There are two ways to try to answer the question of who is Ghislaine Maxwell, the defrocked British socialite now sitting in a Brooklyn jail awaiting trial for sex crimes related to her relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. One is to focus on the personal, on her life of startling wealth and elite social connections that transformed into something far more sinister. The other is to look at her alleged criminal activity: the charges that she abused and trafficked girls as young as 14. Either line of questioning leads to some grim truths about how power and wealth corrupt and how they help shield people from justice. But it’s the latter angle—the criminality, the flows of money and favor-trading, the purported blackmail operation—that offers more insight into Maxwell, and what role she served in the plans of people even more powerful than her.
Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell, a new three-hour docuseries debuting on NBC’s Peacock streaming service on Thursday, tries to split the difference between the two angles. But it ends up swerving toward the former, offering a biographical treatment of Maxwell as a survivor in her own right—of a difficult upbringing, of her own crooked relationship with Jeffrey Epstein—and as a murky co-conspirator in some heinous crimes. There are occasional mentions of what was, according to many reports (including from Epstein victim Maria Farmer), a blackmail operation centered on capturing powerful men in sexual positions with underage girls. There’s an allusion to a romantic relationship between Maxwell and President Bill Clinton. There are possible intelligence connections.
But ultimately, Epstein’s Shadow prefers the safer path of the personal, interviewing former Maxwell friends (they are always “former”) who express shock that their dear Ghislaine, so full of life, could go so astray. In this way, the series leaves much out, while serving as an indictment of the debauched social milieu from which Maxwell hailed. Yet even in its voluntary redactions and lacunae, Epstein’s Shadow manages to be revealing: The pressures, formal or financial, not to explore Maxwell’s political and intelligence connections must be enormous. Hence we have a documentary that feels heavily lawyered, loath to offend potential co-conspirators and beneficiaries of Epstein’s services. Surveying a series of scandalized members of the ultrarich sitting in their drawing rooms, the documentary dwells on Prince Andrew as Maxwell’s principal political connection without paying much heed to the numerous other royals, CEOs, and politicians with whom she regularly socialized—some of whom were explicitly named by their victims as abusers. (Notably, Alan Dershowitz doesn’t appear in this documentary—a rarity in Epstein-related media.)
Whatever interest her elite upbringing holds, Maxwell’s biography is easy enough to dispense with in a paragraph or two. Rich, charismatic, descended from shtetl Jews who largely perished in the war, Ghislaine was the favored daughter of press baron and Citizen Kane–like figure Robert Maxwell, who died mysteriously in 1991, after falling off his yacht near the Canary Islands. Widely acknowledged as a tyrant—or “a domineering ogre,” in the words of the documentary—Maxwell père was also a spy, likely for Israel, the Soviet Union, and Britain’s MI6. And he was a con man whose vast financial malfeasance was only revealed after his death, leaving his empire in shambles for his children to pick up. (Maxwell: The Downfall, a short documentary available on YouTube, helps fill in some of the details here.)
Having met Jeffrey Epstein sometime before her father’s death—reports vary as to the particulars, including who introduced them—Ghislaine Maxwell became closer to Epstein in the aftermath. She moved to New York, where she reinvented herself, not for the last time, as an exceedingly well-connected socialite with an array of interests in science, technology, and the arts. She made friends with the city’s political, financial, and power elite, while Epstein himself seemed to accumulate ever more wealth from his own murky relationships with moguls such as L Brands founder Les Wexner and hedge fund impresario Leon Black. As the documentary mentions, Epstein also participated in the Towers Financial Ponzi scheme and may have absconded with as much as $100 million. Why he wasn’t prosecuted—for this or any other number of crimes over the years—remains a mystery, and one that points, inevitably, to his being a government informant or somehow protected by those in power.
