of her trial was whether she, like the girls, is a victim of Jeffrey Epstein too. Ghislaine, daughter of the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, and variously described as Epstein’s girlfriend, madam, employee, best friend, pimp, and general, was arrested in 2020. She was accused by the US government of gathering up Jane, Kate, Carolyn, and Anne over a decade, like a beachcomber, and delivering them to Epstein.

For four weeks, the trial in lower Manhattan has been watched with awe. Outside the courthouse stand placards and protestors and paranoiacs. Three overflow rooms inside contain the world’s press, concerned private citizens, and podcasters. They are drawn there for irresistibly tabloid reasons: the downfall of rich people in heavenly places who did evil things.

Epstein and Maxwell were high society floaters, who bobbed unflushably in transatlantic streams, fishing for famous friends. (Taki says she was “not a bad girl” — I suppose we’ll have to take his word for it.) By the time Epstein earned his first conviction for sex crimes in 2008, the couple had collected an entire Met Gala of chintzy brilliancies: actors, publishers, royals, writers, scientists, academics, and politicians. That constellation has blinded many to the couple’s more gothic collection of broken young women. Why care about them, when they are landmines lying in wait for Prince Andrew, Ariana Huffington, Geordie Greig, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton?

These embarrassing links, the dozens of embarrassing photos that accompanied them, and the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his death, transformed Epstein. In the world’s imagination he was no longer a rich bullshit artist and an abuser. He became a popular demon, a supervillain, a Halloween costume. Writers polished their 24 Carat allusions: Epstein was Machiavelli, he was Mephistopheles. He was the ultraviolet scan that illuminated a rotten system of perversion and power. Maxwell’s trial was widely considered to be the last chance at justice for many of the women who claim to have been abused by Epstein.

But Epstein is dead. This was Ghislaine’s trial, and throughout she has been circumspect, almost dignified, and given nothing away. Videos outside the courthouse showed her old and arthritic and beaten down. She does not look like she will ever adjust to thinking of herself as a dangerous criminal. She appeared tired of being herself. Sooner or later, compassion was bound to be felt for the accused. It’s only natural. Old university acquaintances suggested they felt pity for her. Others wondered what went wrong, without ever probing the circumstances of Maxwell’s alleged crimes. Friends anonymously briefed glossy magazines, and said they could never imagine her scoring trailer trash by skulking around outside public schools. It just wasn’t her style, darling. None of them ever took the stand to defend her though. That just wasn’t their style.

These disposable, costless emotions were a perfect echo of the defence put up by Maxwell’s attorneys. They said she had become a bullseye for the limitless greed, pointless anger, and false memories of the accusers. Maxwell was the real victim here. This was whiplash; an acidic backwash from Epstein’s death that mistakenly threatened to dissolve their client, because he could never stand trial. Eternal archetypes were invoked. “Ever since Eve was tempting Adam with the apple,” said one Maxwell lawyer, “women have been blamed for the bad behaviour of men”.

The men were Epstein, and at a more distant remove, Robert Maxwell. To believe in the defence, you had to believe that Ghislaine had been without a sense of her own interest for decades. That she was helplessly shaped by these amoral patriarchs. Her father and Epstein were eerily similar, if not the same man. Both escaped obscurity and exchanged it for wealth. Both courted ‘brilliant scientific minds’ with praise and parties. Both were talented at exploiting the weaknesses of rivals they destroyed on their way up. “You’re talking about a sociopath,” said Steven Hoffenberg, Epstein’s former business partner. “Every component of his existence was the destruction of other people.” Hoffenberg might have been describing Maxwell.

How much of their behaviour was for show, and how much was real, and whether they knew the difference, was unclear. A bewildering aura of fantasy surrounds them. They had a curious shared interest in the Marquis de Sade, and they inhabited airlessly Sadean worlds of selfishness, injustice, and misery. In de Sade’s pages nobody ever changes. His characters are glazed and flat; moral development is an impossibility. As one of the libertine monks in Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791) — a novel Epstein displayed in his home and proudly showed off to a journalist — rhetorically asks: “Can we become anything other than we are?”

Maxwell and Epstein answered that question with an emphatic no. They would forever be outsiders who shredded convention, determined to consume whatever and whoever they found once on the inside. Each was regarded with a mixture of dread, sarcasm, and awe. Their most credulous, generous supporters came from the top. Epstein, as Maxwell did the British establishment of his time, regarded them with contempt. He once told his brother that if the public knew how corrupt his Wall Street friends were, there would be a revolution.

