Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell 
by John Preston.
Viking, 322 pp., £18.99, February, 978 0 241 38867 9
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Given​ how many of those who worked closely with Robert Maxwell wrote a book about him, it’s interesting that so many facts about him remain unclear. Did he face a death sentence at the age of sixteen? Was he in the French Foreign Legion? In the months before his death, in 1991, was he really being investigated for a war crime? Did MI6 finance his first business in order to recruit Soviet scientists? Was he a KGB asset? Did he have a financial relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? ‘He has done more for Israel than can be said here today,’ Yitzhak Shamir said at his funeral. Was that a reference to his helping Jews escape the communist bloc or to the help he gave Israel over the kidnapping of the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu? Or something else? And finally there was the conundrum of his death, which three pathologists failed to resolve: was it suicide or murder; did he slip from his yacht or was he ill? The Spanish pathologist thought it was a heart attack, the Israeli that the heart attack had caused him to drown, the British that he had drowned and that while murder couldn’t be ruled out, it was most likely suicide or an accident.

There’s also the question of what he was called. Before settling on Ian Robert Maxwell he had repeatedly changed his name according to the political needs of the moment. Born Abraham Leib Hoch into a Yiddish-speaking community in the town of Solotvino, then in Czechoslovakia and today in Ukraine, he had used ten different names by the age of 21 – the most striking was Ivan Du Maurier, after his favourite brand of cigarette. Eventually his bank manager told him he would close his account if he changed his name again. Maxwell invented himself. When, on the hustings as a parliamentary candidate, he was accused of being a foreigner, Maxwell would say: ‘You just happen to be British, I chose this country!’ And once he made that choice, he was whole-hearted. He learned English from a female tobacconist in Sutton Coldfield and etiquette from an upper-middle-class nurse. He ended up with a plummy accent, a collection of bow ties and the habit of drinking tea from a bone china cup. For many years he denied his origins: he told the Jewish Chronicle he wasn’t Jewish and he married a French Protestant. But after his first visit to Israel in 1984, Maxwell became not just a passionate Zionist but also the largest single investor in the Israeli economy. And he started talking openly about the murder of his grandfather, parents and four siblings in the Holocaust. Only two sisters survived.

It’s rich material. The TV drama Succession – which focuses on who is to inherit the business – has wrung every last drop of dramatic tension from the story of the Murdoch dynasty. The succession was an issue for the Maxwells, too, but there was so much more. While Murdoch inherited money and went to Oxford, Maxwell started out as one of the poorest of the poor and became one of the richest of the rich. And then there’s the Second World War, the Cold War, antisemitism, the nature of identity, murder, disloyalty, ambition, greed, insecurity and all the British hypocrisies that he crashed into. John Preston has made the most of it, providing not only a very readable and amusing book but also the fullest account yet of what actually happened. Some of his sourcing could be clearer – there are rather vague appendices and no footnotes – but he is sufficiently fair-minded to persuade us that his judgments amount to a genuine attempt to get to the truth on the basis of all the evidence he could lay his hands on.

Maxwell’s family of nine lived in a wooden shack with two rooms and earth floors. His father traded animal skins, but this never provided enough money and Maxwell said he’d once been so hungry that he’d eaten a dog. In 1939, at the age of sixteen and having cut off his sidelocks, he left home and took his chances. For a description of his life between that moment and 1940, when he arrived penniless in Liverpool, we are largely dependent on Maxwell’s highly dramatic and inconsistent accounts. Setting aside some of his more colourful claims – for example, that once, having escaped custody, he was released from his shackles by a passing Gypsy woman – Preston has pieced together the likely sequence of events. Maxwell first headed to Budapest (by train and not on foot as he claimed) then joined anti-Nazi forces of some kind, was arrested as a spy and sentenced to death. He escaped, possibly killing his guard, fled to Belgrade, Beirut and finally France, where he joined the Foreign Legion, was wounded and captured before escaping again and moving on to Britain to avoid the advancing Nazi forces.

