The subtitle of John Preston’s new biography, Fall, is "The Mystery of Robert Maxwell". Mysteries certainly abound in this story — and not just about the fraudster’s death.
The biggest mystery of all is how it was that this extraordinary charlatan was allowed to continue with his business activity right up to the time of his death in November 1991, despite having been declared by a Department of Trade and Industry investigation in 1971 to be “not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”.
This gripping book is so entertaining that it’s easy to overlook one central fact: this man’s business dealings left more than 30,000 former employees desperately wondering what had happened to their pensions.
Maxwell had looted about £450m from their fund. After a three year campaign by the pensioners, a partial government bailout, as well as money from the investment bankers who advised Maxwell, resulted in most former employees having to accept a 50% cut in the value of their pensions.
John Preston (who previously authored A Very British Scandal) certainly knows how to tell a racy story and has an eye for detail, right down to (literally) what people had for breakfast, the makes of the cars they drove, the brand of Maxwell’s favoured hair and (eyebrow) dye and the details of the latrine at the back of the shack in Solotvino, the Czechoslovakian village where Maxwell (then probably called Jan Hoch) was born in 1923 and spent most of the first sixteen years of his life.
Maxwell claimed to have left home at 16 to join the resistance to the Nazis, travelled (he said walked, a cousin said they went by train) 270 miles to Budapest, was captured, imprisoned as a spy, faced a possible death penalty but escaped after overpowering his guard.
There is little doubt that much of this account is true, although Maxwell (typically) seems to have embellished it over the years, adding a fanciful story about a “gypsy woman” removing his handcuffs—an early manifestation of his lifelong conviction that he was irresistible to women.
Maxwell’s war service was genuinely distinguished and he certainly demonstrated real personal courage on more than one occasion. He also shot unarmed German civilians in cold blood.
One of the photos in the book shows a dashing, handsome young Maxwell receiving his Military Cross from Field-Marshall Montgomery: the day before he had learned that his mother and one of his sisters had been murdered by the Nazis (he later discovered that his father, grandfather and two other of his siblings died in Auschwitz).
Preston’s account of Maxwell’s early business wheeler-dealering in England is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but also introduces another crucial (perhaps, central) element of the Maxwell story: “It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that Maxwell had on the tweedy, genteel, hopelessly antiquated world of British publishers… With his blustery manner, his electric ties, his newly-grown pencil moustache and what one employee called his ‘sledgehammer personality’, he made an unforgettable impression.”
The impression, that is, of a pushy, foreign outsider. And even though Maxwell spent the rest of his life trying to shake off that image with his mighty publishing empire, his upper class wife (for whom the expression “long suffering” could have been specially devised), the trappings of a country squire, and — for many years — adherence to the Church of England, it was something he was never able to escape. His nickname in establishment circles was “the Bouncing Czech.”
At one point in the early 1960’s Maxwell solemnly announced to his neighbours that he intended to become Prime Minister. He became a Labour MP in 1964, but never achieved any office higher than chairman of the House of Commons Catering Committee. His parliamentary career ended ingloriously at the 1970 general election.
Maxwell became increasingly infuriated by Rupert Murdoch (also an outsider, but as an Australian, a “colonial boy”, more congenial to the British ruling class than a Jew), who repeatedly outmanoeuvred him, capturing national newspapers that Maxwell desperately wanted for reasons that went far beyond the merely commercial: “Maxwell thought he’d entered the ring with another boxer,” was how Harold Evans described it. “In fact, he’d entered the ring with a ju-jitsu artist who also happened to be carrying a stiletto.”
In 1984 Maxwell finally obtained a British national newspaper, the Daily Mirror, and proceeded to turn it into a personal vanity project, carrying fawning accounts of his various international “peace” initiatives, meetings with foreign dignitaries and vainglorious pronouncements on matters great and small — all accompanied by photographs of the familiar, and by now somewhat bloated, Maxwell visage. He bugged the offices of Mirror staff in order to spy on them, and, hilariously, rigged the paper’s spot the ball competition.
When Maxwell’s byzantine business arrangements began to unravel and his massive fraud was about to be uncovered, he took to his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, and ordered the crew to set sail for New York, via Madeira. He knew he faced exposure, public disgrace and almost certainly prison. In the early hours of 5 November 1991 Maxwell disappeared. His body was found naked, floating face-up in the sea, the next day.
Margaret Thatcher and George Bush sent condolences. President Gorbachev announced that was “deeply grieved”. Shimon Peres declared Maxwell “not a man but an empire in his power, thought and deeds”. But within a month, Newsweek magazine described him on its cover as “the crook of the century”.
The “mystery” of this book’s subtitle is clearly meant to be that of Maxwell’s death: accident, suicide or murder? The speculation and conspiracy theories persist to this day, fuelled by Maxwell’s known links with MI6 and alleged links with Russian and Israeli intelligence services. Preston — wisely — does not attempt a definitive answer.
A much bigger mystery is how it was that the British ruling class, for all its sophistication and despite its semi-racist suspicion of this flashy outsider, allowed Maxwell to build his vast empire and then to commit one of the biggest and most audacious acts of commercial fraud of the twentieth century.
Were it not for the plight of the pensioners, and the workers across the years in Maxwell’s enterprises like Pergamon Press, you could almost admire him.