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Behind the Scenes: On the Hunt for the Real Ghislaine Maxwell

She is accused of procuring young girls for Jeffrey Epstein. But was she a woman in love, or a spy setting powerful men up for blackmail?

Ghislaine Maxwell, 1991.

Press Assocation/AP

By now, the story of Jeffrey Epstein is well known. When the accused sex trafficker died — officially ruled a suicide by hanging in his jail cell almost two years ago — the public was left baffled alongside victims that were denied justice. There seemed to be much more to the story than the satisfaction of one man’s carnal needs. What about the mystery of his money, videotapes, rumors of spies and blackmail, and boldface names deleted from court records?

Then a keeper of the key to those secrets was arrested in New Hampshire last summer. British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell swanned around Manhattan for decades, but the general public first got to “know” her in August 2019 when a New York judge released some 2,000 pages of previously sealed pages of a defamation lawsuit against her.

It was immediately clear why Maxwell had wanted the documents sealed. The lurid allegations in those pages exposed the true scale of the sex trafficking and power, access and money that enabled the legal impunity behind Epstein’s first slap-on-the-wrist jail term. I believe their release just 24 hours before he was found hanging in his federal jail cell almost certainly had something to do with his death.

As the shock of Epstein’s death was still settling in, I wrote a story for Rolling Stone laying out the allegations in the previously unseen depositions. Dozens of people made similar allegations about Maxwell’s role in an industrial-scale grooming and soliciting operation — cruising South Florida strip clubs, spas and even a Christian college. The documents included statements not just from teen girls (now women), but eyewitnesses including private pilots, butlers, house managers and chauffeurs.

Now those documents, supplemented with other legal material and interviews with legal experts, intelligence agents and society figures, some of whom have never spoken out before, are the basis of a new three-part documentary that illuminates the life and story of Ghislaine Maxwell, the mystery woman Epstein “left holding the bag” of his secrets, as one former CIA agent told Rolling Stone. During the past year, I worked as an executive producer on this documentary series, Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell, that will start streaming Thursday on Peacock.

Her story starts in Britain, where she grew up rich and connected, the last and most favorite child of the legendary media figure and, it turned out, alleged international financial criminal and spy, Robert Maxwell. Sources tell us that’s where she first encountered Epstein.

The connection between Jeffrey Epstein and Robert Maxwell dated back to London in the 1980s, when Epstein, fresh off a legal near-miss in a massive Wall Street fraud case, had rolled into London and allegedly worked with a British financier named Douglas Leese. Leese taught the rough Coney Island-bred American the ways of the British aristocracy, including how to dress for a weekend hunt. During those years, Epstein first linked up with Robert Maxwell, who introduced him to Ghislaine, who fell in love with him. “What Ghislaine saw in Epstein was her father’s image,” said Epstein’s former business partner Steven Hoffenberg, who called them “soulmates.”

The parallels between Ghislaine’s father Robert Maxwell and Epstein are uncanny. Both men were born into meager circumstances — Maxwell to a large family of Czech peasants and Epstein to a Coney Island parks groundskeeper — and both grew up to become experts in the shadow world of off-shoring money. (Maxwell famously helped hide money stolen by a Bulgarian dictator, as well as somehow losing track of $450 million in pension funds for his own media empire employees.) Both men died under mysterious circumstances that have officially been deemed suicide. Maxwell’s body was found in the waters off the Canary Islands, where he had been yachting, a death that his daughter has publicly claimed to believe was a murder.

The second and third parts of the story we wanted to tell are mostly on American soil, and mostly in New York and Florida. We sought to answer questions about how and why a woman networked into the highest echelons of finance and society ended up in a Brooklyn jail cell, and accused in public documents of being a chief procuress of a supply of pubescent girls, some of whom have said they were not only forced to have sex with Epstein, but with powerful men in rooms wired up with cameras.

