The luxury yacht slowly made its way up Manhattan’s East River and docked at the Water Club at East 30th Street. It was more of a water-borne apartment block than a yacht, four storeys high and dwarfing its neighbours, taking up eight berths rather than one.

Its owner had named it after his favourite daughter who was onboard – the Lady Ghislaine. Less than a year later, Robert Maxwell was dead and three decades on the child was in a very different dock in New York, convicted of sex trafficking.

Robert Maxwell had just bought the failing New York Daily News (the owners were so keen to get rid of the tabloid that they paid him $60 million to get it off their hands) which was over-staffed and with its distribution effectively controlled by the Mafia. The workers had been on strike for nearly five months and while he was able to broker deals to call off the industrial action, it was effectively a cave-in.

Several days later, at nine in the morning on March 13, 1991, a fleet of stretch limos pulled up beside a newsstand on 42nd Street and out sprung the corpulent man in a camel coat and a red bow tie with a green-and-white cap on his head.

A crowd gathered, and reporters and snappers crowded round as Maxwell proclaimed: “The fact that I have chosen New York is a vote of tremendous confidence in this city.” With first clenched in the air, he added: “It’s a miracle. A miracle on 42nd Street,” before setting off and towing the crowd up the street to the newspaper building.

Maxwell had taken at least four names before settling on that one (he was born Jan Ludwig Hoch) and was now referring to himself as “Bob the Max”. Ghislaine was to be his “emissary” in New York. It was to prove fateful for both of them.

He would rob his banks and the Daily Mirror pension fund of £763 million, partly to pay for the Big Apple folly, before falling or jumping off the same yacht in the Atlantic.

Ghislaine would give a press conference from a deck of the Lady Ghislaine, to the media gathered on the quay below, days after her father’s naked body was plucked from the sea. She would have a relationship with the paedophile Jefferey Epstein and become his madam procuring young girls, before being locked up as a sex offender.

A bully, boor and thief

Her father was a boor, a violent bully, a philanderer, a sociopath, a liar – before becoming probably the biggest thief of the 20th century. Or perhaps it was these traits which initially brought him the riches?

Ghislaine was born on Christmas Day 1961, one of nine Maxwell children. Three days later, the eldest, 15-year-old Michael, was in a car which crashed into a lorry on a foggy Oxfordshire road. He would remain in a coma until his death seven years later.

From being the overlooked one – “Mummy, I exist,” the three-year old Ghislaine declared, according to her mother’s memoir – she became the feted one, lavished in smothering affection.

Robert had met his wife Elisabeth, known as Betty, during the Second World War in Paris. In her book, Betty wrote that the favourite daughter “became spoiled, the only one of my children I can truly say that about”.

Robert Maxwell’s story could be plucked from fiction. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to sift the facts because of the way the man would embellish his past. What is true is that he was born into a large and impoverished Jewish family in Solotvyno in Czechoslovakia, all of them living in a shack with bare earth for the floor. He, too, was one of nine, which he replicated in his own family.

His mother and father and most of his family were murdered by the Nazis when they took the village and the country during the Second World War. Robert had left, aged 16 at the start of the war, and joined the Czech army in exile, then the British Army. He met and married Betty, rose through the ranks to captain, and won the Military Cross which was pinned on him by General Bernard Montgomery, the day after he learned his parents were dead.

But he was also a war criminal, shooting surrendered Nazis and also the mayor of a town which was harbouring others. He had a gift for languages. He originally spoke Yiddish, learned English which came out in a deep, upper-class, plummy accent, and also French and Russian, or, according to him, nine languages in all, or was it10? It depended on who he was boasting to.

Maxwell’s house

AFTER the war he set up Pergamon Press, which collected academic papers (the academics were more interested in seeing their names on a book than a cheque) and marketed them, as well doing deals with the Soviet Union and with the defeated enemy Germany, though the Springer Press.

The company was based, and the family lived, at Headington Hill Hall in Oxford, which Maxwell often boasted was “the best council house in the country”. He had rented from the council the house and the surrounding buildings at a peppercorn rent in exchange for renovating the mansion.

The then-chairman of Pergamon, Sir Walter Coutts, later said of him: “Maxwell has an ability to sublimate anything that stops him getting what he wants. He’s so flexible he is like a grasshopper. There is no question of morality or conscience. Maxwell is Number One and what Maxwell wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else.”

His ambition, his politicking and his cunning led him to become the Labour MP for Buckingham in the 1964 General Election – he had told Betty he would become Prime Minister – which he held until 1970.

That did not stop him pursuing his business career. He bought the loss-making British Printing and Publishing company and turned it around by slashing costs and staff.

But his ambition had always been to become a press mogul. In 1969, he tried to buy the News Of The World, but after a year-long struggle lost out to the man who became his bitter rival, Rupert Murdoch. (When the editor of the New York Daily News was instructed by his boss to phone up Murdoch and tell him of the purchase, Murdoch burst out laughing and hung up.)

In 1975, he put a crucial £120,000 into the Glasgow-based Scottish Daily News, the workers’ co-operative, and when it ran into financial trouble led the workforce to believe he would bail out the paper. He didn’t. It went down with all hands (including this one).

In 1984, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International for £113 million. After that he was rarely out of the headlines. He tried to solve the problem of famine in Ethiopia, he “rescued” the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games (later found to be insolvent), he patronised Neil Kinnock and other Labour politicians, he successfully sued Private Eye for suggesting that he had tried to buy a peerage – although he probably did try – and he launched Britain’s first 24-hour newspaper the London Daily News, which he had tried to do unsuccessfully with the Scottish Dail News, and it collapsed in months.

He also bought two football clubs, Derby County and Oxford United, a bescarfed Gishlaine at his side

Unsinkable self-belief

ONE amusing and typically bombastic aside to the Edinburgh games saga was when he introduced his Japanese “friend” Ryoichi Sasakawa to the media. He hailed the businessman, who pumped in far more money than Maxwell himself, as a multi-millionaire philanthropist who had “single-handedly funded the eradication of leprosy” when, still, more than 30 years later, it hangs on.

Sasakawa, if it’s possible, was probably even more of a deluded fantasist then Maxwell. He told reporters in Edinburgh that he was 27 years old and would live to the age of 200. He was 87 at the time and died nine years later, at either 96 or 36!

But Maxwell’s relentless appetite for power and influence, his utter lack of morality or conscience and his unsinkable belief in himself was to lead to him robbing the pension funds to keep the New York paper and his other acquisitions afloat and to him, voluntarily or not, being found face down in the sea.

His favourite child’s lawyers are now trying to have the sex-trafficking verdict against her voided and are petitioning for new trial. And the Lady Ghislaine? She was sold in 2017 to Anna, the former wife of Maxwell’s arch-enemy Rupert Murdoch. She’s now called the Dancing Hare.