Nathan Abrams reviews a new biography of media mogul Robert Maxwell.
Press baron Robert Maxwell was larger than life. It might be a cliché but never was the expression more fitting. Born into nothing, he became a billionaire newspaper magnate, bestriding the world like a giant, gaining the ear of world leaders. He weighed some 300lbs when he died, in 1991, in mysterious circumstances. This is the subject of John Preston’s The Fall (an apt title in more ways than one), a new biography of Maxwell.
Maxwell was born Jan Hoch on 10th June 1923, in Solotvino, then Czechoslovakia, into a desperately poor, peasant family. His father sold animal skins from local butchers and sold them onto leather merchants, traveling from town to town with a mule laden with pelts. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, in June 1939, Jan announced he was leaving for Budapest to go and fight. He would never see his family again. He joined the Hungarian underground but was caught and tortured before he escaped. He then enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and the British Army, being awarded the Military Cross, one of its highest medals for bravery.
By the age of 23, Maxwell already showed a genius for bartering, browbeating, and getting what he wanted. He was a real-life Harry Lime, that slippery character from The Third Man. He even managed to convince MI6 to back his book business that began his publishing career.
After the war, Murdoch began in scientific publishing before moving into encyclopaedias. Aptyl, he named his company, Pergamon, after a rich and powerful Greek city. From there he tried to buy the News of the World, The Sun and The Times but was bested by Rupert Murdoch all three times leaving him desperate to catch up. He was hungry in sexual, gastronomic, and business appetites. A colossus of a man, he had a taste for the finer things in life.
He travelled the world, hoovering up businesses. In a trope that owes much to antisemitism, John Preston describes him as Dracula-like, as if he were draining healthy corporations of their blood. As he bore down on the owner of the Daily Mirror, one observer described him as a ‘salivating, handsomely ruffled wolf descending on a perspiring City suited pig.’ Like the fictional count, he generated a ‘brutal astonishing and overwhelming sexuality’. He was also ‘very dark. A bit of a mystery’.
Maxwell’s many failings are detailed by Preston, as they have been by the media and other biographers over the years. His business practices were riddled with corruption as he moved money from one to prop up the other, most notoriously the employees’ pension funds. He is described as ‘flexible, like a grasshopper’, being ‘amoral’ or even ‘pre-moral’.
But there were also many successes. As a Labour MP, he played a key role in piloting through the Clean Air Act of 1968 bringing in tighter controls on pollution and transforming the fortunes of parliament’s catering department. By the age of 61, he owned Oxford United, as well as the largest printing company in Europe. Where Rupert Murdoch got the credit for revolutionising Fleet Street, it was Maxwell who set the process in motion.
A Real-Life Zelig
Maxwell was born into an orthodox Jewish family and had a Jewish education. He studied at a yeshiva in Bratislava but returned home with his payot cut off. He was a self-taught polymath. In addition to Yiddish, he grew up speaking Hungarian, Czech and Romanian. He later taught himself German, English and Russian. If he didn’t know about a topic, he often sounded like he did.
He changed his name four times before the age of 23. Jan Hoch became Captain Stone, Ivan du Maurier, Private Leslie Jones, Lance Corporal Leslie Smith before he settled on Robert Maxwell. On one level, this was a simple evasion technique to escape the Nazis, but Maxwell had a capacity for reinvention. He was a real-life Zelig, Woody Allen’s curious chameleonic figure who could blend into any environment. One business associate described him as an actor: ‘he could be one person one minute, and then another person entirely 15-minutes later.’
Multilingual, mysterious and adept at mimicry, Maxwell certainly had a flair for subterfuge. This fuelled rumours that he spied for the British, the Russians and the Israelis, maybe even all three. Such stories dogged him all his life. As a publisher of scientific journals, he became a very useful contact for British Intelligence for whom he continued working through the 1950s as he was able to collect information from the scientific conferences he went to and then pass on misinformation from MI6 in return. Even when he took over the Mirror Newspaper Group, it was whispered he was working for the KGB even though the Foreign Office had no evidence he was a spy. He did love watching and re-watching James Bond movies. Little did he know that he would become the basis for the villain — megalomaniac media baron Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce — in the eighteenth Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
Among the Jewish refugees in post-war British publishing, Maxwell stood out with his blustery manner, eccentric look, and sledgehammer personality. Described as ‘a jungle man’, Maxwell was never fully civilised, at least not in the British sense. He lacked the proper restraint and decorum. This is illustrated by the following story. He owned a personal helicopter that was allowed to land on the roof of his offices. Before boarding, he’d perform the ritual of urinating over the edge of the building. Although no one was hit, he did little to dispel the rumours that they were.