His decision to join the British army led to two noteworthy incidents. First, with reckless courage, he stormed a German position, earning himself the Military Cross. Second, when the mayor of a German town emerged to surrender holding a white flag, Maxwell took him to the town square and shot him. In 2006 the Independent used the Freedom of Information Act to secure a document showing that, shortly before Maxwell’s death, the police had interviewed members of his platoon about the mayor’s murder. The story emerged in 1988, in an authorised biography of Maxwell written by Harold Wilson’s former adviser Joe Haines, later a journalist on the Mirror. In a letter to his wife quoted in the book, Maxwell described the episode: he ordered the townspeople to fetch the mayor, then told the mayor to go back into the town to tell the soldiers there to surrender or face the town’s destruction. The mayor returned an hour later saying that the soldiers had agreed to give themselves up. But then a German tank opened fire. ‘Luckily, he missed,’ Maxwell wrote, ‘so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’

Haines has recently written about his decision to include the story in his generally uncritical and inadequate biography. He recalled that Maxwell had objected to the idea because he worried – with some prescience – that ‘I might be regarded as a war criminal.’ Haines persuaded him that no one was going to prosecute a Jewish officer in the British army who had lost his family in the Holocaust for killing a German during the war. Haines is keen now to emphasise the moments when he contradicted his boss at the Mirror. But Maxwell was always one step ahead. When asked why he wanted Haines to write an account of his life, Maxwell said: ‘Two reasons: one, because I could rely on him to do a good job; two, because after he had written one biography of me, he could never write another.’ Maxwell would give the book to anyone he met, and his use of Haines illustrates another aspect of Maxwell’s rise to fame and fortune: the people who worked with him or for him were too weak or too self-interested to blow the whistle.

Some had good reason. Little blame can be attached to the politicians who cultivated Maxwell, such as Neil Kinnock. How could any Labour leader afford to alienate the owner of the biggest Labour-supporting newspaper? As for the Mirror’s journalists, working for Maxwell was no doubt grim – but most newspapers have proprietors who are less than ideal. There were others, though, who had more options, and Maxwell, always able to work out someone’s price, knew he could rely on well-known public figures to lend him a cloak of respectability. Figures such as Haines, Bernard Donoughue and Peter Jay, the former British ambassador in Washington – some of the stars of the Labour governments of the 1970s – were happy to be signed up to Maxwell’s payroll. The case of Haines was especially striking: when Maxwell bought the Mirror, in 1984, Haines had declared the new owner a monster and a liar. And even though they never embraced him as one of their own, London’s lawyers, auditors, lobbyists, PR companies and banks were also willing enablers.

But before he could buy people’s loyalty, Maxwell had to make money. After the war he served as an intelligence officer in Berlin before returning to the UK and beginning his assault on British life, becoming a successful publisher and spending almost six years as a Labour MP. ‘Well, of course I am a Conservative,’ he told a neighbour, ‘but I’m not a member of the establishment, so I’ve got to become Labour.’ Two threads ran through his political and business career. From an early point he had a reputation for being a crook. After he lost control of the highly profitable Pergamon Press in 1969, he was investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry and found to be ‘not in our opinion a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company’. The DTI inspectors were right, and despite his aggressive use of the libel laws to protect his reputation, and his ability to persuade banks to give him money, he never managed to shake off that assessment.

The other thread was his rivalry with Rupert Murdoch, who beat him to ownership of the Times, Today, the Sun and the News of the World, whose previous owners made little secret of their disinclination to sell to someone of foreign and Jewish origin. Murdoch and Maxwell both despised the British establishment but Murdoch had the great advantage of not wanting to be part of it. While Maxwell – like Beaverbrook and Conrad Black – craved a seat in the House of Lords, Murdoch had grander ambitions. He wanted power while Maxwell wanted the glory. By the time Maxwell bought the Mirror, Murdoch was already a major influence on British life. And when Maxwell matched Murdoch’s New York Post by buying the New York Daily News, he was reduced to asking the newspaper’s publisher, Jim Hoge, to call Murdoch and tell him. Bemused, and a bit reluctant, Hoge did so. Murdoch laughed out loud.

Asked at one point to assess his fellow press barons, Murdoch was generous about Conrad Black and clearly saw Ted Turner as a serious rival. And what about Maxwell, the questioner asked. Murdoch just rolled his eyes. When it came to Maxwell’s business methods his response may have been justified, but his dismissiveness doesn’t do justice to a man who rose from a penury that Murdoch could never imagine. It was an ascent that relied on gargantuan self-confidence. Preston describes the way Maxwell conducted himself in Parliament. In his early appearances in the Commons, he made an unprecedented number of long, boring interventions, on one occasion holding up a keenly anticipated speech by the prime minister. ‘Maxwell ploughed on, heedless of convention, politesse or people tugging at his jacket. Over seven hundred years Parliament had witnessed blowhards of every persuasion, yet no one quite like him had ever been seen or heard before.’ Difficult to prove, but we get it.

