How Robert Maxwell rose from poverty — and corrupted his daughter Ghislaine

The New York Post:

“There was something not so much amoral about him as pre-moral,” Peter Jay, Maxwell’s top aide in the 1980s, would later say. “As if he was . . . wholly unaware of things like good and evil.”

Within 72 hours of her birth, Ghislaine Maxwell’s life was twisted by tragedy.

Baby Ghislaine was the ninth child born to Robert Maxwell, the self-made millionaire publisher, and his wife Betty. Though he had left his former name and identity far behind in a blighted corner of Czechoslovakia, Maxwell had been determined to sire a brood of nine children and recreate the family of his birth after Adolf Hitler’s forces slaughtered his siblings, both parents and a grandfather in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

On Christmas Day 1961, Ghislaine’s arrival was the gift that achieved that goal. At age 38, Maxwell was at last the triumphant paterfamilias, the prosperous lord of a grand 53-room mansion in Oxford, England — 1,400 miles and a world away from his own childhood in a two-room, earth-floored shack.

Three days later, the newborn’s eldest brother, 15-year-old Michael, was crushed in a car accident that left him comatose for the next six years. “This was the moment the family started to break apart,” said John Preston, author of “Fall: The Last Days of Robert Maxwell” (HarperCollins), out Feb. 9.

“What had hitherto been a pretty happy family became very fractured. And Ghislaine was completely overshadowed.”

In his book, Preston traces Robert Maxwell’s tumultuous rise and mysterious 1991 death, while uncovering the forces that produced his manipulative, flirtatious youngest daughter.

Consumed by his son’s condition, Maxwell clamped down on his surviving children. “They led this hermetically sealed life,” Preston told The Post, “and they lived in increasing dread of incurring his disapproval, his wrath.”

Michael was installed in a hospital less than a mile from the family home at Headington Hill Hall.

“This terrible dark specter hung over the family, unspoken, for the next six years, until Michael finally died of meningitis,” Preston said.

For years, Ghislaine’s shattered parents could barely muster a glance in her direction.

“She was basically ignored,” her brother, Ian, told Preston — and she even developed anorexia while still a toddler, mom Betty later revealed in her memoir.

“Finally one day when she was 3 or 4, Ghislaine stood in front of her mother, stamped her foot and said, ‘Mummy, I exist,’ ” Preston said. 

The dramatic scene struck a chord in her brash father, who may have seen himself in Ghislaine’s willful outspokenness. Guiltily, he started showering her with attention to make up for his neglect.

Much later, Betty admitted how spoiled the girl became. But Robert Maxwell never saw it. “She became her father’s clear favorite,” Preston said. In 1987, when Robert bought a $20 million, 190-foot superyacht, he dubbed it Lady Ghislaine — “ an incredibly divisive thing to do, with a wife and three other daughters at home,” Preston noted.

A similar dynamic tore at Ghislaine’s father, born Jan Ludvik Hoch in 1923 to a desperately poor Jewish family in a village now in Ukraine. 

“I was never young. I never had that privilege,” Robert Maxwell said decades later. “I remember how cold I was, how hungry I was, and how much I loved my mother.” 

Young Jan’s flair for languages gave the family hope that he might become a rabbi. But at age 16, he snipped off his sidelocks and left home as World War II loomed. 

He made his way to England, where he adopted a new, vaguely Scottish name, blustered his way into the British Army, and saw action in France and Germany — leaving his family to be swept into the maw of the Holocaust. Only two sisters managed to survive. 

“Everything to do with his past was still an open wound,” Betty wrote in her memoir. Robert “never managed to reconcile himself with his grief, or overcome his guilt.” 

Instead, he set out to “become a gentleman and a squire,” as he put it. His fluency in Russian, English and French landed him assignments from Britain’s intelligence services and a job running a propaganda operation in postwar Berlin. 

There, Robert launched his publishing empire by buying up a huge catalog of German scientific research — with the help of an unprecedented investment from MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. 

“He effectively became our agent,” Desmond Bristow, a former British intelligence officer, tells Preston in the book. It was a role that Maxwell apparently played for years, using his publishing perch to seed disinformation to Soviet contacts and pick up data on new technology. 


The scandal that exploded in the days after Maxwell’s death led to the arrests of brothers Ian and Kevin, who both held top positions in the family’s now-bankrupt business empire but denied knowledge of their father’s dealings. (Both were charged with several counts of conspiracy to defraud and the case went to trial in 1995, but they were both acquitted the following year.) 

But “Ghislaine was probably more affected by the death of her father than any of her siblings,” Preston said. She became his greatest defender — insisting that he could not have committed suicide, and that a conspiracy of rogue spies and contract killers had murdered him. 

“In purely financial terms, she was left high and dry,” he noted. At age 29, Ghislaine had put more effort into socializing than developing a career. With the family’s business empire in ruins, she could count only on a trust fund income of 80,000 pounds a year, about $190,000 in today’s dollars — barely enough to cover one of the extravagant parties she threw in her society days as “Goodtimes Ghislaine.” 

But she did have an enviable address book. 

As public scorn rained down back home in Britain, Ghislaine settled in the relative anonymity of New York in 1992. She took an Upper East Side apartment and started rifling through her Rolodex to sell high-end real estate to members of her wealthy social circle. 

Within months, she was dating financier Jeffrey Epstein

“He saved her,” a friend told Vanity Fair. “When her father died, she was a wreck; inconsolable. And then Jeffrey took her in. She’s never forgotten that — and never will.” 

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