“Ghislaine Maxwell is arguably the most hated woman in the world. And I knew her.” So begins Vicky Ward’s podcast, “Chasing Ghislaine,” which launched on Audible this past summer, as Maxwell prepared to stand trial in New York City on sex-trafficking charges. Ward, a British-born journalist who is also hosting and co-producing a Discovery+ documentary about Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, describes her experiences covering the pair for almost two decades. Ward also promises to reveal what happened in 2002, when, while working as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she interviewed two sisters who said they had been sexually abused by Epstein and Maxwell, but was unable to publish their stories. “I’m going to tell you why those claims never made it into print,” she says. “One big reason: Jeffrey Epstein.”
In her podcast, Ward claims that she was determined to expose Epstein as a sexual abuser and had the necessary evidence, but that Epstein convinced Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, not to publish the sisters’ accounts. (Vanity Fair, like The New Yorker, is owned by Condé Nast.) First, Ward says, Epstein threatened her, telling her, “I have reports here about you, your husband—I have everything under the sun that was sent to me by people who want to be helpful.” Despite this and other menacing remarks, Ward recounts, “I still thought that I was going to win. I really thought that I could expose Jeffrey Epstein.” But, according to Ward, Epstein and Carter “were talking to each other sort of behind the scenes.” Epstein and Carter spoke on the phone and, shortly after Ward filed a draft, they met at Vanity Fair’s office. Eventually, Ward says, an editor informed her that Carter had decided not to include the sisters’ allegations in the story. “I must have gone into the office, because I do remember being there and just crying,” she says. “They had been so brave, and we just let them down.”
Last December, after a jury found Maxwell guilty on five of six counts, I sent a message to Ward asking if I could interview her. I wanted to find out what she had made of the trial and to learn more about Vanity Fair’s decision not to run the allegations against Epstein and Maxwell. I also wanted to talk about a 2011 follow-up that Ward had written for Vanity Fair, in which she wrote playfully about Epstein, describing him as “not without humor,” and praised Maxwell, calling her “passionate” and capable of “vulnerability.” How could a journalist committed to exposing Epstein’s abuses have written so casually about the pair?
Ward and I spoke on the phone, and I asked her to forward e-mails that could verify some of her claims about Vanity Fair. Many of the things that she told me—and had told her podcast listeners—turned out to be untrue. All publications, including this one, at times look back on stories and regret not pursuing them further. But Ward’s claim that Vanity Fair prevented her from exposing Epstein misrepresents a more complicated reality. Carter, who now says that he distrusted Ward as a reporter, has offered conflicting explanations for his magazine’s decision not to run the sisters’ allegations. For her part, Ward has repeatedly misrepresented her reporting on Epstein, changing her story from year to year and at times from day to day, and was a far less heroic actor than she would have her audiences believe. “I am horrified,” one of the sisters, Maria Farmer, said last year, about Ward’s podcast. “She won’t stop torturing us, and it is hurting so badly.”
Ward’s reporting on Epstein and Maxwell began in 2002, when Carter asked her to profile Epstein, who was known for hosting friends such as Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and Kevin Spacey. Epstein claimed to manage the investments of billionaires, but his only known client was the Limited Brands C.E.O. Leslie Wexner. Ward, a British-born journalist, had moved to New York in 1997, where she worked at the New York Post and Talk magazine, before moving on to Vanity Fair. Ward told me that she was well positioned to report on Epstein because her social circle overlapped with Maxwell’s. “I was very close to one of her Oxford classmates, who is not a particularly powerful or staggeringly rich person but is a very decent person,” she told me. “So that possibly warmed me to her. You judge people by their friends.”
Ward’s impression of Epstein was different. During her reporting, she says on the podcast, Epstein told her that he could get her husband—the venture capitalist Matthew Doull—fired, because he knew her husband’s boss (also her husband’s step-uncle), the media mogul Conrad Black. Ward was pregnant at the time, and she says that Epstein also made inappropriate remarks about her pregnancy. He repeatedly asked where she was giving birth and at one point informed her that, “when you give birth, as your vaginal canal opens, you have this chemical released into your system with oxytocin. . . . It actually causes you to fall in love with the thing you see coming out of it.”
