FALL – THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL
By John Preston
ISBN: 978 0 241 38867 9
RRP: $45 (HB)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
The story line is not all that new – a rags to riches climb with a tragic end. A child born in poverty and deprivation goes on to become one of the world’s most recognised celebrities before his duplicity catches him and he comes to a bad end stripped of everything – literally in fact. What makes this one different is the personality of the man himself – Robert Maxwell – and the mystery that surrounded him throughout his life. The title “FALL” blasts across the red, black and white cover conjuring up the crash of a towering office block or the downfall of yet another colonial statue splashed with red paint in a city park.
John Preston gets Maxwell. He is, in many ways, as much a conundrum at the end as at the beginning – all part of the allure of the man. And what Preston discovers is quite a ride, a page turning biography beginning with a cut to the knuckles “Preface”, describing Maxwell’s entry into New York in March 1991 to purchase of the fast failing New York Daily News, which the New York Times described as bringing a “touch of Broadway showmanship” to negotiations. Like an overture to an operatic drama, Preston succinctly draws his hero as the magnetising and repulsive figure he will be for the many pages to come.
Crude, large physically and loud in his approach, uncivilised in many ways, “pre moral” as one of his contemporaries described him, Maxwell attracts around him the media and paparazzi, the hangers-on, a host of serf-like employees, rivals, erstwhile leaders like Mikhail Gobachev and Margaret Thatcher and even occasional members of the UK royal family. “No, no,” Princess Margaret’s husband Lord Snowden is reputed to have said, “I don’t want to meet him. I just want to look at him.” All seem mesmerised in his wake. In time, Maxwell’s media baron opponents, Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, are left vying for the credit for being the one who first described Maxwell as “a crook, a thief, a buffoon and probably a KGB man”.
Preston’s opening sets the scene. Maxwell is a phenomenon of a person, indifferent to risk even as his empire approaches insolvency and his chutzpah is his last roll of the dice. The chapters begin and Maxwell’s origins are revealed – born Jan Hoch in June 1923, the first son and third born child of a Jewish family, in the salt mine town of Solotvino in eastern Czechoslovakia. The couple would go on to have nine children, living in a two-room house where the tiny cots the children slept in hung suspended on ropes from the ceiling: a “flotilla of little boats sailing through the darkness”. Apart from memories of a mother who spoiled him and believed he could do anything he dreamed, Jan Hoch’s place and date of birth, Preston writes, are “among the few things not in doubt” about Maxwell – the young man who would “change his name four times by the age of twenty-three”.
Maxwell’s escape from the near-death experience that was life in Solotvino came as the German takeover of Czechoslovakia pressed in and he shed his Jewish sidelocks, gave up his rabbinical studies and headed for Budapest just after his sixteenth birthday. He would be on the run, so to speak, as the war opened and, if any of his stories about his fate over the next few years are to be believed, he was arrested as a spy in Hungary, escaped from a moving van in custody, ended up in a Foreign Legion camp in Beirut and was sent from there to Marseilles, from where he and other Czech emigres found their way to Liverpool where Jan Hoch taught himself English in six weeks. He would go on to join the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, break rocks in south Wales and spend time in a sanitarian where a woman friend introduced him to a brigadier who saw him transferred to the 6th North Staffs. As Preston astutely figures, the saga, as related later by Maxwell, says more about Maxwell’s abilities to reinvent himself in the fog of war than what may have in fact happened.
In his wartime service, Maxwell showed “a natural flair for subterfuge”. In early 1945, as part of the Battalion of the Queen’s Royal Regiment in Holland, he led attacks on German occupied houses displaying a recklessness and disregard for standard orders such that, in March 1945, Maxwell was awarded a Military Cross by Field-Marshall Montgomery. There is a photo to prove it. Meanwhile, almost all his family, rounded up in Solotvino, had perished in the German death camps at Auschwitz. Just two sisters survived.
Shortly after, in Paris, Maxwell married a besotted Betty Meynard. They had met at a servicemen’s club. She was the daughter of a mill owner and his wife and had been sent to school in England. After four happy days of marriage, Maxwell handed Betty a set of “six rules for a perfect partnership”. He then rejoined his regiment, tales from which later ensued of his having shot Germans after they had surrendered. Chapter three has yet to open and already Preston has created a presence to be reckoned with, a shadowy figure of ambition and confidence, one who can put on a show and is prepared to come out on top whatever the odds. Maxwell has had a good war – but his family and its ghosts will haunt him for all that.
Whether it was Maxwell the gambler, Maxwell the crook or Maxwell the genius for spotting a commodity to set him on the road to a fortune, Preston does not conclude. Like much of this tale, it is Preston’s tactic, using extensive research, to tell the stories, the myths, the facts that can be known and leave the reader to think it over. Working undercover for the British (and possibly others) in some capacity in Berlin after the war, Maxwell was put in charge of the Public Relations and Information Services Control’s press section. From there, he became acquainted with Ferdinand Springer of the Springer publishing group who needed to shift a huge backlog of books and journals out of Germany at a time when German nationals were forbidden to control large shipments to other countries.
