In 1991—years before his daughter even met the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein—Robert Maxwell disappeared into the ocean as his fortunes were about to collapse.
The rumor mill has coughed up theories at a steady clip: Ghislaine Maxwell is hiding in Israel; she’s in a British safe house; a compound in Colorado; some country that won’t extradite her back to America. Perhaps she cooperated with investigators, or maybe—save for a strange cameo at an In-N-Out Burger—she truly has gone underground.
Speculation only intensified after Jeffrey Epstein—the accused sex trafficker and convicted sex offender—was found dead in a Manhattan jail cell last August. Maxwell, seemingly his closest confidante, has repeatedly been accused in civil lawsuits and media reports of acting as a “madam” for Epstein, helping recruit young girls who were then sexually assaulted, including on Epstein’s infamous private island in the Caribbean.
She has denied those allegations, and she has never been charged with criminal wrongdoing, but she is reportedly now the subject of an FBI investigation into what role she may have played in Epstein’s activities. Her lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Maxwell’s furtive existence marks a dramatic shift from her past, where for years she enjoyed a high social profile, whether as a guest at Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding or at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar party. It seemed, for a time, that one couldn’t assemble the moneyed or the powerful without her turning up. Now even her lawyers reportedly don’t know where she is.
But if Maxwell is somehow able to recover from such a grave public scandal, it will be because she has experience at it, as the daughter of the disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell. Bullnecked and domineering, Robert had fled the Nazis to become a publishing giant in England worth at least $1.2 billion. In the 1980s he landed in the media as often as he printed it, for his wars with newspaper unions, his financial scandals and the whispers—unproven—that he worked as an Israeli intelligence asset.
Robert Maxwell, however, attracted the greatest intrigue in death. On the morning of November 5, 1991, with his businesses teetering on insolvency, he went missing from his 180-foot yacht near Spain’s Canary Islands. His body was later pulled from the Atlantic, naked and showing no evidence of foul play. Did he fall—or was he pushed?
Fled The Nazis To Become A Millionaire
The Nazis descended fast on Czechoslovakia, and Robert Maxwell was an obvious target. Born as Ján Ludvík Hoch on June 10, 1923, he grew up a Hasidic Jew with six siblings. The war would decimate eastern Europe, and the Hoch family with it. Four of Maxwell’s siblings were murdered at Auschwitz; his parents both died during the Holocaust, too, according to his 1991 New York Times obituary.
But Maxwell escaped. At age 16, he arrived in France, where he volunteered for the French Foreign Legion in March 1940 before continuing to Britain later that year. Maxwell joined the British Army by lying about his age, and later participated in the invasion of Normandy. (Around this time he changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell.) He was awarded a Military Cross by Field Marshal Montgomery for “storming a German machine-gun nest.”
The experiences helped forge Maxwell’s stiff demeanor. “Anyone who had fought on the front line from the Normandy beaches to Germany, facing constant danger and death for months on end from the enemy’s snipers and shells, was unlikely to suffer fear,” his biographer Tom Bower later said.
When the fighting ended, Maxwell briefly worked for the British Foreign Office before entering the world of business. He began with small deals, including “exporting scientific materials to Britain and the U.S.,” as Forbes wrote in a 1984 profile titled “The Bouncing Czech,” a nickname he earned for his volatile professional life.
Maxwell saw an even larger opportunity in media. In 1951, he paid £13,000 (roughly $360,000 in today’s dollars) to buy out a small publishing company that he renamed Pergamon Press. The business specialized in making technical journals “written by scientists and academics,” which were lucrative because they faced scant competition.
“It’s no use trying to compete with me, because I publish the authoritative journal in each field,” he said. “If you’re building a chemical plant and you don’t know about the latest development in that area, the mistake could cost you £10 million. So people will pay £1,000 [in subscription fees].”
He was right. The business grew rapidly and went public in 1964 at a valuation of $3.5 million (about $29 million today). Barely 40 years old, Maxwell was a multimillionaire.
Rise Of His Great Rival: Rupert Murdoch
The year Pergamon went public, Maxwell won his first seat in Parliament as a member of the Labour Party, heralding the start of his influence in British politics. He sought greater impact through the press, too. In 1968 he moved to acquire the weekly tabloid News of the World, but lost to an Aussie upstart, Rupert Murdoch, who was looking to crack the U.K. market. The deal proved enormously profitable for Murdoch and commenced a multi-decade rivalry between the two men.
“Never has a man caught a bigger whale with a smaller hook,” Maxwell later said, feeling that Murdoch had underpaid.
Maxwell had little time to dwell on the loss. The next year, in 1969, he sold a 38% stake in Pergamon to an American businessman named Saul Steinberg. Soon after, Steinberg accused Maxwell of having misrepresented Pergamon’s financials. Maxwell, who disputed the claim, was ousted from the company board and ultimately lost his seat in Parliament. A government inquiry did little to clear his reputation. “He is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company,” the British Department of Trade declared in 1971.
Furious, Maxwell borrowed money and bought back Pergamon in 1974, which was already struggling and sold for just a fraction of the original price. He invested heavily to boost output, and over the next decade revenues exploded more than 25-fold, to £345 million (about $1.3 billion today).
