Was he pushed?
Robert Maxwell’s last two days are covered in great detail in this new book
It was always the roar of the helicopter which first gave away that He was coming down; then there was the entourage of lackeys including Sir Peter Jay (the former UK Ambassador to the US whom he delighted in humiliating), and finally there was the Booming Voice. When I started out as a barrister, I was regularly ushered into the presence of Jan Hoch, who had by then become (after four other name changes) Robert Maxwell, in Fetter Lane, London. My role was to stop strikes or picketing by the print unions.
But it would not just be myself in the luxurious upper Executive floor of the Mirror Building (inevitably renamed Maxwell House); typically in the next room would be a group of trade union negotiators, in another the Bulgarian ambassador (or his Deputy) and in a third some hapless executive who had been lucky not to have been dropped off by the side of the M40 road miles from anywhere (as not infrequently happened).
Maxwell would be speaking almost simultaneously Bulgarian, German and English (he spoke ten languages). A butler would be hovering nearby with delicious canapes. A similar scene would play out at his stately home curiously owned by Oxford City Council, Headington Hall which I also visited when conducting a case about of all things his wine cellar. If he did not like my advice he would shout that he wanted another (more senior) barrister.
Maxwell was a brooding presence, someone who thrived on chaos, and could explode over nothing (humiliating in particular senior executives), but a man who could also by turns be charm personified. Nowadays, he is best known as the father of his youngest daughter Ghislaine who languishes in a Brooklyn gaol because of the alleged activities of another monster who also died in mysterious circumstances.
John Preston (whose last book on Jeremy Thorpe was turned into a TV drama) brings Captain Bob back to life in his 300 page thriller “The Fall”. The book is based on interviews with hundreds of people who knew Maxwell including members of the family, in particular Ian Maxwell. Preston places at centre stage the family background (most of the family died in the Holocaust) including the fact that Maxwell’s own father was a violent man.
“The Bouncing Check”
Tales of Maxwell’s untrustworthiness abound in the book. This got him nicknamed “The Bouncing Check (or Czech)” (as popularised by Private Eye). For example, he introduced a Spot the Ball competition into the Daily Mirror which it was virtually impossible to win. When a friend of mine who was a financial journalist pointed this out to him, he shouted down the phone and threatened to sue him.
When the same newspaper under his ownership ran a bingo competition, he did not like those who won, thinking they were too middle class, undeserving or not appealing enough so he didn’t pay out. Although the bingo prize was set at a million pounds, he gave firm instructions to his editor (one Roy Greenslade who has recently become infamous on another ground) that he did not want to actually pay it out. There was always the suggestion that there were millions stashed away in Liechtenstein bank vaults but this turned out to be false.
For the Commonwealth Games he promised to give a donation of £2m but only delivered £250,000. He started buying shares in his own companies to ramp up the share price. His raid on his company’s pensions funds is well known and the book adds little in this area.
Preston carefully and meticulously covers in sequence the fascinating and unexpected turns to his subject’s life. Having made and lost his first fortune, Maxwell determined that he was going to be Prime Minister but although he was Labour MP for Buckingham for two terms, the highest public office he reached was as head of the House of Commons Catering Department which was the ultimate thankless task.
How good a businessman was he? He certainly saw a gap in the market for scientific journals after the war and introduced the original and profitable notion of not paying contributors. He made big money in contract printing, but his stewardship of the Mirror Group was decidedly less assured. It is often now forgotten that the Mirror was the biggest selling daily in the UK for many years. Its sharp decline started under Maxwell.
Preston analyses the last two days in great detail. The fall could have been accident, suicide or murder
Of course, people don’t generally buy national newspapers in order to make money. This is like ownership of football clubs (and he also owned Oxford United for a while) which is known as a good way to turn a large fortune into a much smaller one. The Mirror purchase appealed most to his vainglorious side and allowed him to be seen as a man of influence. His own photo ran dozens of time on the front page of the newspaper. The combined reduction in readers for his three national papers stood at one million over the first year, the biggest fall in their history. One analyst famously said of Mirror Group shares “Can’t Recommend a Purchase”.
It is difficult to psychoanalyse someone like Maxwell but very tempting and the book does not shy away from this. What sort of man has, in his Headington Hall house, photos of books instead of bookshelves. He bugged his own staff and yet cried in front of the TV screen when a film about the Holocaust was on.
Richard Stott, one of his editors, is probably accurate when he said that “it was the uncertainty and deep insecurity of the true outsider, a man who feels he has been precluded from the world of others and had therefore determined to build his own, with his own rules for his own game”.
His daughter Christine (herself a psychologist) detected megalomania in him as a real disease, concluding that towards the end of his life “Nothing was ever enough any more and at the same time he just couldn’t stop”. He resembled President Trump in so many ways and Preston tells a beautiful story of when they met.
Rivalry with Murdoch
Preston quotes Bob Bagdikian dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism who said “Neither Caesar nor FDR nor any Pope has commanded as much power to shape the information on which so many people depend”, but it was not enough for Bob; he wanted to beat the man with the same initials as he, Rupert Murdoch. It was possibly the ongoing rivalry with Murdoch who was usually one step ahead (and beat him to the purchase of a newspaper four times) that many say led to his precipitous fall financially and ultimately from his boat. The rapid decline in his business fortunes can be dated to buying three assets which were designed to allow him to say he was on a par as a global player with Murdoch: Macmillan, the US publisher, Official Airline Guides and The New York Daily News. He overpaid for each one of them.
The Fall on which the book’s name is based was from the Lady Ghislaine yacht which was sailing near the Canary Islands. It took place late at night. Preston analyses the last two days in great detail. The fall could have been accident, suicide or murder. Significantly, Ghislaine is the only member of the immediate family who thinks it was the latter. It was she who said everything on the boat should be shredded. Preston concludes that it was almost certainly just a fall. The simplest explanation was that a vastly overweight man lost his balance and fell overboard.
Overall, this is a more sympathetic account of the man than might have been expected, and certainly more so than Tom Bower’s very negative work. What Preston does not cover is the extent to which the British Establishment at all levels took Maxwell in and was taken in by him which in some ways is the most fascinating point of all.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe