Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, by John Preston, Penguin, 352 pp, ISBN: 978-0241388686
There is a scene near the end of John Preston’s biography of Robert Maxwell that may revive in the reader some compassion for the tycoon, despite the many pages of damning detail that precede it. Preston heard the story from Maxwell’s son Ian.
Late one night Ian went into his father’s bedroom in their fifty-three-room home, Headington Hill Hall in Oxford, to find his father peering closely at the enormous television, his nose almost touching the screen. When Ian asked his father what he was doing, Robert Maxwell replied: “I’m looking to see if I can spot my parents.” He was studying newsreel footage of the selection process at Auschwitz.
The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Three months later, Maxwell, or Jan Hoch as he was then, left his impoverished home in the east of the country (now part of Ukraine) to try his luck in Budapest. He was sixteen years old. He never saw his parents again. Only two of his six siblings survived. Meanwhile Maxwell, who served in the Czech Division of the French Foreign legion, ended up being evacuated to Britain from the south of France in 1940. He arrived without a word of English. Five years later, he was a decorated captain passing as an Englishman, proud bearer of the Military Cross, presented by Field Marshall Montgomery in Berlin.
The British army was the making of Maxwell. He progressed from the raggle-taggle Pioneer Corps ‑ whose duties consisted chiefly of construction and light engineering, and which was the only one to take in foreigners ‑ finishing the war with the Queen’s Royal Regiment. Courageous, ruthless and fluent in several languages, he remained useful in the British zone in postwar Berlin.
In 1946 he was put in charge of the press section of the British administration’s Public Relations and Information Services Control. Part of his job was to oversee the operation of the first licensed newspaper in the British sector, the Telegraf, close to the social democrats. “What was clear was that Maxwell, still only twenty-three, had a genius for bartering, browbeating and generally getting what he wanted.” Maxwell told the newspaper what it could and could not write but he also helped it to get the necessary materials to function.
He also became involved with the Springer company, the world’s leading publisher of scientific books, which had fallen on hard times but was sitting on a colossal backlog of unpublished scientific books and journals. He had been looking around for a commodity, something that would be in demand after the war and which might make his fortune. That commodity turned out to be knowledge. He secured world distribution rights to all of Springer’s publications and had 300 tons of books and journals transported by train to Western Germany and by truck convoy and sea to London. Unusually, the money to support this bold undertaking came from MI6. Maxwell had been freelancing for the British intelligence service in Germany, and he suggested that they should subsidise his book business. “He effectively became our agent,” one intelligence officer recalled.
Maxwell was initially in partnership with Austrian-born Paul Rosbaud, another MI6 asset, but he soon squeezed Rosbaud out, renaming their venture under his majority ownership as Pergamon Press in 1951. A solid success, Pergamon was the cornerstone of Maxwell’s fortune over the next four decades.
From then on, he relentlessly sought to grow his business, gobbling up acquisitions until he had built an empire. Often enough, this was achieved by being economical with the truth, and riding roughshod over his minions and associates. There was no limit to Maxwell’s audacity. When he went into British politics in the 1960s, his aim was to become prime minister. This from a man who had changed his name more than once on his way to becoming a phony British gentleman. Though he did serve two terms as a Labour MP, he was never accepted by the establishment.
In 1945, he married his French high-society sweetheart Elisabeth (Betty) Meynard – and she became his long-suffering wife. He was determined to have a large family. Betty later came to the conclusion that he was trying to replace his own lost family. The Maxwells had nine children, the youngest of whom, Ghislaine, is now more infamous than her father. Preston’s timing with the release of this biography thirty years after Maxwell’s death is rather fortuitous now that the Maxwell name is back in the headlines.
Tragedy struck the young Maxwell family, first with the death of three-year-old Karine in 1957 from leukaemia and, in 1961, when a car accident left the eldest, fifteen-year-old Michael, in a coma. He died seven years later. Betty found it extremely hard to accept that her husband never visited the boy in hospital but Preston reveals what he learned from Maxwell’s chauffeur. Apparently, his boss often asked to be taken to the hospital alone late at night.