Above all these men lied, unstoppably and uncontrollably. They lied to business associates, mistresses, journalists, judges, creditors, and lawyers. They lied about money to make more money. Their skill was faking and lying uncommonly well enough to create new, unstable realities. Their lies became eight-storey yachts and the largest townhouse in Manhattan. Every new acquisition was honeycombed with surveillance equipment; recording devices and teeny tiny cameras. This is usually considered further evidence of these men’s perfidy. Blackmail gatherers, Epstein and Maxwell, working on another sick angle, preparing a new front in their war on everyone they ever met. But they were not spying on their guests.

The evidence that Epstein blackmailed his friends is thin, and has fallen apart before. Maxwell used his devices to track a secretary who didn’t love him around London, as she slept with one of his underlings. They surveilled their environments because all their lies made their environments, and themselves, insecure. Each was one or two discoveries away from the collapse of their entire world. The footage and the recordings were not made for blackmail. It was a form of consolation. It proved that for all their lies, they were still real. One of Epstein’s homes was lined with framed glass eyeballs made for injured English soldiers from a deadlier century. The display was a warning to his guests, and a reminder to himself: watch your every move.

Are we supposed to paint Ghislaine Maxwell on this bleak canvas as the feckless girl next door? A crass ingénue, an Eve who didn’t know any better? It is closer to the truth to say that both men needed her as much as she needed them.

Maxwell family legend has it that Ghislaine was anorexic as a very young child. She was probably abused by her father, as he was by his, when she was an adolescent, with riding crops and shoe horns. But by the time she arrived, fully formed and totally integrated, at Oxford during its woozy Brideshead revival years in the early Eighties, Ghislaine’s dramas of individuation were over.

She was ahead of the pack, imperious from the off. She spoke five languages and was the director of a football club. The beautiful “glamazon” rested a boot on Boris Johnson and parties with Gottfried von Bismarck. She was inadvertently to blame for the creation of George Monbiot. Her father kept one photo of his nine children on his desk — a portrait of Ghislaine. As his mania grew and his business empire fell apart in the later Eighties, she remained good, pure, true. His colleagues thought him “pre-moral”, disconcerting, disgusting, and frightening. And he was fond of saying “I have a beautiful daughter who is just like me.”

Ghislaine was already in New York when her father died in 1991. Supposedly adrift, grieving, and broke, the conventional narrative has Epstein performing a bat-like swoop and winging Ghislaine off into his cave. “He saved her,” one Maxwell friend told Vanity Fair, “Jeffrey took her in. She’s never forgotten that, and never will.” In this telling Ghislaine is another picked-up, pitiable woman, ensnared by a master manipulator. Whatever crimes she involved herself in later could almost be excused. They were payments for a debt.

All you have to do to believe that is forget she was Robert Maxwell’s daughter. She had a glittering upbringing. She was skilled at getting what she wanted, at reeling people in, at throwing parties. Epstein was cash rich but class poor. Described in these early years so often as a “schlub”, he needed a charismatic partner to launch his conquest of Manhattan’s charity auction set. Otherwise he was just another nerdy dogsbody who helped plutocrats avoid paying tax. Every bank in the city had a thousand of those.

Ghislaine helped propel his somersault into the ranks of the super wealthy. He valued her as his equal: “Ghislaine is the best at what I need,” he said in 2002. “Ghislaine speaks five languages fluently… She’ll come to a meeting, and not only will she be able to translate what the person’s saying… but she can also give me a sense of is the person telling the truth.” All she received in return were private jets, lavish estates, and vast sums of money.

This world melted away, like her father’s did. The trial came long after the deluge. It was mind-numbing. There were endless examinations of flight logs, property portfolios, and financial transactions. The accusers were tortured on the stand by Maxwell’s lawyers. To save their Eve, they had to destroy the credibility of four others. The women sobbed; it sounded like the air around them was being eaten by the sadness they felt. We learned that post-Epstein, Carolyn went on to become a drug addict, prostitute, and single mother. Facing Maxwell a few weeks ago, she pointed at her and shouted: “You broke my soul.”

If Ghislaine still had a soul it was well hidden in the courtroom. You had to look for it elsewhere. The dozen pictures of her and Epstein released during the trial are a good place to start. She has the same face in every photo. A greying man and his partner, affluent and easy, sitting in a grass field with a dog; as perfectly self-possessed and unreal as a couple in a Ralph Lauren catalogue.

This was the only reveal from the trial. There were no big prizes, no doomily grim revelations about paedophile rings operating at high altitude, among the jet set, that the placards outside the courthouse prayed for. The apocalypse never arrived because the apocalypse had already happened: it was the afterlife of the four accusers. There was no final answer to the mystery of Epstein’s death. Only the look Maxwell gives him in each image, taken over the span of their eleven-year relationship. Love. Nothing could be guiltier.