The task seemed easy, at first. A prominent socialite, Ghislaine had been photographed smiling beside a veritable gossip columnist’s registry of bold face names. For decades, she had swanned and slipped around the pinnacle of high society, associating with male billionaires and their female consorts.

We called hundreds of them. For the most part, we got “no comment,” or more often, no answers at all. One prominent New Yorker picked up the phone and when I explained what I was looking to discuss, hastily said that her doctor was on the other line, urgently needing to discuss something. She never called back.

Others who vaporized were a wealthy heiress who had named Maxwell as godmother to her children, and one who harbored her during her year in hiding. Now they were hiding themselves.

Maxwell had gone from being a society insider with a “naughty” sense of humor to social plutonium. She herself had gone into hiding, except for one photo, widely believed to have been faked, in which she appears to be wink-winking at the spy rumors by reading a book about the CIA at an In-n-Out Burger in L.A.

Some people did talk to us, on and off camera. All confirmed that Maxwell had served as Epstein’s society networker. The contacts in his notorious “little black book” were, we learned, at least 80 percent her friends, not his. Besides that document, photos show the reach of her access: there she is with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there she is at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, there with Bill on a private jet. There is more too. Maxwell’s name is listed on a flow chart of the earliest members of an elite billionaire’s club in Manhattan, not just as a member, but a recruiter of other high-profile members.

What did Epstein, a man with private jets, mansions in New York, Paris, and Santa Fe and his own private island, actually do for a living? Mystified Wall Street insiders say that he seemed to have little or no investment skills. And yet, Les Wexner gave him power over his fortune for years, and billionaire Leon Black paid him $150 million in the years after he was let out of a Palm Beach jail.

We picked up glimmers of his M.O. David Marchant, who investigates offshore money havens, speculated that Epstein knew how to hide money. Another source who declined to go on camera recalled that Epstein bragged that flying Prince Andrew around the world on his private jet was personally lucrative because the Prince served as the U.K. trade representative and Epstein could follow him into meetings with third world kleptocrats who needed his money-caching skills.

Rumors and speculation about intelligence connections swirl around the saga. Robert Maxwell is widely believed to have worked officially or unofficially for the KGB and Mossad, serving as a go-between and sometimes actual agent for both. He reportedly played a role as a bagman in the Iran Contra weapons deal, and helped the CIA get spyware into the Soviet Union. “He definitely had ties to KGB,” said ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame. “He was used as an access agent to the very upper-crust of British society, British aristocracy.”

Intelligence insiders told us Epstein’s sex trafficking operation also looks like a  “kompromat” op (essentially an operation to collect damaging information on decision-makers, with which to influence them) for some intelligence service. “When this story first broke, I said to a former CIA colleague of mine, ‘How many different intelligence organizations do you think are involved in this?’  Because this had an intelligence operation written all over it,” former operative John Kiriakou told us. “What any intelligence officer wants to do, needs to do to get promoted, to make a name for himself or herself is to recruit spies to steal secrets. So what better secrets do you want to steal than those held by the most important people in the world?  Former presidents, titans of business, politicians.”

One prominent New Yorker who associated with Epstein socially in New York recalled that “Jeff” had a knack for eliciting people’s needs and wants so effectively and quickly after meeting them, that it was “as if he’d been trained.”

Where does all that leave Ghislaine Maxwell? Was she in love with Epstein or working for him? And why? “It’s not unusual to have intelligence services, once they have an access agent or informant, ask that individual to reach out to their children and bring them in,” Plame told us. “Usually for the same motivations that they got the first one.”

The mystery of Ghislaine Maxwell might never be definitively solved, but her story exposes a shadow world of borderless wealth, where operators face off against influencers, secrets are worth money, and civilian laws don’t always apply.

Nina Burleigh is an executive producer of, and interviewed in, the three-part documentary series, Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell, produced by Blue Ant Studios. The original series will be available to stream on Peacock on June 24th.

From Rolling Stone US