His vulgar tastes and bombastic personality did not help. He bought a yacht, private jet and helicopter. The yacht was named Lady Ghislaine after his youngest daughter and was kitted out in the latest 1970s Playboy baroque décor. Even Donald Trump was in awe. (Maybe Trump also learned from him about applying hair dye.)
Maxwell was a master of inflation. He was also charismatic, combining British pomp with Hollywood showmanship, styling himself as ‘Bob the Max’. He rechristened the Mirror Newspaper Group as ‘MGN’ and helped himself to MGM’s logo, the roaring lion. Earlier he had dubbed his offices ‘Maxwell House’ much to the annoyance of the American coffee brand.
Desperate to fit in, no matter how hard he tried, he always remained an outsider, never be allowed to join the club, certainly not ‘one of the boys’. Preston doesn’t mention it but there was surely a whiff of antisemitism about this rejection. Indeed, very few saw him as a victim. Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, famously chortled when Maxwell cried in court over how the Nazis had murdered his family.
For his part, an early business failure left him with a deep-seated loathing of the British Establishment, its snobbery and petty mindedness. If a gentleman of the Establishment offers you his word or his bond, he was fond of saying, always go for his bond. He took pleasure in ridiculing and humiliating members of the establishment, especially if they were his employees.
He became convinced that the Establishment was out to get him and in one sense he was right. However much he longed to be an English gentleman, changing his name and accent and denying his religion, it made no difference, as he would always be on the outside hammering on the glass trying to get in. To the British Establishment, even the Australian Rupert Murdoch was preferable to Maxwell.
‘I’m not Jewish’
Maxwell had a complicated relationship with religion. From 1944, for the next forty years, he never willingly admitted to being Jewish. He married Elisabeth (Betty) Maynard who hailed from a sophisticated and rich Protestant family in 1945. Her family didn’t approve but they grudgingly accepted him. He went on to have nine children with her to replace the family he had lost in the Holocaust.
When the Jewish Chronicle rang to congratulate him on becoming an MP, he slammed the phone down on them saying ‘I’m not Jewish.’
Gerald Ronson, CEO of the property developers, Heron International knew that Maxwell like him was a Jew, but he also knew that Maxwell had denied it in the past or else claimed to have abandoned Judaism long ago. ‘He usually told people he wasn’t Jewish’.
Christmas at the Maxwell house was a lavish affair. He had a 40-ft high tree erected in his home at Headington Hill Hall. It was so tall that it took eight men all day to erect. On Christmas morning the whole family gathered at the foot of the tree where, with great ceremony, he would read out a passage from the Bible in his dark booming voice and then they would sing carols. To compensate for the fact that he never had been given any presents as a child, Betty made sure he had more than anyone else. He loved getting presents, absolutely loved it. They ordered a 40lb Christmas turkey of which Maxwell ate half and everyone else had to share the rest.
As this story shows, Maxwell’s appetite was notoriously large. He had no self-control as if he was permanently hungry. As he got older his gluttony expanded along with his waistline. His manners, always erratic went haywire, becoming even less and less civilized as the war against restraint was lost.
Betty attributed this to his childhood when there was never enough to eat, and he was always hungry. He had once been reduced to eating a dog. ‘Ever since food had always represented security, a clear dividing line between his past life and his present’, writes John Preston.
Maxwell was particularly protective of his passport. As an immigrant, somewhere inside him, he feared it could be taken away from him at any moment.
Where Maxwell did identify with Judaism was in the character of Samson. In his home in Headington Hill Hall, he commissioned a stained-glass window to replace one that had been damaged in the war. It depicted Samson at the gates of Gaza. Rather than wait for the gatekeeper, Samson tore the enormous wooden gates off and carried them to Hebron 40 miles away. Perhaps the biblical Goliath or behemoth would have been more apt.