Maxwell expanded his reach outside of Pergamon as well. He snagged British Printing Corp., the country’s largest printing outfit, from the precipice of bankruptcy in 1981 for just £10 million; by 1987 his stake was reportedly worth more than 80 times that.
Maxwell also bought the Mirror Group newspapers, dramatically expanding his reach and helping him compete with Murdoch, who had outbid him for several other assets after News of the World, including The Sun (1969) and the Times and Sunday Times (1981). More than 15 years after their first encounter, Maxwell still harbored resentment. “He’s not going to make it,” he predicted of his Aussie rival. “He’s a gambler.”
With each new acquisition, Maxwell battled furiously with unions, cutting jobs to eke out greater levels of profitability. At one point, his relationship with the unions grew so bitter that they attempted to oust him from the Labour Party.
Maxwell battled back. “Just because I have made a few bucks, to quote an American expression, does not make me deny my origins or forget them,” he said. (Though he did sometimes drink from a coffee cup labeling him “A Very Important Person.”)
Maxwell’s mission was singular: to build a media empire with transnational influence. He invested in France, Hungary and across the pond. At the end of the 1980s, he spent nearly $500 million in two years trying to compete in the United States, which he later capped off by purchasing the New York Daily News. Seemingly, those efforts were paying off. In 1989 Maxwell’s entities generated some $3 billion in annual revenue.
“Just as oil became dominated by a few giants, so communications is likely to be dominated by a dozen major international corporations,” he predicted. “I intend to be one of them.”
Accident, Homicide Or Suicide?
Then the bottom fell out.
On November 4, 1991, Maxwell had a phone call with his son Kevin that devolved into a screaming match. They had an important meeting scheduled with the Bank of England the following day, but Maxwell was yachting near the Canary Islands on Lady Ghislaine, the boat he had named for his daughter.
The meeting, Kevin would later tell The Sunday Times, centered on the Maxwell group’s liquidity. Maxwell had defaulted on £50 million in loans from Goldman Sachs, and the bank was beginning to sell off its collateral. The news was about to become public.
“We needed to prepare for that meeting and I was a bit hacked off that he was going to leave it to the last minute,” Kevin told the Times.
He never spoke to his father again. Maxwell’s body was found the next day. The facts that emerged were straightforward, if incomplete. According to reports, Maxwell complained to the crew just before 5 a.m. that his room was too cold. At some point later that night, he walked, naked, to the stern of the yacht, perhaps to urinate, as was his custom. Then, by accident, volition or force, he fell into the water. The only mark on his body was a “graze to his left shoulder.” Three pathologists were reportedly hired but couldn’t agree on the cause of death. Conspiracies immediately percolated: Maxwell was pushed, he had a heart attack, or, more plausibly, he committed suicide as scrutiny of his businesses was about to heat up.
“I think it is highly unlikely that he would have taken his own life, it wasn’t in his makeup or his mentality,” his son Ian later said, adding, “I don’t think any murder conspiracy stands up. So for me, it is an unexplained accident, and I’m content to live with that.”
If so, then it is a remarkable coincidence. After Maxwell’s death it quickly became clear that his companies were poised to implode. They were propped up with huge amounts of debt. Worse, investigators discovered that Maxwell had raided over $500 million in pension funds, “often reselling them and using the proceeds as [if] they were his own.”
His kids were left to take the blame alone. Ian and Kevin Maxwell—who did not respond to requests for comment—were charged with fraud alongside another company executive, but a jury acquitted them in 1996. By then, most of their holdings had gone bankrupt or were sold off to pay creditors. The pensioners were never fully made whole.
Another Maxwell Disappearing Act
Ghislaine Maxwell was also left in the lurch, though with a backstop. Her trust fund reportedly paid out $100,000 per year, certainly enough for her to live comfortably. But for a woman who had grown up in a 53-room home, it was a stark downgrade. The Maxwell family’s status also had been irreparably tarnished in Britain, leaving her to look elsewhere if she wanted to recapture her relevance.
In New York, she found it. Ghislaine had moved to the city earlier in 1991. When her father died she took up residence on the Upper East Side, according to a New York Times report. Around the same time, she began dating Jeffrey Epstein, who by then was already entangled with the region’s wealthy elite, including the billionaire Victoria’s Secret founder Les Wexner.
They stopped dating soon thereafter, but their shared ambition for social ascent kept them close. Together, Maxwell and Epstein compiled a glitzy Rolodex, from Prince Andrew to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. They popped up at fundraisers and galas, becoming two darlings of high society. Those would largely stop after Epstein was convicted in 2008 of procuring a girl below age 18 for prostitution—a lenient and deeply suspicious plea agreement. But she would maintain her own stops on the society circuit until as recently as 2014.
Then investigators and journalists started probing the dark underbelly of Epstein and Maxwell’s world. As the reports rained down, they were isolated and renounced. Epstein was the primary target, but when he died, the focus shifted to Maxwell. Multiple Epstein accusers have named her in civil suits for the role they say she played in Epstein’s alleged sex-trafficking operation.
Then last month, according to news reports, Maxwell’s own lawyers refused to accept service of new lawsuits against her. They were not authorized to do so, they said.
And once again, though perhaps this time permanently, Ghislaine Maxwell was on her own.