This sort of hubris leads to a belief in everyone else’s stupidity. Thatcher became contemptuous of once trusted friends and colleagues. Other great egos of our time – Philip Green and Conrad Black, for example – have had the same problem. Maxwell’s grandiosity reached such a pitch that he told the Mirror’s editor Roy Greenslade that a headline about Russian troops invading Lithuania must be wrong because ‘Gorbachev wouldn’t do anything without ringing me first.’ The only way to persuade him that a story about his latest inconsequential meeting with an East European leader shouldn’t run in the Mirror was to suggest it was too important for mere press coverage. But Maxwell wasn’t just hubristic: he was a narcissist. Much recent discussion of narcissism has concerned the selfishness inherent in the wellbeing industry, the desire for therapy, pointless consumption, celebrity culture and beautiful bodies. Maxwell’s understanding that his image, his version of his life, was more useful than the truth of it to some extent prefigured these developments.

Maxwell was narcissistic in the sense that he needed to assuage his insecurities not only by showing off but also by revelling in the humiliation of others. Why else did he let people watch him piss on pedestrians from the roof of his building – according to Preston, there was a gutter that onlookers couldn’t see. All this was mixed with a fear of dependence, leading to the repeated cycle of promoting lackies and then firing them. And then there was the simple pleasure of wielding power. Often mean and nasty to secretaries, he took particular delight in humiliating Peter Jay, whom he appointed his chief of staff, by giving him the most menial tasks imaginable. There are many reports of him delighting in publicly and casually telling people – including his wife and children – to fuck off.

Maxwell​ is easier to understand now, after four years with Donald Trump at the forefront of everyone’s mind. ‘This is a great day,’ Maxwell said outside the New York Daily News building on buying the newspaper. ‘A day for me, but above all for New York. It’s the first good thing that New Yorkers have seen happen in a long while … The fact that I have chosen New York is a vote of tremendous confidence in this city.’ Preston records that Trump admired Maxwell – especially the decor of his boat. The similarities between them perhaps help explain why the people who knew Maxwell best – his family – always insisted he would never have committed suicide. And yet, Preston’s narrative builds up to the climax of Maxwell’s death by describing developments that make one wonder. First, the financial net really was tightening. By the time of his death, the banks had made it clear that their patience with broken promises to settle unpaid debts amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars had run out: they were days away from going to the authorities alleging fraud. (The Serious Fraud Office was already looking into his £57 million debt to Swiss Bank.) Second, he probably knew he was being investigated for war crimes. And third, in his final months Maxwell was increasingly dishevelled, unable to sleep, paranoid, unhealthy and fat – but at the same time ever more active, jumping on planes from one meeting to the next, sometimes spending the night hours betting huge sums on three roulette tables at once, as if manically trying to distract himself from his great unravelling.

Philip Green – who also enjoyed spending the money his companies made – styled his birthday parties PG50, PG60 and so on. Narendra Modi – who has just named a cricket stadium after himself – wears clothing with pinstripes constituted from his name repeated in tiny gold letters. Maxwell had the letter ‘M’ woven into his carpets. And there’s another giveaway. Narcissists, for whom normal relationships become impossible, can’t have friends. The prize narcissist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was once thrown off balance when an old university friend, the writer Piloo Moody, turned up in Karachi. The two men hadn’t met in decades and, unaware of how much Bhutto’s ego had grown, Moody teased Bhutto just as he had done when they were students. Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir, looking on, was shocked that anyone dared talk to her father that way. Unsurprisingly, the friendship wasn’t resumed on the old terms.

