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4 April 2022

House of Maxwell: a strange and revealing portrait of the media mogul

Colin Barr’s new series unearths a number of fascinating, monstrous details about Robert Maxwell's life.

By Rachel Cooke

One day some time in the late 1980s, the media mogul Robert Maxwell took a call from his daughter Ghislaine. “Miaow!” said Ghislaine, to which her father unhesitatingly replied: “Miaow! Miaow!” According to Maxwell’s then-secretary, Carol Bragoli, who could hear them via a speakerphone, this familial cat-play went on for some time: ten increasingly elaborate “miaows” were exchanged before daddy cut to the chase. “What are you doing?” he finally asked his darling youngest. Her response struck Bragoli as uncannily accurate: an existential summation of what it meant to be Ghislaine Maxwell. “Nothing,” the boss’s daughter told her father, in her crisp, Princess Diana-like voice.

In Colin Barr’s House of Maxwell, there are many moments like this: not only powerfully strange, but so perfectly revealing as to seem as if they’ve been lifted from the kind of sprawling novels Tom Wolfe used to write. In his films, Barr has deployed some hot new material: a series of secret recordings of Maxwell’s panicked senior executives, made when it was clear his business was on the brink of collapse (after his death at sea in 1991, it was, of course, revealed that he had stolen £460m from the pension assets of the Mirror Group). But these conversations are, in truth, not half so fascinating nor so monstrous as some of the other stuff Barr has unearthed. Here is Maxwell on TV with the magician Paul Daniels, who performs a trick in which £1m is spirited from one spot to another. And here he is at the Holocaust remembrance centre, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, weeping at the stone marking the shtetl in Carpathian Ruthenia where he was born (most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz). We even catch – how? – a glimpse of him on the deck of his yacht hours before he went overboard.

He looks preposterously solid and fleshy; a human cliff of a man with outlandish eyebrows and a temper that ticks like an alarm clock. But he’s ghostly, too: a friendless spectre who inhabits the stage set of his life without any real conviction. His grand home in Oxford was leased from the council; his tie, towards the end, was spattered with stains. Fear and paranoia are all around. The widow of one executive describes how her husband was told, following his discovery that funds were missing, to vary his route home from work; it was him or Maxwell, she felt, and on hearing that the monster had drowned, she experienced a relief that even now brings her to tears. An antique dealer cheerily lifts the shade from a lamp bought at a sale of Maxwell’s things, to reveal – ta-dah! – two listening devices. The man didn’t only spy on his employees and biographers, but his wife and children, too.

It’s on his children and their grim legacy (not that I’m making any excuses for anyone) that Barr’s eye ultimately falls: on white-faced Kevin and Ian, charged with fraud – and later acquitted – after his death; on Ghislaine, then constructed almost entirely of Trifari earrings and shoulder pads, who departs for New York hoping to “start again”. Three weeks after Maxwell’s funeral, she was photographed with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, her eyes fixed on his face as those of the driver of a fast car might be fixed on the horizon.

A friend of hers appears: Christopher Mason, an Englishman then in Manhattan. When Epstein was 40, Ghislaine asked Mason to write a song for his birthday; performed before six men in black tie, it contained a line about his 24-hour erections. And so we return to the series’s horrible beginning, when an excitable true-crime podcaster, Scott Sharp, is seen filming himself outside the prison where Ghislaine Maxwell is held (she was convicted of child sex trafficking and other offences in 2021, crimes that connect directly to her relationship with the late Epstein). “Listen to it,” says Sharp, gleefully. “You can hear people screaming.” I strained my ears, but I could only pick up the rumble of traffic, the mournful sound of litter blowing across a car park. A key turns in a door, and the world with it. The really big questions always go unanswered.

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special