Robert Maxwell: legacy of 'The Bouncing Czech'
Robert Maxwell died 25 years ago next month but the stories and rumours about his extravagant life and mysterious death live on. Our reporter wonders: Just who was 'Cap'n Bob'?
Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30
When Robert Maxwell fell naked into the dark waters off the Canary Islands from his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine, on November 5 1991, he was aged 68, weighed 22 stone, and was in debt so deep that there was no possible solution to his problems. Although the world wouldn't find out until nearly a month later that he had plundered the pension pot of his employees to the tune of hundreds of millions, Maxwell himself knew that his hubris and greed were about to drag him down. Not that he would have seen it in those terms. For Maxwell, it was the pictures that got small.
It wasn't only bankruptcy that faced him. Criminal charges too, along with the kind of disgrace and humiliation that a man like Maxwell - determined, always, to be the best, the richest, the most powerful - would have felt keenly. He was last seen alive at 4.25am on board The Lady Ghislaine, and at 9am the alarm was raised. His waterlogged body was finally pulled from the sea around 20 miles from Gran Canaria, and subjected to two autopsies. The cause was given as death from heart attack followed by accidental drowning, but the rumours - suicide? Murder? - have never stopped.
Among the many fascinating stories in John le Carré's recent autobiography is one about a lunch in 1991 with Rupert Murdoch at the Savoy Grill. The meeting was brief - about 25 minutes. Murdoch didn't even stay for a main course. In fact, after "a couple of banalities," he cut straight to the chase: "Who killed Bob Maxwell?" When le Carré said he didn't know, Murdoch left. At the time of his death, furious speculation revolved around Maxwell's role as an agent with Israeli secret service, Mossad. However, as the full extent of his debts and shocking pension fraud began to emerge in the weeks following his death, suicide began to seem at least as likely a possibility.
With his trademark thick black eyebrows and wide smile, Maxwell was a gift to caricature. 'The Bouncing Czech', as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson dubbed him - Maxwell preferred the more affectionate 'Cap'n Bob' - was a mix of charm and bullying, kindness and violent outbursts, vulnerability and arrogance. He was a kind of cartoon baddie who was initially a hero; the poor Czech boy who escaped the Nazis, fought for his adopted country, England, then made good. His was a very modern morality tale, complete with the necessary details of rags followed by great riches, power, greed, corruption, secret dealings and even a whiff of cordite.
Robert Maxwell was born in 1923, Jan Ludvik Hoch, an Orthodox Jewish boy, in the Carpathian Mountains, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The area was one of extreme poverty - Maxwell once said he didn't own a pair of shoes until he was seven - where back-breaking physical labour, hunger and low life expectancy were all common. Maxwell later said that he learned his first business lessons from the smugglers who traded along the Hungarian border that ran close to his town. His upbringing was a mix of spoiling - he was the only son surrounded by sisters for many years - and hardship. His mother, Hannah, was intelligent and strong-minded, very much the dominant force within the household.
When the Nazis invaded that part of the world, Maxwell was in his early teens. His parents and most of his family were transported to Auschwitz, where they died. His wife, Elisabeth, a Holocaust scholar, later said that over 300 of Maxwell's "immediate and extended family" died as a result of Hitler's Final Solution. But by then, Maxwell had left, for France, apparently at his mother's insistence. First he joined the Czechoslovakian army in exile and later the British Army. Entirely self-taught, he had a quick grasp of languages and was energetic and able. He rose to the rank of captain and was awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Montgomery.
Ever afterwards, one of the most-deployed weapons in his arsenal was the stance of chest-beating patriot. He also affected to despise the establishment. In reality, that was only half the story. Yes, he made up his own rules, and changed them when it suited him - 'I never give in. I never run away. I believe in what I'm doing, and I don't care what you think of me,' he once snapped, describing himself rather self-admiringly as a 'jungle' man, ie, someone too powerful, too macho to be contained - but he was also desperate to be accepted and admired.
Like so many megalomaniacs, publishing attracted Maxwell in a big way. He began his career in Berlin, where he was stationed at the end of the war, and became the distributor for a small German publisher of scientific books. He then bought a minor publishing company, Butterworth-Springer, and renamed it Pergamon Press, based in Oxford, publishing scientific and medical books, along with shameless hagiographies of Eastern European dictators. 'How do you account for your enormous popularity with the Romanian people,' was his opening question to Nicolae Ceausescu. Along the way, Pergamon Press turned into a significant publishing company, and made Maxwell rich. By then he was married, to Elisabeth Meynard, an elegant, highly-educated French scholar who he met while she was acting as interpreter for a committee set up to introduce French people to Allied officers. She later said that he "made all the others seem insipid, all other destinies mediocre".
Together, Maxwell and Elisabeth had nine children, two of whom died young. One, a daughter, Karine, died of leukaemia when she was three. The other, Michael, their eldest son, was badly injured in a car crash when he was 15 - the driver who picked him up from a Christmas party fell asleep at the wheel. Michael was in a coma for seven years, finally dying without ever regaining consciousness. But despite the long marriage and Elisabeth's devotion, Maxwell was rude to her in front of guests, told her to shut up at official dinners, and even 'f*** off' if he grew tired of her fussing over him. He was a tyrant at home as much as in the office, shifting between jealousy, rage and charm in a way that left those around him reeling. When his eldest daughter, Anne, decided on a career on the stage, Maxwell's response was "What have you and Pope John Paul II got in common? You're both ugly and you're both failed actors." He insisted on vetting all his children's partners, particularly the boyfriends of his favourite daughter Ghislaine (of whom one Maxwell employee said, "she'd ask for a cigarette and walk off with the packet"), insisting that loyalty to him take precedence over everything else. Even so, Pandora, who married Maxwell's son Kevin, despite Maxwell's resistance, once said "I didn't dislike him, despite my deep-seated resentment of his demands on Kevin. He was charismatic . . . I've seen him with tears running down his cheeks so he couldn't finish his joke . . . And he could be very kind."