Green’s biographer, Oliver Shah, has described his parties – one of which reportedly cost £20 million – as being attended by an ever higher proportion of cronies. One person who stayed the course estimated that only 2o per cent of the people at Green’s fiftieth birthday party were at his sixtieth. Maxwell invited three thousand people to his 65th, some of whom said they had no connection to him at all and thought he must have got their contact details from the phone book. When Maxwell arrived, he was heralded by trumpets. His staff could see that in spite of the crowds he surrounded himself with he was lonely. ‘You know, Mr Wheeler, you are my oldest friend,’ he told his long-standing barber, who was sometimes summoned to dye a single grey hair. ‘I’m your only friend,’ the barber replied.

After telling one of his confidants that he’d had a loving relationship with his mother, Maxwell added: ‘I wanted the same from my wife and family. But I didn’t get it.’ This was hardly surprising, given the way he treated them. His favourite child, Ghislaine, whom he once described as a friend, was adept at getting round him – but doing so sometimes required peculiar contortions. According to Tom Bower, who has written more on him than anyone else, Maxwell once lost his temper with Ghislaine after she provided him with what he considered an inadequate account of a dinner she had attended on his behalf. Having been reduced to tears by his outburst, she wrote a memo: ‘I should have expressed to you at the start of our conversation that I was merely presenting you with a preliminary report of the evening and a full written report was to follow.’ She went on to list everyone at the dinner who had praised him, adding that she herself had been honoured to represent him.

By the end, the man who had always been able to turn on the charm at will was so egotistical that his company was unbearable. Cruel, grandiose, self-absorbed and ludicrously boastful, he lived in a flat at the top of Maxwell House, his appetites, sexual and otherwise, serviced only by people he paid. His need for food became so excessive that on one occasion he broke into a locked larder and ate a pound of cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two jars of caviar, a loaf of bread and a whole chicken in a single sitting. True, when he picked up the phone, the world’s most powerful people would take his call. But, for all that, he ate his last meal sitting on his own in the corner of an empty dining room in a Tenerife hotel. His death prompted sympathetic messages from the great and good, but he left a miserable legacy, especially for the pensioners whose money he stole.

And then there’s Ghislaine. She is accused, among other things, of having trawled shopping malls to procure young girls for Jeffrey Epstein and his powerful friends. She insists on her innocence and may become the latest Maxwell to show that the courts can’t catch them. Had the various frauds in her father’s companies been the subject of criminal proceedings during his lifetime, he would probably have gone to prison. Only his death saved him. When his sons, Kevin and Ian, were tried for their part in the various scams, they were found innocent by a jury – probably in the belief that whatever wrongs they had done, they couldn’t be blamed for failing to resist their dictatorial father.

Ghislaine is now in a prison cell awaiting trial but the case against her already seems compromised. Oddly, despite her long association with Epstein, the prosecuting authorities have specified that they are only charging her in relation to activities that occurred between 1994 and 1997. This may be because Epstein’s plea bargain in 2007 included the extraordinary clause: ‘The United States also agrees that it will not institute any criminal charges against any potential co-conspirators of Epstein.’ The prosecutors in Ghislaine’s case may be hoping to argue that the deal didn’t cover anything before 1997 because at the time the plea bargain was struck the state was unaware of any potentially criminal acts from that period. Ghislaine’s lawyers seem to have plenty to work with, and as the reporter John Sweeney pointed out in his recent podcast about her, unless the US authorities have evidence not yet in the public domain she could well walk free.

There is one other family member to consider. Preston is consistently sympathetic to Maxwell’s long-suffering wife, Betty. Her book about her life with him, A Mind of My Own, published in 1994 after she asked for, and received, personal help from Murdoch, is a poignant contribution to the various accounts of his life. She describes Maxwell on his first arrival in liberated Paris as an energetic, good-looking, self-confident, charming, multilingual young officer. The couple’s love letters are full of passion and hope. For some twenty years, as Maxwell built his business with Betty’s considerable help, they had a close and seemingly happy relationship.

But by the 1960s Maxwell’s heartlessness and arrogance were taking over. Betty, who thought he had a guilt complex about marrying a Christian, wrote him a series of letters in which she assured him that she was entirely his. ‘You will only need to say what you want and it will be done, or to express a desire and I will satisfy it. Perhaps you will discover that the half-flayed creature you have stripped naked still deserves to be loved.’ But she could never do enough to please him and although she was too steadfast to say it clearly, she ended up living with a bloated monster who showered her with insults, bullied her children and humiliated her with his lovers. She devoted herself to teaching the subject closest to his heart – the Holocaust.

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