As Ghislaine Maxwell begins her trial this week, Harry Mount remembers meeting her at the height of her powers
In 2005, I’d just arrived in Manhattan, aged 33, as the Daily Telegraph’s New York correspondent.
I was short of friends and a little lonely when an old British friend, a New York journalist for years, asked me if I’d like to go to a party at Ghislaine Maxwell’s house.
‘I’d love to!’ I said.
At that stage, no one, apart from a small inner circle, knew about Maxwell’s former relationship with – by then, a friendship with – the unspeakable paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
All I knew was that she was the 43-year-old daughter of crooked press baron Robert Maxwell. So it was with the salacious newsman’s hat on that I entered Ghislaine’s house that night. And what a house it was – a thin, red-brick, five-storey mansion with a porch wrapped in Ionic columns. It was in the ritziest part of town, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, not far from Central Park and the Frick Museum.
If I’d dug a little deeper, I’d have realised there was something fishy going on. When Robert Maxwell died, massively in debt, Ghislaine Maxwell had been left with an £80,000 a year income from a trust fund. A lot of money – a lot more than I earned. But I lived in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. And here she was in a mega-schloss – with 12 rooms, eight fireplaces and a lift. It was sold for £12m in 2016. It’s since emerged that Jeffrey Epstein bought the house in 2000.
I knew nothing of this as I bounded into the hall with my friend. He, too, knew nothing of Ghislaine’s shady associations with Epstein.
As we walked into the hall – immaculately decorated in a spick and span version of English Georgian, like the house’s exterior – Ghislaine bounded forward; thin, pretty, in a couture dress that put my blue, linen, battered newshound’s jacket to shame.
My friend introduced us.
“Oh, the New York correspondent for the Telegraph!” said Ghislaine, her eyes wide-open, alive with excitement, her smile broadening, as if I were the most dazzling person she’d met. She peppered me with flattering questions that pointed to an intense curiosity in my not very exciting life.
“You live in Greenwich Village? How thrilling! And you’ve only been here for three months? What a treat!”
You can see that same look in the party pictures of her before and since her arrest for alleged crimes of an unspeakable nature. She is rarely speaking in the pictures; more often, she’s listening, her whole body language dedicated to making the speaker think they’re the most gripping person alive.
Since the scandal has emerged, you can see why she turned into that person. Given all God’s gifts as a child – money, looks and education – she was also given a devil for a father: a brute who alternately bullied and spoilt her, and got her into Oxford University by endowing a Maxwell scholarship at her college, Balliol, that she then took advantage of.
Thus the strange combination of being ultra well-connected while being fundamentally unsure of herself, along with the desperate desire to stay in with the great and the good. Thus the curiosity and charm with a shy, new Brit in town. Thus the willingness to live in a house bought for her by a monster.
If she’s found guilty of those alleged crimes, though, mere circumstance of birth cannot explain them away.