The golden goose had fallen in Maxwell’s lap – he could foresee (long before the invention of the computer and digital communication) that knowledge and communication of scientific information was the commodity to make him wealthy. In a deal managed with, seemingly, the financial help of MI6 (read the book for the full details), he took possession of the Springer Verlag stockpile, with full publishing rights, and shipped them to London in seven railway carriages. He had told those who cared to know that he was going to England to “become a gentleman and a squire”.
In time, the publishing venture seeded by the Springer collection would become Maxwell’s Pergamon Press. His business interests, however, would keep expanding, helped not a little by Maxwell’s ability to con investors, asset strip and leverage – all techniques in the money game familiar to those watching financial empires come and go over the past half century.
In time, Maxwell’s nickname in the finance world was “the bouncing Czech”. He believed accountancy was not a science but an art. As a Labour MP for a spell at Westminster, his time as chairman of the House of Commons Catering Committee was fraught with theft (told at times in hilarious detail) until the judgement was that not just “food had been cooked in the Palace of Westminster kitchens – so had the books”. It was decided that Maxwell “had used an unusual and possibly unique form of bookkeeping”. Stealing cash whether from German prisoners or financial giants came easy to Maxwell. He would never really be accepted as part of Britain’s “gentleman” class even if he did manage to become a squire.
Maxwell was wont to say, “If a gentleman of the Establishment offers you his word or his bond, always go for his bond.” Preston captures acutely Maxwell’s lifelong insecurity, alongside all his bluster and phoniness, as well as his underlying feelings of being the outsider. At the height of his power at Mirror Group, he bugged the offices of those closest to him. Even that of his personal assistant Andrea Martin, whom he lusted after. There are a number of scenes at the peak of Maxwell’s fame and notoriety where he comes to resemble writer Scott Fitzgerald’s figure of Jay Gatsby on Long Island, although there is no Daisy in the quest and the parties Maxwell gives, at which guests do not see their host nor even know him, seem tawdry by comparison with Gatsby’s in their lack of purpose.
Maxwell’s insecurity could be said to both make him and destroy him. He is driven but also haunted. Setting out to make it as a press baron at the centre of the press world, London, Maxwell finds another outsider, Rupert Murdoch, is hard to beat. The figure of Murdoch, a risk taker going far in the corporate world but also one with a sharper antenna, dogs Maxwell throughout the book. Murdoch beat him at the game of take over with News of The World, The Sun and The Times. When Maxwell finally took over the Mirror Group, in July 1984, his dream had arrived – he was now in direct competition with Rupert Murdoch. As Rupert Murdoch once put it, “I never spoke about him, but he couldn’t stop talking about me.”
For much of his life, Maxwell denied being Jewish and then went overboard to claim it as his identity. He formed strong links with Israel and is buried there. How much the memories of his lost family featured in this is not clear. As he recognised his empire was struggling to survive his debts and duplicities, Maxwell made a visit to the Vad Holocaust memorial where he was filmed. He was deeply emotional at the visit – trying perhaps to take back a past he could not control. Around this time, he visited members of his family, even his estranged wife Betty whom he had used so cruelly over decades. His seven children who would live to adulthood had known him as a contradiction – his sons treated to military style disciplines even at Christmas gatherings, his daughters left to their mother and only the youngest Ghislaine entirely doted on.
For all his indulgence as the man about town, his affairs, the saviour of the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games or various failed states, and his narcissistic behaviour, Maxwell was a family presence, gathering them together for family days and photographs. He refused to divorce his wife even as she asked him to. For all that, it was again so much about him – his family, his children, his achievements. As his eldest son Michael lay in hospital in a seven-year coma after a car accident, Maxwell left the bedside vigil to his wife but secretly would have his driver take him to the hospital late at night to see Michael. Was he ashamed to be seen with a lifeless son? Or was he just too emotional to visit and be seen to emote? All part of the Maxwell mystery.
Much is now known about Robert Maxwell, and his notoriety sadly lives on with his daughter Ghislaine and her charges over sex trafficking of minors. But, there is still a lot about Robert Maxwell that will never be known. Even in death, mystery surrounds why the big man was found floating naked in the sea 15 miles from his yacht in the cold of December, off Tenerife. Autopsy results concluded he had floated alive for six hours. Was it an accident? Was it suicide? It is as mysterious as his life. He had reason to die – he was about to be ruined by his financial chaos. Yet, there would have been simpler ways of taking his life that did not require six hours floating in a cold sea.
To the end, Preston grabs our attention. As Maxwell did, in life and death.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.