Nicholas Coleridge: The Ghislaine Maxwell I knew

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

I have known Ghislaine Maxwell for more than 40 years, since she was a student at Balliol. I always liked her, everyone did, and I find it hard to reconcile the Ghislaine I knew with the heinous crimes of which she now stands accused. I visited her several times at Headington Hall, her family house on the edge of Oxford, when her father Robert Maxwell was at the height of his power. It was a peculiar house, rented from the council, like an enormous municipal town hall. The entrance hall and corridors were lined with at least a hundred framed cartoons by Jak and Mac of the great narcissist newspaper owner. The spare bedrooms had buzzing minibar fridges like in a hotel. There was a swimming pool and Ghislaine lent me a pair of her father’s trunks to wear — they were so large, I slipped my whole girth into one leg hole, leaving the other one flapping as I swam. After Robert Maxwell disappeared overboard from his yacht, Ghislaine decamped to New York and would seem to have swapped one manipulative billionaire for another. In one respect only has my youthful friendship with Ghislaine become a liability. About 20 years ago, when she first became Jeffrey Epstein’s gatekeeper, I received a fax from her Manhattan office. It stated that Miss Maxwell and Mr Epstein were updating their joint contacts book, and included a form to fill in. You were asked to confirm the addresses and landlines for your principal residences, your weekend homes and ski chalets, and then the questions became yet more surreal — the mobile numbers of your pilot on your private jet, your yacht captain, your butler. It was dispiriting to have to write ‘N/A’ against so many of them. The contacts form was sent to perhaps 300 of Ghislaine’s London and university friends, and we all complied. Now, of course, inclusion in Epstein’s infamous little black book is an embarrassment, and many of us are regularly rung by newspapers to ask how often we frequented his parties and massage table. In fact, none of us ever met him or had really heard of him before the scandal erupted. Most of the people listed, Ghislaine’s old mates, are now Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs of their respective counties.

The last time I ran into Ghislaine was at a Sotheby’s preview. She was as friendly and engaging as ever. She told me she was working on a project to build a luxurious floating country in the middle of the Pacific. The advantage would be zero income tax and zero inheritance tax, but you could only become a citizen if you had many hundreds of millions of dollars. I remember thinking it was the last place on Earth I would choose to live, even if I qualified — a blinged-up oil platform with six-star restaurants and a population of elderly tax dodgers. Monte Carlo on stilts.

When I first lived in London in the late 1970s, no dinner in a restaurant was complete without a glass of flaming sambuca and the amaretti biscuit trick. This consisted of removing the Italian biscuits from their wrapping, rolling the thin paper into a funnel shape, then setting fire to it and watching the paper ascend to the ceiling. It always gave pleasure. I tried to demonstrate the technique recently but — horrors — it no longer works. The amaretti wrapping has been changed to a different grade of paper. It simply blazes on the saucer, topples, and won’t get lift-off. In such small ways, the past is another country.

At exactly the moment statues are toppling on all sides, a new one is being raised, to the borderline-woke poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. To the best of my knowledge this is the first lifesize statue to him anywhere, and it will stand outside the church in Ottery St Mary, Devon, sculpted by Nicholas Dimbleby and cast in bronze. You explicitly do not require the surname Coleridge to donate to the appeal. If you have ever derived the slightest pleasure from ‘Kubla Khan’, please direct your appreciation to the Coleridge Memorial Trust page on Crowdfunder.

After 140 days in mothballs, the V&A has reopened. As the museum’s founding director, Henry Cole, observed, there is nothing sadder than an empty museum, so it was joyful to stand at the Blavatnik entrance watching a line of masked visitors cross the courtyard. The director, Tristram Hunt, has wisely encouraged the team not to overdo the Covid-related signage, and there isn’t any yellow crime exclusion tape in the whole place. Arts organisations are quick to blame governments for holes in their funding, so let me acknowledge the swift emergency assistance the national museums received from the Treasury and DCMS during this pandemic. Meanwhile, our alluring V&A fabric face masks are flying off the shelves, and are a further good reason to visit us soon.

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Nicholas Coleridge is chairman of the V&A and a former president of Condé Nast International.

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