As for Ghislaine Maxwell, she became Epstein’s highest-ranking lieutenant in a diabolically conceived sex-trafficking ring that allegedly furnished young girls to rich and powerful men from around the world, including heads of state like former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. According to reports from dozens of victims, Maxwell was Epstein’s main procurer of underage girls and his general manager and fixer in what amounted to, in the words of Spencer Kuvin, a lawyer for some victims, “a pyramid scheme of sexual abuse, with Jeffrey Epstein at the top.” Maxwell was with Epstein constantly, jetting with him and a who’s who of the rich, famous, and politically powerful between estates in New York, Paris, New Mexico, and the Caribbean. (In Epstein’s Shadow, the international scope of the operation goes mostly unconsidered.) She also personally participated in sexual abuse, according to several alleged victims.
Maxwell currently sits in a dingy jail cell in Brooklyn, where she is reportedly wasting away as guards check on her every 15 minutes, lest she suffer the fate of her former boss, who died in what was deemed a suicide in 2019, though the event was marked by numerous irregularities (broken cameras, sleeping guards, etc.). In her epic fall from the heights of neo-aristocracy to the grimy indignities of America’s carceral system, the dramatic and unresolved arc of Maxwell’s biography is no doubt relevant—especially since her social connections and the blithe indifference, if not outright complicity, of her friends and social peers helped prop up Epstein’s trafficking operation. Some simply chose ignorance. As Lady Victoria Hervey, a former Maxwell friend, says, “I still find some of it hard to believe.”
Despite the social insights of Epstein’s Shadow and the progress made in other reporting, the entire affair still calls out for a more thorough investigation into whom Epstein knew, whom he may have worked for, and how his entire operation succeeded as a criminal enterprise, one that employed dozens of people on multiple continents using a number of shell companies. Interviewing some former spies, including former Israeli spook Ari Ben-Menashe, whose reliability has been questioned in the past, Epstein’s Shadow takes a cautious dip into the conspiratorial shadows. “They were collecting secrets for the Israeli government,” says Ben-Menashe. The documentary also mentions Epstein’s association with Douglas Leese, a British arms dealer, but doesn’t delve further.
This is sensitive stuff—vulnerable, like questions about Epstein’s death, to accusations of hysteria by the same political elites who would like this all to disappear quietly—but it’s also a place that any decent Epstein investigation has to go. By their nature, large criminal operations are conspiracies between confederates. Maria Farmer described the whole experience as “this giant conspiracy theory I lived,” and it’s hard to deny her framing. From Ponzi schemes to his 2007 nonprosecution agreement to his widely documented relationships with government elites, Epstein seemed to be protected at high levels. We also know that his properties were wired for surveillance, including in bathrooms and bedrooms, and that Maxwell bragged about having compromising material on powerful people, some of which was seized by the FBI when it raided Epstein’s New York mansion. “They were taping everybody,” said Virginia Giuffre, who has accused Epstein and Maxwell of extensive abuse. An intelligence blackmail scheme “is the theory that ties it all together,” according to the journalist Leland Nally, who wrote an article in which he called about 2,000 numbers from Epstein’s so-called little black book.
Epstein’s Shadow deserves some credit for broaching these questions, even as it leaves them far from settled. There’s still so much more we don’t know and, given the political forces at play, some defining truth, a master narrative, may be too risky or difficult to uncover. But here’s one more minor mystery: Less than two weeks after Jeffrey Epstein’s death, his former cellmate Nicholas Tartaglione—an accused quadruple murderer who claims he helped save Epstein from a previous suicide attempt—was assigned another lawyer, Bobbi Sternheim, as part of a Curcio hearing, a secret review process to determine whether any of Tartaglione’s existing lawyers held conflicts of interest. The process, which not even federal prosecutors were privy to, ended with one lawyer being removed for unexplained reasons. Sternheim is now one of the criminal lawyers representing Ghislaine Maxwell. These are the sort of unexplained coincidences that breed conspiratorial speculation. (Sternheim’s law firm did not respond to questions before this article’s publication.)
One thing is sure, as we wait for Maxwell’s trial, currently scheduled for November 2021. “Ghislaine Maxwell has the answers,” said Spencer Kuvin. “And until she talks, we may never know.”