The scenes of family life, as recounted by Betty in her memoir and by the children directly to Preston, are anything but rosy. Maxwell was a tyrant at home, and also an outrageous glutton, who would take half the Christmas turkey for himself before anyone else at the table was served. His children lived in fear of their father; he was impossible to please. The only redeeming feature of the situation was that he was increasingly absent from their lives – until it came to work. One by one, Maxwell’s offspring were roped into his businesses. All of them, with the exception of Isabel, who became a documentary filmmaker, worked for him at some point. Seven months after Maxwell’s death, his two sons Kevin and Ian were charged with multiple accounts of conspiracy to defraud. They were found not guilty in the subsequent court case after the jury deliberated for eleven days.
Headington Hill Hall in Oxford, the family home and headquarters of Pergamon Press, was a mansion leased from the local authority, and Maxwell used to joke that it was the best council house in the country. With Maxwell, everything had to be the biggest and the best, just like his fifty-five-metre yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.
Preston opens his story with a set of events which took place in New York in March 1991. Publicly, this was a moment of great triumph for Maxwell as he arrived in the city on his yacht to negotiate the purchase of the iconic New York Daily News. But his empire was a house of cards about to topple, and just nine months later he would be found dead, floating in the sea off the Canary Islands having fallen off his yacht.
In March, he had invited the New York glitterati on board, including Donald Trump. It is interesting that Maxwell’s trajectory foreshadows Trump somewhat, at least with regard to his unsound business empire and political ambitions. Trump had also tried to buy the Daily News. Preston shares a nice vignette of Trump on the yacht, where guests were obliged to remove their shoes to protect the cream carpet. “Removing his shoes with obvious reluctance, he had handed them to Maxwell’s valet, Simon Grigg, before donning his blue bootees. Trump then stood gazing at the yacht’s décor – described by one visitor as ‘1970s Playboy Baroque’. As he did so, Grigg noticed a peculiar expression come over his face. ‘It was almost like he was in awe, but didn’t want to show it.’”
Maxwell was a tyrant not just at home, but wherever he wielded power over people. He bullied and humiliated his staff, and spied on them. He used to phone Peter Jay, a former British ambassador in Washington who ended up as Maxwell’s chief of staff, in the middle of the night just to ask him the time. In the Mirror building, he had bugs fitted in the meeting rooms and the offices of the heads of department, even his own office. The bugged conversations were recorded on ninety-minute cassette tapes and Maxwell would listen back to them in his penthouse apartment next door. Maxwell had bought and renovated the building next door to the Mirror, previously the head office of Goldman Sachs, and renamed it Maxwell House. Because it had formerly been a Customs & Revenue building, he had the right to use the flat roof as a helipad – “one of only three places in London where private helicopters could land and take off”. This showy mode of transport fit well with his persona.
Over the years, Maxwell’s house parties became more and more extravagant. In June 1988, he held a three-day party to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday and the fortieth anniversary of his company, Pergamon Press. Vast marquees were erected for the three-day event with 3,000 guests. The birthday boy received congratulatory telegrams from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher while President Gorbachev apparently phoned over the weekend to wish him the best.
Preston had a wealth of written sources to draw on and it’s clear that he made good use of one-to-one research with the many people who were sucked into Maxwell’s orbit. Dozens of interviewees are listed in the back of the book. Indeed, there are so many lackeys and business associates mentioned that it can be hard to remember who’s who: a dramatis personae might have helped. The same applies to Maxwell’s sprawling business empire. The three most important entities are Pergamon Press, Maxwell Communication Corporation (MCC) and Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). Maxwell is best remembered – and not at all fondly – for his association with MGN, acquired in 1984. He was a hands-on owner, much to the dismay of the management, and saw the paper as a vehicle for self-promotion. His face appeared in its pages more than a hundred times.
Although Maxwell had tried to cover up his background in earlier years, he belatedly embraced his Jewish identity from the 1980s and developed a special relationship with Israel. He was even buried in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, the service attended by President Herzog, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and a number of their predecessors.
So what made him so beloved in Israel? The connection came about through Gerald Ronson, another British business tycoon who felt some sort of affinity with Maxwell. Ronson knew that Maxwell was Jewish, like himself, but that he had denied it in the past or claimed to have given up his religion. He challenged him on it. In 1984, Ronson was due to go to Israel to see Shamir and asked he Maxwell to come along with Betty. “Despite being ‘nonplussed’ by the idea, Maxwell agreed. They flew out on Ronson’s private plane. As they neared Tel Aviv, Ronson glanced over at Maxwell and saw he was crying. ‘There were tears coming down his face. He kept saying, I should have come here years ago.’”