He was haunted by guilt over what happened to his family Preston writes. When talking about the murder of his family he said, ‘the sorrow of those losses is ever before me’ and ‘I don’t hate as I did during the war, but I cannot forgive or forget.’ On a visit to Poland insisted on going to Auschwitz and when in Jerusalem visited Yad Vashem.
One night, his son, Ian, walked in on his father watching a documentary showing newsreel footage of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. He had his nose almost touching the glass of his enormous television. When asked what he was doing, he explained that he was looking to see if he could spot his parents.
He was never reconciled to his grief and had to overcome his guilt complex at having married a Christian when confronted by Israeli Jews, the majority of whom were survivors.
Betty felt that he was full of guilt for having married a Christian woman and therefore had not created a Jewish family such as the one he had grown up in and which had been so cruelly decimated during the war. She felt he had never become reconciled to grief about his family and she was always an outsider.
It was a visit to his hometown but reignited his Judaism. It reveals just how great a burden of guilt Maxwell carried within him. He was convinced that if he had stayed at home, he could have saved the lives of his parents and younger siblings. Nothing he achieved in his life would ever compensate for his failure to rescue his family. He may have tried to keep his ghosts in a tightly sealed chamber, but it was not as firmly closed as he liked to imagine. The older he grew, the more haunted he became.
When he visited Israel in 1984, the trip changed his life. Ronson remembers him crying as the plane neared Tel Aviv and Maxwell kept saying ‘I should have come here years ago’. On meeting Yitzhak Shamir, he declared that he wanted to invest at least a quarter of a billion dollars in Israel. Over the next four years, he became the largest single investor in the Israeli economy so much so that people began driving around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with bumper stickers saying, ‘please Mr. Maxwell, Buy me!’
He bought several newspapers and made substantial investments in Israeli high-tech and pharmaceutical companies and even tried to buy a football team. He passed on any useful information that came his way to Mossad. Seymour Hersh alleged that Maxwell betrayed the whereabouts of the nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu.
For her part, Betty immersed herself in studying the Holocaust starting a journal called Holocaust and Genocide Studies published by her husband’s Pergamon Press and in 1988 organised a conference in Oxford called ‘Remembering for the Future’ with the largest collection of Holocaust scholars ever assembled.
He brokered a deal between Shamir and Gorbachev so that diplomatic relations between the two countries could be restored enabling flights from Russia to Israel to start up again with no restrictions on Jewish immigrants flying on them. Eight months later, the first Jewish emigrants left Moscow bound for Tel Aviv.
Maxwell was given a state funeral with his body wrapped in an Israeli flag and was buried on the Mount of Olives. Holy ground, it was typically reserved for political leaders and rabbis. Prominent members of the Israeli parliament, the president and many other dignitaries were present.
In delivering his eulogy Ehud Olmert described how he once said, ‘After all, I have not done so badly for a young Jewish boy from the Shtetl’.
There are many theories about Maxwell’s death. One of them was that he was murdered by Mossad because he attempted to blackmail the Israeli government over top-secret computer software he had been marketing on their behalf. Former Mossad member Juval Aviv precisely made this claim in his 2006 novel Max. When pointed out how it is odd that the Israelis would bump Maxwell off and then give him a state funeral within the space of five days, critics responded how it was exactly the sort of thing they would do.
The Bouncing Czech
Maxell may have been described as ‘the bouncing Czech’ in reference to his business affairs but the moniker worked in many ways. Nearly his entire family was murdered in the Holocaust but he went on to have a glittering career during which he lost his eldest son, his company, his parliamentary seat and then his reputation but always he bounced back. Maxwell was a victim of the Nazis and subsequently the snobby, elitist British Establishment but because he was a survivor, a sadistic bully with the hide of a rhino who seemingly lacked morality and conscience few saw him that way. There was another side to this complex man, as this biography reveals, he was also a sensitive, lonely and guilt-ridden soul, fuelled by massive insecurities, whose entire career may just have been one big cry for help.