As a Czech-born immigrant, in 1960s and 1970s Britain, Maxwell's desire for acceptance by the establishment was always going to be frustrated, and there was certainly enough jingoistic racism and anti-Semitism around to fuel his sense of grievance, and corresponding determination to be the best. When he tried to buy The News of the World in 1969, the then-editor wrote a leader piece in which he said, "This is a British paper, run by British people. As British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding . . . let us keep it that way." In the end, the paper was sold to the Australian Rupert Murdoch.
In defiance of those who would have liked more humility from an immigrant, Maxwell's London office, the penthouse on the 10th floor of Maxwell House, was decorated in what could be called mogul-chic: thick carpets designed with an interlinking 'M'. Marble floors, chandeliers, Doric columns, high ceilings, mock-Renaissance tapestry-covered furniture. One of his bankers, at a meeting with Maxwell that involved bottles of vintage Champagne, recalled the two of them pissing over the edge of the penthouse terrace, and asking "Don't the people down below notice?" to which Maxwell replied "No. No one notices anything."
He ran his office like a medieval court, with supplicants sitting around sometimes all day, waiting for an audience. Many were told that his diary was full "for two years". As they waited, TV screens showed the stock exchange in seven countries, while the world's press was meticulously monitored for any mention of Maxwell. On his desk were five telephones, three of them unconnected to any network, but used for fake conversations with world leaders. Alistair Campbell recalled flying to Ethiopia with Maxwell when he was political editor of The Mirror, only for Maxwell to disappear after a couple of days, leaving a note: 'My work here is done, I've gone back to London to resolve the miners' strike.'
Maxwell was one of very few successful businessmen who declared as socialist, and in 1964, he ran for parliament, for the Labour Party, and was elected, then re-elected in 1966, before losing his seat in 1970. But politics was window-dressing for Maxwell, his main energies were directed towards the acquisition of wealth and influence.
He gobbled up companies insatiably, including the British Printing Corporation, part of IPC Media, the Berlitz language schools, a half share of MTV Europe, Maxwell Cable TV and The New York Daily News, among many others. He also bought a stable of magazines, including Irish Tatler and Social and Personal, from Irish publisher Noelle Campbell-Sharpe, but died before the full payment was made. Noelle later said he owed her 'a substantial amount.'
He played with money as if it were Monopoly - borrowing, buying, selling, and, as was later discovered, plundering. "I told Maxwell he was the sincerest liar I had ever met," recalled one employee, a sales manager, about a conversation with his employer. "I genuinely think he took that as one of the nicest compliments I could have paid him." And yet, he was famously thin-skinned on other matters, mounting an array of libel cases, several against Private Eye.
He believed he was indestructible. 'I've shot that man 17 times,' the banker Jacob Rothschild once said, 'and he will still not lie down.' The employees closest to him were chosen for their knack at feeding his impression of himself. Subservience was one of the qualities he looked for in the people around him, and loyalty, particularly from women. They were recruited on the basis of huge salaries, and retained through fear. He compiled vast directories of employee's names, addresses, contact numbers and enjoyed calling them at inopportune hours, demanding their instant presence wherever he might be. He also bugged the houses of those he suspected of disloyalty - after his death, a suitcase containing security tapes was discovered.
He was also, there is no doubt, a spy, although who exactly he spied for is a more complicated matter. Because of his many business interests in Eastern Europe, and those fawning biographies of dictators, he was able to move freely through the Communist world. After he died, then Prime Minister John Major said Maxwell had given him "valuable insights" into the situation in the Soviet Union. However, it seems very likely that Maxwell was allowing information to flow in both directions, bringing news of the West into the Soviet bloc, along with his business deals and bonhomie.
The Israelis were also getting the benefit of his intervention, with Maxwell acting first in the matter of Czech support for the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, then as a designated go-between in the process of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel, and probably as a Mossad agent.
The 'who killed Maxwell?' theories gather force around the idea that Maxwell, up on criminal charges relating to his finances, was capable of revealing things that many countries would prefer to keep secret.
After his death it emerged that 32,000 serving or retired employees had been robbed of their savings, with a black hole of nearly £500 million in the Mirror Group pension fund. In 1995 his sons Kevin and Ian were tried for their part in the fraud, but acquitted. At the time, Kevin - who was declared bankrupt to the tune of £400m - said the empire's collapse was "too complex" for people to understand and that "according blame" was pointless. Since then, the two brothers have faced bankruptcy proceedings twice more. Another brother, Philip, moved to Argentina, to get away from the weight of family expectation, while a sister, Isabel, once a dotcom millionaire, was recently also declared bankrupt.
The Maxwell legacy doesn't seem a particularly happy one for the surviving children, but certainly the most drama is to be found in the life of his youngest, and favourite child, Ghislaine. Through her friendship with American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted in 2008 for soliciting an under-age girl for prostitution, she has been mixed up in very unsavoury dealings. Virginia Roberts, now Giuffre, the young woman at the centre of that trial, later sued Ghislaine for defamation when Ghislaine denied that she recruited Roberts as "a sex slave". The lawsuit brought by Roberts says: "With the assistance of Maxwell, Epstein was able to sexually abuse Giuffre for years until Giuffre eventually escaped." Ghislaine has refused to talk about her involvement with Epstein and has denied any involvement in sex trafficking.
Robert Maxwell is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, along with many of the heroes of Zionism. According to Jewish tradition, it is here that the resurrection of the dead will begin. In which case, Maxwell will be among the first up, just as he would have wished.
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