I must have received half a dozen excited phone calls. “I hear you’re on the list?!” they said, hardly able to contain their excitement. The list, as most people now know, is Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘little black book’, curated for him by socialite Ghislaine Maxwell and containing the names and addresses of who’s who in both London and New York. It first emerged in 2012 (when Epstein’s former housekeeper was arrested by the FBI while trying to to sell it) and was published on Gawker.com a few years later, along with the flight logs for his private jet, nicknamed the ‘Lolita Express’, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that everyone seems to have seen the full inventory.
The likes of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Naomi Campbell rub shoulders with Prince Andrew, Tony Blair and former Conservative party chairman, Andrew Feldman. Not a single digit of a single address is missing. A circle around your entry is even more reason for uncontained excitement. We even have the honour of double entries: one for my husband and me and the other for my father-in-law, who was also friendly with Ghislaine back in the days when that was an acceptable thing to be. Ghislaine was in my husband’s circle at Oxford and we knew many people in common. Many of our friends were in her inner set (though none will speak about her now).
Ghislaine was like a sniffer dog: sharp, alert and with a nose that could detect any useful information. I was then an assistant producer at 60 Minutes with access to presidents and prime ministers; that caught her attention. I remember her as being quick-witted, attention-seeking and the complete darling of her set. She appeared at every party along with half a dozen of the then-It girls whose main occupation seemed to be finding a wealthy man with a “house”. Ghislaine’s close female friends, however, were career-minded and independent as she clearly was. Many worked in the City.
We all know what happened next. As the Maxwell empire crumbled beneath her, she teleported herself to New York City and that’s where it gets very interesting. I remember going to dinner parties with her brothers Kevin and Ian in the mid-Nineties and thinking how downtrodden they looked (the hostesses were being kind as mostly everyone else had dumped them). While they hid away in shame and what looked like poverty, Ghislaine re-emerged, and now, with some of most connected people in Manhattan. Not only was she mixing with the very rich, but she seemed to be right in the middle of the action. In fact, she seemed to be directing traffic. Socialising was her clearly well-paid job: as the newly unsealed court documents reveal, Jeffrey Epstein urged Ghislaine Maxwell: “go to parties, deal with it” even after she was sued by Virginia Roberts in 2015.
As a New Yorker who married a Brit (we met there), I observed how easy it was for someone with a British accent and the faint whiff of poshness to forge their way into the most exclusive circles. Brideshead Revisited (a bit like Downton Abbey now) had captured the nation’s imagination. London was parochial in those days: Manhattan was where the action was. The Brits there managed to infiltrate every circle; appearing at all the right parties and nightclubs such as Nell’s and Au Bar and sharing summer houses in the Hamptons and Newport. What was patently clear to me is that few of the wealthy Americans whose homes and clubs they frequented were invited back home. In fact, at least two weddings I know of were based on a complete misunderstanding. She assumed he had a fortune and vice versa. In the days before pre-nups, social media and Google, appearances really could lead you astray.
The question is, how did someone whose father had robbed pensioners and who died in mysterious circumstances, manage to break into the wealthiest circles of Manhattan? “It’s really not that difficult.” explains a New York society friend. “It doesn’t take much to legitimise yourself. Ghislaine came over with the stamp of approval from Prince Andrew. The thinking was if she hangs out with him, she must be OK. There are so many people in New York that you have no idea where they made their money. They all have 'something in development with André Balazs' etc. You only really need one person in society to vouch for you and the rest follow.”
New York is dominated by hostesses who chair committees. “What newcomers do, is they hire PRs,” she says. “They make sure that their names appear on the 15 invitations that really matter. It’s critical to to get your photo in the Post, the Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue and attract the attention of Patrick McMullan (the society snapper). Then you either need a rich husband or a patron. Ghislaine found that in Epstein”. To be clear, the old world of New York money didn’t give Epstein the time of day (there were rumours from the start).
New York has always been the breeding ground of upstarts and scammers. Europe is small and interwoven. Many an Italian has tried calling themselves a Count in London only to exposed by one phone call to Rome or Milan. New Yorkers seem much more accepting of Europeans feigning titles and hereditary wealth. All those charity dinners and Hamptons McMansions need to be filled with new blood. It all works, for a while.
One dazzling French aristocratic couple I know of arrived in New York and rapidly became the toast of the town. The glamorous model wife frequently appeared in Vogue: they got endless column inches and appeared on the red carpets of events like the Costume Institute Ball [aka The Met] hosted by Anna Wintour. They featured at every key charity dinner as guests of the most illustrious patron. This is the standard approach to raising money: first you lavish newcomers with hospitality then you sit back and wait for a donation.
It became increasingly apparent that this couple were neither planning to pledge hundreds of thousands to the hostesses' pet cause, nor were return invitations forthcoming for weekends in St Tropez on the PJ. “It’s critical if you want to play with the fast crowd that you have a house somewhere: a chateau in Austria or Lamu or some place that sounds fancy and of interest,” says my friend. This couple had nothing but their looks and entertainment value to offer. Invitations rapidly dried up along with the perks and pretty soon they had to return to their one-bedroom flat in Paris with their tails between their legs.
Then there’s the story of Anna ‘Delvey’ (real name Sorokin), the twentysomething Russian who claimed to be a German heiress with a trust fund, and managed to infiltrate New York’s highest circles – conniving her way into luxury and persuading banks to give her loans. One friend paid for a lavish $62,000 holiday to Morocco, assuming she would be paid back. At her trial last year, where she was sentenced for up to 12 years for theft of services and grand larceny, Ms Sorokin claimed never to have told anyone she had millions at her disposal – they just assumed it. Though she is currently housed at Rikers Island jail, she is already writing her second book. Meanwhile, Netflix has purchased the rights to the New York Magazine story that exposed her, for an undisclosed amount.
Appearances are everything in New York. As long as you act like a winner, people assume you are, even after a conviction. High society is so intertwined and so many favours have been exchanged that when Epstein told Maxwell that she had “done nothing wrong” and to “start acting like it” he presumably felt confident on her behalf. From what my investigative journalist friends tell me, Epstein and Maxwell kept careful tabs on their house guests and, they say, labelled tapes.
Some people in Epstein’s ‘little black book’ might have good reason to worry. Our entry goes back to the Eighties and was not updated after (we were no longer of interest, clearly). I suspect Ghislaine, raised by one depraved fraudster and romantically entangled with another, has a trick or two up her sleeve, yet.