“Fall. The Mystery of Robert Maxwell” by John Preston (published by Viking)

Tycoon in too deep after years of profligacy

Did he fall, did he jump or was he pushed? Whichever – accident, suicide or murder – the fatal fall of notorious business tycoon and media magnate Robert Maxwell from his luxury yacht Lady Ghislaine in November 1991, left him floating bloated and naked off Spain’s Canary Islands. The death pre-empted another fall, from grace, as the founder of an international communications empire was about to be exposed as a liar and thief, with financial ruin and disgrace waiting just around the corner.
13. April 2021 16:51

Maxwell’s mysterious death shocked Britain, where he was a larger-than-life public figure, one of the most extraordinary in the country’s corporate history. Shock soon became anger when a £460 million hole was discovered in his companies’ pension funds. The shonky businessman had borrowed on an incredible scale from over-willing lenders, then illegally treated the funds as his own private piggy-banks to prop up his collapsing businesses, undone by his own hubris, reckless investments, fraudulent business practices and lavish spending on his personal lifestyle. It had all caught up with him and was spinning out of control.

Two years ago author John Preston gave us “A Very English Scandal”, chronicling the downfall of British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe over his alleged attempt to murder his homosexual former lover, and “Fall” tells an even more bizarre story. It relates Robert Maxwell’s rise from impoverishment as a Czechoslovakian refugee to decorated war hero, businessman, Labour MP and white-collar criminal, amassing a private jet, helicopter and Rolls-Royce en route before the whole façade collapsed.

Preston’s biography isn’t the first about the hugely controversial figure but it is the latest, and he apparently interviewed three of Maxwell’s children and his sister. The book amply illustrates the old saying that truth can be stranger than fiction. Among the few things not in doubt about Maxwell’s early life, Preston recounts, is that he was born on June 10, 1923, in Solotvino, a small town in Ruthenia, eastern Czechoslovakia, to a Jewish couple, Mehel and Chanca Hoch, who named him Jan Ludwig Hoch.

“Just as Maxwell would go on to change his name four times by the age of twenty-three, so Solotvino too seemed unsure of its own identity,” Preston writes. “Originally on the southern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the town became part of Czechoslovakia following the First World War. In the 1930s it was reclaimed by Hungary before being absorbed into the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.” Now it is in Ukraine.

The Hochs were desperately poor, having nine children and living in a two-room wooden shack with earth floors. Maxwell’s father earned a living, of sorts, buying animal skins from local butchers and selling them on to leather merchants, travelling from town to town with a mule.

Maxwell was the Hochs’ third child and first-born son. Two siblings died, a sister in infancy and a brother aged two.

Later Maxwell would say there were three things he recalled about his childhood: how cold and hungry he was and how much he loved his mother. She believed he was blessed with great gifts and would make an impact on the world. He was terrified of his father, who beat him regularly.

Maxwell went to a Jewish Orthodox free school in Bratislava but in 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Hungary annexed Ruthenia. He returned home but then, aged 16, decided to go to Budapest to join the resistance to the Nazis. He says he walked 275 miles to get there but was captured, imprisoned as a spy, faced a possible death penalty and escaped after attacking his guard. But how much of that was true, Preston asks?

A cousin remembered travelling with him to Budapest by train, and Maxwell told various versions of his escape, including having his handcuffs removed by a “Gypsy lady” while he hid under a bridge. Had she, wonders Preston, “crept onstage… from some colourful corner of his imagination?”

Maxwell was barely out of his teens when he was forced to endure the deaths of his parents, grandfather and three of his siblings, gassed or shot in Auschwitz. His son Ian once found him crouched up close to a television showing a grainy newsreel about the concentration camp, saying “I’m looking to see if I can spot my parents”.

He joined the Czechoslovak army in exile, was evacuated to Britain and enlisted in the British Army under the name Ivan du Maurier, apparently after a cigarette brand. He won the Military Cross for heroism, and the decoration was pinned on by Field Marshal Montgomery. In the last weeks of the war he executed a mayor in the square of a German town (not named) by shooting him in the head, and later allegedly killed a group of young German troops who had already surrendered.

He met Betty – a student at the Sorbonne and a French Protestant – and they married in Paris in 1945. The bridegroom was quick to write down for her his six rules for a happy marriage, beginning: “1, Don’t nag, 2, Don’t criticise unduly …”

After the war, having changed his name once more, Maxwell set about recreating the family he had lost, and he and Betty had nine children, as his parents had. Their first-born, Michael, died aged 23, after several years in a coma following a car crash, and a daughter, Karine, died of leukaemia aged three.

Growing up, their home was the mansion Headington Hill Hall, leased from Oxford city council, which Maxwell called “the best council house in the country”. But Sunday family lunches were rarely happy affairs. He was said to ritually humiliate his children by turn, week in, week out.

As he constructed his business empire, he gained influence and power, and became a Member of Parliament for Buckingham in 1964. Newspapers fascinated Maxwell, and Preston devotes substantial attention to his competition with his rival Rupert Murdoch.

Somehow Murdoch managed to outwit him whenever he tried to get his hands on a newspaper business. It happened with the News of the World, The Sun, Today, The Times and The Sunday Times. Often it was Maxwell’s fault: he had an incontinent tendency to brag about a deal before the contract was signed.

Preston contends that Maxwell’s obsessive interest in Murdoch – his need both to emulate and beat him – set in train a course of events “that would lead to his physical and mental disintegration, his downfall and, ultimately, his death”. As Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who knew both men, observed: “Maxwell thought he’d entered the ring with another boxer … In fact, he’d entered the ring with a ju-jitsu artist who also happened to be carrying a stiletto.”

But he continued the hopeless struggle and in 1984 he finally triumphed and acquired Mirror Group Newspapers, publisher of the mass-market Daily Mirror, where he rigged the Spot the Ball contest. When the sale went through he called an instant board meeting at 1am. He also bought the worthless The New York Daily News and wasted money on other calamitous US takeovers.

Maxwell certainly survived many scrapes. In 1971, a Department of Trade and Industry inquiry concluded that he was not “a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”. It would have been a damaging setback for many, but not for the man that satirical Private Eye magazine nicknamed “the bouncing Czech”. He managed to accumulate an astonishing array of businesses, from printing works to a football club.

Apart from abusing his children, Maxwell took pleasure in humiliating his employees, once waking his chief of staff in the middle of the night to ask the time. His considerable paranoia led him to bug his office and those of his employees at company headquarters.

Fantastically greedy (he weighed 22 stone/140 kilograms at his death), he “shovelled food into his mouth by the handful”. Once, dining with one other person, he ordered a Chinese takeaway for 14 people. He would break the padlock that his wife had attached to the pantry to raid it, one night eating, she recalled, “a pound of cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two jars of caviar, a loaf of bread and a whole chicken in one go”.

He had spending sprees on tottering companies. Profits fell, interest rates soared. The banks wanted repaying and Maxwell’s share price needed support. Assets were sold – even Pergamon Press, which had been the core of the business from the beginning. Eventually, his only solution was to rob the Mirror pension funds.

Preston investigates this enigmatic life. Was Maxwell a spy for Israel? He denied – or at least never willingly admitted – his Jewishness for 40 years, then was buried in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. Was Mossad involved in his death? The crew of the yacht?

This compelling book is a jaw-dropper, page by page.

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