At the meeting with the prime minister, Maxwell was bursting with enthusiasm and pledged to invest a quarter of a billion in Israel. This time he was true to his word. Over the next four years he became the largest investor in the Israeli economy – buying newspapers and a football club and investing in the pharma sector. In addition, he passed on any useful information he could to Mossad.
The trip to Israel also had a transformative effect on Betty. She immersed herself in studying the Nazi genocide, set up a journal called Holocaust and Genocide Studies and laboriously traced Maxwell’s family tree, travelling the world to fill in the gaps. Yet Maxwell had no appreciation for her efforts, according to Preston, turning his favourite punishment on her – public humiliation. This is just one example of many in the book:
At a meeting of the editorial board of Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Jerusalem, Maxwell shocked everyone by ridiculing her [Betty] for her lack of experience in publishing, and belittling her whenever she opened her mouth.
Generously, Betty interpreted his outrageous behaviour as an expression of his grief about his family and guilt at having married a Christian.
It goes without saying that Maxwell was serially unfaithful to Betty, though Preston doesn’t go into great detail on this aspect of his life. There is a disturbing description of an infatuation Maxwell had with a young assistant – he essentially persecuted her. We also learn a little about another memorable liaison with a woman called Wendy Leigh, the author of a number of sex manuals. She wrote a novel called Unraveled by Him, a lightly fictionalised account of their seven-year affair.
Maxwell’s tragic flaw was excess, always trying to fill a yawning void within himself, and it was ultimately his downfall. He borrowed too much and ended up having to secretly buy shares of his own companies to stay afloat. This tension reached epic proportions in the last year of his life when he was “churning money around in ever more hectic circles”. If MCC’s market value fell below a certain amount, the banks would demand more security. He had to keep buying shares and when his own cash ran out he began to dip into the Mirror pension funds. In one month alone – April 1991 – he sold £96 million of the pension funds’ assets to prop up his teetering empire.
Meanwhile his life continued at the same frenetic pace. He met the new Prime Minister, John Major … he had lunch with the German foreign minister; he flew back to Sofia where he had lunch with the Bulgarian Prime Minister and reiterated his plan to launch a new bank.
He organised a floatation of MGN which turned out to be a flop, making his financial situation even worse. People were starting to ask questions about the missing money at MGN. Maxwell kept stalling everyone, including the banks. He was caught in a trap of his own making.
Now sixty-eight years old, he was in poor mental and physical health, shutting out loved ones and eating mountains of Chinese takeaway in his penthouse. Days away from total disaster, with creditors and auditors circling, Maxwell took a last-minute decision to go to his yacht, and turned up alone in Gibraltar with one suitcase on November 1st, 1991. From Gibraltar, he set sail for Madeira and then down towards the Canary Islands. To the crew he seemed jolly and relaxed. The yacht reached Tenerife on Monday November 4th, the day before a scheduled meeting with the governor of the Bank of England. Maxwell told his sons he wasn’t well enough to return to London. He went ashore to a hotel for dinner. It was to be his last meal.
On his return to the yacht, he asked the captain to cruise all night at sea. The next morning, Maxwell was discovered to be missing from the boat. At six o’clock the same day, a search helicopter spotted his body at sea, naked and floating on his back. His death caused shock and disbelief and sparked wild rumours. Some members of his family refused to believe it was suicide, though that seemed the most likely explanation. Preston seems to favour accident or suicide, steering clear of the murder conspiracy theories.
Within days, Maxwell’s name was forever tarnished when it emerged that £763 million was missing from his companies, including £350 million from Mirror pension funds. Newsweek, on its cover, called him “The Crook of the Century”. A court-appointed receiver was put in charge of the dispersal of his estate. Preston gives us one last poignant detail from the auction of the contents of Headington Hill Hall, handled by Sotheby’s. Maxwell’s military cross was listed at £1,000 to £2,000. Betty tried to buy back the medal but the receiver refused to allow it.
Clare O’Dea lives in Switzerland and is the author of Voting Day (Fairlight Books, 2022) and The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés (Red Stag Books, 2019)