Deeply flawed life of Cap’n Bob

Christopher Silvester reveals how this biography of Robert Maxwell is a skilfully constructed page-turner


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How times have changed! Soon after Robert Maxwell’s mysterious death at sea in 1991 — he either fell, jumped, or, some said, was pushed off his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine — his chief flunkey Peter Jay (formerly Our Man in Washington) was quoted in the newspaper Today as follows: “I think he had more physical and moral courage than anyone I have ever met.”

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston, Viking £18.99

But here is Jay in John Preston’s flashy, frothy and frivolous new book describing Maxwell as “pre-moral… like some great woolly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest”. It’s a killer quote, all the more so for contradicting Jay’s earlier assessment, of which Preston appears to be ignorant. The book’s “Note on Sources” is broken down by chapter, and includes references to published sources and interviews. The chapter in which this killer quote appears lists Jay as an interviewee, but the quote was not teased from Jay by Preston. It is taken from a 2013 profile of Jay in The Times by Nigel Farndale.

There are no footnotes in Fall, so it is impossible to tell where each anecdote or reference comes from. How much of Preston’s research is original and how much is merely lifted from published sources and biographies, as well as various memoirs?

Well, Preston was granted the cooperation of Maxwell’s son Ian, apparently an old friend, and through him he gained interviews with two more of Ian’s siblings, Isabel and Christine, although Ghislaine was preoccupied elsewhere and Kevin refused to participate. Preston also talked to some who hadn’t been interviewed before, such as Gerald Ronson, who introduced Maxwell to Jewish philanthropic causes.

A Maxwell book on the thirtieth anniversary of his death seemed inevitable following Preston’s commercially successful reboot of the Jeremy Thorpe murder case, A Very British Scandal. Like that book, which was adapted for television with Hugh Grant as Thorpe, Fall has been optioned by a leading production company.

A Maxwell book on the thirtieth anniversary of his death seemed inevitable following Preston’s commercially successful reboot of the Jeremy Thorpe murder case

Of Ruthenian-Czech-Jewish origin, Maxwell had a distinguished war record, became a successful publisher of scientific journals in the 1950s, served as a Labour MP from 1964 to 1970, lost out to Rupert Murdoch in his bid to become owner of the News of the World in 1968, was found to be unfit to run a public company in 1971, flattered Soviet and Eastern European dictators by publishing their memoirs, and succeeded in buying Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984. Throughout all this he told lie after lie and consistently inflated profits from inter-company transactions in order to bolster the share price of his public company, Maxwell Communications Corporation. His house of cards came tumbling down and soon after his death he was found to have defrauded the Mirror Group pension fund of £350 million and to have stolen more than a billion pounds in total.

What is inexplicable to me is how Preston has written Private Eye and previous Maxwell biographers Peter Thompson and Anthony Delano, and Tom Bower, out of his plot entirely. In 1985 Private Eye published a story alleging that Cap’n Bob (as it usually called him) had funded a trip to East Africa by Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in the hope that he would be recommended for a peerage. Maxwell repudiated the story and sought an injunction to prevent distribution of the magazine’s entire print run.

An Eye journalist (me) swore an affidavit that his source, an unnamed Labour MP, had been told this by someone in Kinnock’s private office. Our solicitors encouraged us to issue a counterclaim for libel against Maxwell for branding us as liars. When the case went to trial in 1987 my source, who had evidently read too much into a throwaway remark, did not wish to give evidence and so Maxwell sued us for aggravated damages.

Frustrated that we were not permitted to tell the jury about Maxwell’s reputation for being less than truthful in his business dealings, the Eye lost the case. I gave evidence and was cross-examined for several hours while engaging in a staring match with Maxwell, who was sitting in the front row. Maxwell received only £5,000 compensatory damages for loss of reputation, but £50,000 in aggravated damages. He then printed 600,000 copies of a spoof publication, Not Private Eye, and published an account of the trial in book form, Malice in Wonderland.

During the trial, Maxwell’s QC sought to establish that the Eye had demonstrated a pattern of malice towards him. Years earlier the magazine had published lookalike photos of Maxwell and Ronnie Kray. He sued and the magazine apologised, although it thereafter teased him by signing all letters suggesting new lookalikes with the name Ena B. Maxwell. One of these happened to pair photos of the Duke of Edinburgh and Adolf Eichmann. In a curious theatrical display, which struck the journalists present in court on that day as wholly fake and intended to elicit sympathy from the jury, Maxwell started sobbing, flourished a handkerchief, and spluttered that his family had been killed at Auschwitz.

Why was this moment significant and why is it odd that Preston does not mention it? Because this was the first time that Maxwell, who had renounced his Jewish faith back in the 1950s, made a public acknowledgement that his parents and siblings had perished in the Holocaust. Since Preston implies that this psychic scar helps explain Maxwell’s character and conduct in later years — he quotes from the memoir of Maxwell’s wife Betty, who said that “Bob had not managed to reconcile himself with his grief, or overcome his guilt complex at having married a Christian” — surely the fact that he suppressed it for so long is worthy of note.

There are other, more egregious omissions. When Thompson and Delano wrote a gossipy biography, Maxwell: A Portrait in Power, their subject sued and persuaded their publishers to pulp two separate print runs of the book. Then Maxwell issued a pre-emptive libel writ against Tom Bower three weeks before his biography, Maxwell The Outsider, was published. It had been typeset in Singapore, printed in Finland and flown into Britain, under the codename Robin Hood. When he failed to obtain an injunction, Maxwell notified almost every bookseller in the country that the book was defamatory. This was catnip to Rupert Murdoch, who serialised the book in the Sunday Times.

Of course, any biographer is entitled to choose their contents, but by the same token they should be judged for what they choose to leave out

By his actions Maxwell simply propelled Bower’s book into becoming a number one bestseller. Never before in the history of publishing had anyone gone to such lengths to suppress a critical biography. You might think this fact would merit a paragraph or two from Preston, but no — not one jot or tittle.

Of course, any biographer is entitled to choose their contents, but by the same token they should be judged for what they choose to leave out. Nor is there anything here about Maxwell’s vainglorious attempt to become a media mogul in France in 1988, brilliantly laid out by Bower in the 1991 revised edition of his biography.

Preston makes much of the one-sided rivalry between Maxwell and Murdoch, in which Maxwell envied and wished to emulate Murdoch’s success as a media mogul, while Murdoch mocked, teased and outsmarted Maxwell. (This is hardly a new insight: I wrote a profile of Maxwell for Spy magazine in 1989 which was billed on the cover as “The Man Who Would Be Murdoch”.) But Preston fails to make the point that Murdoch was a nimble entrepreneur with a strategic vision and a grounded sense of self, whereas Maxwell was only ever a tactical thinker driven by his delirious vanity.

Fall is more of “an entertainment” (in the sense that Graham Greene used the word to describe his less serious thriller novels) than a serious or substantial biography of someone who once loomed large in public consciousness but has since faded from memory. It is a skilfully constructed page-turner, for sure, with hooks at the end of each chapter that pull the reader into the next, rather like a Dan Brown novel, but there are huge gaps and there is very little analysis of Maxwell’s motivation. Above all, Preston is guilty of a cynical and fraudulent dereliction of duty in failing to recognise the courage of one previous biographer in particular.

Fall talks the talk, but it doesn’t walk the walk. It has proved a momentary publishing sensation with gushing reviews from Lynn Barber, Robert Harris and Craig Brown. But think how much more of a publishing sensation was Tom Bower’s book back in 1988, when its subject went to such extraordinary lengths to quash it.

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