Robert Maxwell cast a long shadow over the life of his daughter who seemed destined for a glittering life on the social circuit.
Robert Maxwell had hit rock bottom when I first met him in the spring of 1973. Damned by government inspectors as a liar and fraudster, he had been cast into the wilderness as a pariah by the City and Wall Street. Few public figures had been so humiliatingly mocked as Captain Bob, otherwise known as the Bouncing Czech.
I wonder if I can help you? I said to Maxwell that first day, as we sat in a makeshift office in Headington Hill Hall, his vast Oxford home acquired for a peppercorn rent from the local council.
What do you have in mind? growled the man famed for his girth, intimidation and brazenness. As a 27 year old TV producer for the BBC, I had been tasked to film a 50 minute documentary about the rise and fall of Britain’s most infamous tycoon, politician and multimillionaire. Well, I replied to the wartime refugee who had been awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Montgomery for charging an enemy machine gun post in Germany in 1945, I wanted to make a film about your remarkable life and achievements. It might help with your resurrection.
As the 49 year old pondered the offer, I threw into the conversation that my father was also a Czech refugee. That connection sealed our fate. ‘Done,’ he said, and committed himself for the next six weeks to share his life with me and the reporter Max Hastings.
As we trawled through Maxwell’s astonishing life the peasant boy who escaped the Holocaust, established his fortune as a black marketeer and thief while serving as a British army officer in post war Berlin and, while working for both British and Russian intelligence, became a rich publisher and politician we encountered an obstacle. ‘Mr Maxwell,’ I said, ‘in the interests of fairness and objectivity, I need to find someone who will say something positive about you. I’ve found lots of your critics, but no supporters. Can you suggest someone?’
‘I understand,’ Maxwell replied without a hint of surprise. ‘Let me think.’ Eventually, he proposed his former parliamentary agent, only for the hapless agent to respond, ‘I don’t know why you expect me to say anything good about Bob.’
Maxwell, unsurprisingly, hated the finished film, which portrayed him as the megalomaniac Citizen Kane. His attempt to stop it being broadcast by bribing a BBC employee to steal the soundtrack from the editing suite during the night before transmission failed because fortunately a duplicate soundtrack was stored elsewhere
Our relationship was abruptly terminated and Maxwell appeared destined to be forgotten. Except that 15 years later, in 1988, his resurrection was complete. Maxwell had created a global media empire that rivalled Rupert Murdoch’s, once again enjoying fame and fortune, brokering business deals and establishing himself as an unchallenged billionaire. Like Lazarus, the Bouncing Czech had risen from the dead.
That was the moment to write his biography however, at the time, I could not have imagined the profound influence Maxwell would have on my life. The publication of Maxwell: The Outsider in 1988 was marked by 11 libel writs issued by Maxwell’s lawyers to prevent its sale. After it briefly hit No 1, Britain’s booksellers withdrew the book rather than face Maxwell in court. Yet by then, many had read my prediction that his media empire would soon crash. On 5 November 1991, while sailing on his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, in the Atlantic, Maxwell had a heart attack and fell into the sea. Within days, his organisation was crumbling.
Secretly, Maxwell had been plundering the Daily Mirror’s pension fund – of which he was the proprietor – to support his other failing businesses. In total, more than £400 million was missing. Maxwell became known internationally as the archetype of a criminal tycoon. In his celestial banqueting chamber, enjoying his favourite Beluga caviar and Krug champagne, Captain Bob must still be chortling about his victory over Britain’s justice system and over the establishment across the globe.
Maxwell’s legacy was borne by his children. And by now, more than 30 years later, the Maxwell family would have been forgotten had Ghislaine Maxwell, the youngest of Robert’s seven surviving children (two others had died, in 1957 and 1967), not burst into the spotlight.
During her childhood, Ghislaine had witnessed her father’s merciless bullying, especially at the family’s regular Sunday lunches. Maxwell would question his children about world affairs and, in the event that they made a mistake, the meal was interrupted while he physically beat the errant child in front of the others. ‘Bob would shout and threaten and rant at the children until they were reduced to pulp,’ Betty Maxwell wrote about her husband after his death. If a comment in a school report was not perfect, Maxwell caned the child. ‘Remember the three Cs,’ he growled. ‘Concentration, consideration and conciseness.’
At the same time, Maxwell could be protective towards his youngest daughter. As a teenager, Ghislaine was once summoned to Maxwell’s office in Holborn while he was speaking to Roy Greenslade, editor of the Mirror. ‘What’s this about you nearly drowning?’ he asked his daughter. He had heard about an incident in the sea from Gianni Agnelli, the Italian tycoon with whom Ghislaine had been staying. ‘Oh, that little accident,’ replied Ghislaine. ‘There was no danger.’
‘You’re always taking risks and doing stupid, dangerous things,’ said Maxwell.
‘Oh, Daddy,’ she exclaimed, ‘I told you about jumping out of a helicopter with my skis on. It won’t happen again.’
Even while Ghislaine studied at Balliol, she succumbed to her father’s control over her boyfriends. Her reward in 1987 was to push the button for the bottle of champagne to crack on the bow of the newly built Lady Ghislaine, sealing her anointment as the mogul’s favourite child and obedient servant.
Does Ghislaine’s oppression at the hands of her father explain why she developed a close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, a paedophile? Or that she seemingly became his pimp? In 2013, I met her at a summer party hosted by a London property developer, in a large compound by the sea in St Tropez. I had last seen Ghislaine 40 years earlier while filming the BBC documentary. Not surprisingly, she knew nothing about that venture or, curiously, about the two books I had written about her father. While we chatted over a drink, she seemed uninterested in him. Similarly, she seemed oblivious to the presence inside the glass walled bar of a naked young woman, writhing to the music.
Nor did she express any emotion when a rocket from the party’s fireworks landed on Le Club 55 on the beach below, setting fire to a hut. The 52 year old was hardened and alone. By then, her association with Epstein and friendship with Prince Andrew were well known.
She did not want to speak about that, except to say that her relationship with Epstein had ended years earlier. Subsequently, I was told by a member of her family that she had enjoyed two long term relationships with other rich men after reportedly parting from Epstein in 2001. That was untrue. Their relationship had continued, even if it was no longer intimate.
In 2019, pursued by the media, and with women alleging that she had trafficked them on Epstein’s behalf, she disappeared in America. She was discovered on 2 July 2020, hiding at a luxury mansion in New Hampshire, surrounded by pine and oak forests. Ghislaine had wrapped tin foil around her mobile phone, in a ‘seemingly misguided attempt to evade detection by law enforcement’, noted court documents. So fastidious had she become about protecting her location that her family could reach her only by phone or email through a third party. Ghislaine Maxwell had spent almost a year as a hunted woman, undoubtedly a casualty of her father. While one can declare a final verdict on Robert Maxwell’s life, Ghislaine’s ultimate fate is yet to be written. She vigorously denies wrongdoing. Whatever the outcome, it will be one that her father could not have imagined.