Ward was soon alerted to something even darker about Epstein. A friend told her that an artist named Maria Farmer had had a “bad experience” with Epstein, and urged Ward to reach out to the young woman. Farmer, who had met Epstein and Maxwell while she was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at the New York Academy of Art, had been hired by Epstein as an art adviser. Farmer told Ward that, in 1996, she stayed at an Ohio mansion with Epstein and Maxwell, where Epstein had sexually assaulted her while Maxwell held her hand. Epstein and Maxwell had also taken an interest in her younger sister, Annie. Ward talked to Annie, too, who told her that that same year, when she was sixteen, she had stayed with Epstein and Maxwell at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch. Maxwell had told Annie to remove her clothes and massaged her breasts; Maxwell also showed her how to give Epstein a foot massage, which she did. Annie also said that Epstein had entered the bedroom where she was staying and pressed his body against hers.
In 2002, Annie and Maria Farmer spoke to Ward on the record, as did their mother, who said that her daughters had told her about distressing encounters with Maxwell and Epstein. According to Ward, she also spoke to two other sources, David Schafer and Eric Fischl, who knew Maria through the New York Academy of Art and had some knowledge of what had happened in Ohio. Neither Fischl nor Schafer responded to my requests for comment, but in 2019 Fischl told the Times that Maria had called him from Epstein’s house and described a disturbing physical encounter with Epstein. “I just kept telling Maria, ‘You’ve got to get out of there,’ ” Fischl said.
The article that appeared in Vanity Fair, in the March, 2003, issue, did not include the Farmers’ allegations, noting only that Epstein tended to surround himself with young women. Ward claims that this was a result of Epstein’s influence on Carter. After Epstein visited Vanity Fair’s office, she claims, Carter told her that Epstein was “sensitive about the young women.” Epstein denied the Farmers’ allegations, and, according to Ward, Carter said, “I believe him.”
Carter tells a different story. “I edited the first draft of Ms. Ward’s story,” he said, in an e-mail. “There was no mention of young women in it. When she tried to add these facts late in the process—we were about to go on press—her editor, our chief of research, and our legal editor, all felt she did not have credible evidence that would stand up in court.” After Carter sent this statement, Ward shared e-mails between her and Vanity Fair staffers. In a pattern that became familiar, the e-mails indicated that dates and details Ward had previously provided were incorrect; she went on to offer four different accounts of when the Farmers were removed from the piece, eventually admitting that she didn’t remember what had happened and then returning to her initial claim. But the e-mails also showed that Ward presented the magazine with their allegations by early December, weeks before the article closed. In mid-December, Ward was discussing the Farmers with fact checkers, and a photo editor asked for assistance obtaining “Maria Farmer’s photos.”
When I shared this time line with Carter, he replied, in an e-mail, “Well, this is my mistake, then. Remember, this was almost 20 years ago.” He then suggested that he had not been involved in decision-making about the article: “What I do know is that I had complete trust in my editors, our legal editor, our head of research, and our researchers. And I gave them a great deal of latitude in what could be included in a story and what could not. In 99% of the cases, they made the decisions among themselves.”
Carter and I also spoke on the phone, and he told me that the decision not to run the Farmers’ allegations was likely influenced by Ward’s professional reputation: “My staff, to a person, did not trust her.” I spoke to numerous people who played some role in the production of Ward’s article, which for such a story always includes fact checkers, editors, and lawyers. None felt able to go on the record to discuss the magazine’s handling of the piece, but several said that Ward had not gathered evidence that would stand up in court, and others echoed Carter’s remarks about Ward’s journalism. “Vicky had zero credibility with the fact-checking and legal departments,” one person who worked at Vanity Fair at the time told me. “They had too many bad experiences.” Another then staffer said that Ward had provided inaccurate quotations and had had disputes with sources about when they were speaking on the record. A third person, who worked extensively with both Ward and Carter, told me that he thought Vanity Fair could have done more to pursue the Farmers’ allegations, but also that Ward seemed not to understand “basic journalistic rules.” In response to these statements about her work, Ward said, “I worked for Vanity Fair for a decade after this. That speaks for itself.”