Newspaper history is littered with examples of politically extreme, power-crazed, egotistic, crooked and straightforwardly insane proprietors. Lord Northcliffe (the Times and Daily Mail) raved on a station platform while waiting for a train to Paris about how God was a homosexual and someone was trying to murder him with a Perrier bottle. The first Lord Rothermere (also Daily Mail) supported fascism and praised the Nazis. Tiny Rowland (the Observer) used the paper to pursue a demented campaign against his business rival Mohamed al-Fayed. Lord (Conrad) Black (Daily and Sunday Telegraph) ended up in a US prison for fraud. Lord Beaverbrook (Daily and Sunday Express) ordered his editors to pursue a vendetta against Lord Mountbatten because he was convinced Mountbatten seduced his mistress.
But there was never anyone like Robert Maxwell, born Jan Hoch in 1923 to a desperately poor Jewish family in Ruthenia, then a Czechoslovak province. His ego was monstrous. After he took over Mirror Group Newspapers, his picture appeared in the group’s flagship Daily Mirror, frequently on its front page, 100 times in six months.
Maxwell did not only give his editors instructions; he would write the editorials, rewrite copy, commission articles and choose photographs. When an appeal to relieve an Ethiopian famine raised £2m from readers, he personally led the mercy mission, with hordes of photographers and TV cameras trailing behind. Stories of his gluttony abounded. Wherever he was at night, he raided the fridge, stuffing himself until, towards the end of his life, he weighed an estimated 22 stone and could scarcely manoeuvre into a normal sized lavatory. Dining with just one other person, he once ordered a Chinese takeaway for 14 people. He installed a helicopter pad on the roof of a London building he owned and, before boarding, would urinate over the edge.
There is no end to the bad things you can say about Maxwell. He started a “spot the ball” competition in the Mirror with a first prize of £1m but ensured no reader could win it. He was a bully who beat his children; he cheated on his adoring wife; and though awarded the Military Cross for what his commanding officer called “great dash and determination”, he was probably a war criminal who, in 1945, shot unarmed German civilians.
Maxwell’s most remarkable achievement was to make Rupert Murdoch seem benign. For two decades from 1968, the two men made rival bids whenever a British newspaper was for sale. Murdoch always won, gobbling the News of the World, then the Sun, then the Times and Sunday Times and finally even Today, a pallid middle-market tabloid that never found an audience. Journalists would breathe a sigh of relief because, though they disliked Murdoch’s downmarket instincts, at least he wasn’t Maxwell.
Although Maxwell bought papers in countries such as Bulgaria, Kenya, Argentina and Mongolia, he had to wait until 1984 to get the Mirror papers. Since Murdoch owned four high-circulation titles by then, even the flexible British monopoly laws prohibited a rival bid. When, in March 1991, Maxwell added the New York Daily News, Murdoch just roared with laughter. Almost broken by a printers’ strike, the paper was in such straits that the previous owner, the Chicago Tribune, paid Maxwell $60m to take it off its hands. The only other person who showed any interest was a New York businessman called Donald Trump.
“The quiet Australian”, the Times called Murdoch when he first emerged as a potential owner of the News of the World, and that was preferable to the “bouncing Czech”, as Private Eye called Maxwell. In the late 1960s, Maxwell was best known as a Labour MP described by one political commentator as “the biggest gasbag in the Commons”. He already had a reputation as a dodgy operator. Much to his disappointment, he was not offered ministerial office on being elected in 1964 but the more mundane position of running House of Commons catering. Chronically loss-making, it made a profit under Maxwell’s supervision. Or so it seemed. After getting the accounts audited, the Sunday Times discovered a £3,400 loss.
More serious examples of Maxwell’s dubious business methods emerged later. His first significant enterprise, through what became Pergamon Press, was to corner the market in scientific books and journals. That was the basis of his wealth. But the Sunday Times found he had been inflating Pergamon’s profits. This was achieved by, for example, claiming huge sales of encyclopedias of which the purchasers were other Maxwell companies. He lost control of Pergamon in 1969 and, in 1971, a Department of Trade inquiry concluded that he was “not. . . a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”. By then, he had also lost his Commons seat. Yet, in 1974, he was able to reacquire Pergamon because, it turned out, Maxwell still controlled its American subsidiary and the new owners found that, without American sales, the company was unprofitable. A bouncing Czech, indeed.
But he couldn’t bounce for ever. The “Fall” of John Preston’s title has a double meaning. From a position of great power and wealth, Maxwell fell, albeit posthumously, into ignominy and ruin. Less than a month after his death in November 1991, his entire business empire collapsed with £763m missing, including £350m stolen from Mirror pension funds. To global fascination, Maxwell also fell literally: from his yacht into the sea where his dead body was eventually found floating face up, because his weight gave him natural buoyancy.
As for “the mystery” of the subtitle, it has multiple meanings. The greatest mystery is his death. Nobody saw him fall or even discovered he was missing for several hours. Did he jump or was he pushed? Was it suicide – as most people assumed when they heard the news – accident or murder? Or was he already dead from natural causes, perhaps related to his angina, before his body fell in the water? Or was his death, as some speculated, faked so that he could escape impending disgrace in some distant corner of South America?
There are many other mysteries. How did he, despite no acquaintance with English until his late teens, acquire his reliably plummy upper-class accent, with only occasional lapses into mangled proverbs such as “you can’t change toads in midstream”? He almost certainly spied for the British during and immediately after the Second World War. He even seems to have persuaded MI6 to help finance his first business venture. But did he subsequently spy again for Britain? Or Israel or Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union or all four? If so, was he a double, triple or even quadruple agent? Why did Israel give him what was close to a state funeral and allow his burial on the Mount of Olives? And what made Maxwell, a man of “great energy, drive and imagination”, as the 1971 report into Pergamon put it, behave in such a self-destructive fashion? Was it greed? Or an insatiable appetite for risk-taking? Or was he, as Betty Maxwell, his wife of 46 years, suggested, driven mad by guilt?
After Maxwell left home as a teenager, initially for Budapest, his mother, father, grandfather and three of his siblings were murdered in Auschwitz. As the eldest son, could he have saved their lives if he had stayed behind? “Nothing he achieved in life,” wrote Betty in her memoirs, published in 1994, “would ever compensate for what he had not been able to accomplish – the rescue of his family.”
Preston has written a wonderfully entertaining book and interviewed almost everyone who crossed Maxwell’s path in his heyday. He has an eye for comedy and drama and, where he explains his subject’s shady and dauntingly complex business dealings, he does so clearly and succinctly. But he doesn’t solve the mysteries and adds little of substance to several biographies – by, for example, Tom Bower and Roy Greenslade – that were published in the 1990s. Nor does he do much to put Maxwell into historical perspective.
The truth, perhaps, is there is no perspective to be had. Unlike his rival Murdoch, Maxwell was not a historical figure of lasting importance. He was the first to try a 24-hour newspaper, the London Daily News, but it lasted only five months. Unless you count the legislation passed after his death to prevent more employers stealing employees’ pensions, he had only one enduring achievement, with which Preston rightly credits him. Through his postwar development of scientific publishing, he gave scientists “a far bigger platform to disseminate their research. . . [and] completely changed the way in which science was conducted, both in Britain and around the world”.
Otherwise, nothing survived him, not even a solvent company, still less a philanthropic foundation of the sort created by the early 20th-century American “robber barons” such as Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller. Maxwell’s life, in Shakespeare’s words, was just an “insubstantial pageant” and it left “not a rack behind”.
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell
Viking, 353pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy