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Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

John Preston

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Just before 6pm on Tuesday, November 5, 1991, as the sun was setting over the Canary Islands, a helicopter pilot of the Spanish national rescue service spotted a large object floating in the Atlantic. Descending, and hovering just above the waves, he observed the naked body of a man floating on his back with his arms and legs spreadeagled. So heavy was the corpse of Robert Maxwell - 22 stone, according to the subsequent autopsy report — that it had to be hauled out of the water by a large nylon harness normally used to rescue cattle and horses from flood zones.

The 68-year-old proprietor of the Daily Mirror and New York Daily News had fallen off the stern of his yacht earlier in the day, probably around 5am — whether by accident or design, nobody knows, although there is surely one significant clue. A second autopsy, conducted in Israel just before Maxwell was given what amounted to a state funeral attended by the president and prime minister, discovered a 5in “extensive haemorrhage into the paraspinal muscle on the left side extending from the twelfth thoracic vertebra to the level of the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae” — in other words he seems to have clung to the side of the boat until the pain of his tearing muscle forced him to let go.

He may then have remained alive in the water for six hours as his yacht steamed away. He didn’t drown. He probably died of heart failure. It doesn’t sound much like suicide or murder, or even much of a mystery; it sounds like a simple accident.

However, if people found the obvious explanation hard to accept, they soon had good reason for their suspicions. Initially eulogised by Margaret Thatcher, President George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as by the usual establishment creeps - Lord Goodman proposed he be given a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, then changed his mind and suggested St Paul’s instead - it soon became apparent that Maxwell was not only bankrupt (to the tune of about £1 billion), but also a fraud: £350 million had been plundered from the Mirror’s pension fund. Behind the scenes the theft had already been discovered and the entire edifice of Maxwell Communication Corporation was about to collapse. A normal man, facing the certainty of ruin, might well have decided to kill himself; Maxwell, however, was anything but normal.

John Preston’s Fall is roughly the 12th biography of Maxwell (it depends whether you include those obsessive authors who have returned to the subject twice) and slips down as richly, easily and pleasurably as a tablespoonful of Beluga caviar. If it is the best of the Maxwell biographies it is because Preston — author of the excellent A Very English Scandal about the Jeremy Thorpe affair — is the best of the writers to tackle the subject. He has a novelist’s eye for the grotesque, a journalist’s inside knowledge of newspapers, an effective deadpan style, and has done plenty of original research, interviewing scores of witnesses, including three of Maxwell's children (Ian, Christine and Isabel) and Rupert Murdoch.

The story he tells has a certain inevitable familiarity to those of us old enough to remember Maxwell. But to most people under 40, brought up in the era of social media, I should imagine the name means almost nothing, except perhaps as the father of Ghislaine, the friend of Prince Andrew awaiting trial in New York for trafficking underage girls with Jeffrey Epstein. One can imagine how much the old man would have hated to be eclipsed, even in notoriety.

He emerges as a kind of self-assembled Frankenstein’s monster, endlessly on the run from the misery of his impoverished Jewish childhood in Czechoslovakia. He even seems to have misremembered his own real name — Jan Hoch, according to him, Ludvik Hoch according to his sister, one of the few members of his family to escape the Holocaust. Only late in his life did he embrace his Jewish heritage, a belated identification that seems to have worsened his growing estrangement from his French Protestant wife, Betty.

Preston makes periodic attempts to find something nice to say about him, such as his sentimental affection for dogs, a frequent characteristic of dictators, and his courage as a soldier in the British Army, which won him a Military Cross, presented to him in person by Field Marshal Montgomery. But he shocked his army comrades by shooting surrendering Germans and once executed a Nazi mayor. He routinely beat his children with a belt and made them write him letters of apology afterwards. He subjected them to constant psychological bullying. When his son Philip flew out to collect his body, according to one witness, “he said that his father had always hated him and that he didn’t particularly like his father”. Ian Maxwell learnt of his death with a sense of “exhilaration”. “I definitely think he had megalomania,” his daughter Christine observed. “For him it was a real disease.”

He had no friends. According to his former chief of staff, Peter Jay, whom he routinely humiliated — on one occasion waking him in the middle of the night to ask him the time — “He didn’t have any capacity for friendship.” He used hand towels as lavatory paper and left them for his staff to pick up. He once ordered 14 takeaway Chinese meals and with one other guest ate them all himself. He shovelled food into his mouth by the handful. In an effort to make him diet, Betty padlocked the door to the larder until he broke the lock. The businessman Gerald Ronson, seeing him in a bathing costume, thought he looked like “a hippopotamus on two legs”. He was not so much amoral, in Jay’s opinion, “as pre-moral. It was as if he was literally uncivilised, like some great woolly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest wholly unaware of things like good and evil.”

He named buildings after himself and wove his initials into the office carpets. He bored his audiences of prime ministers, presidents and ambassadors with his opinions. In his first six months as owner of the Daily Mirror he insisted on having his picture printed 100 times (and wondered why the circulation declined). As a Labour MP in the 1960s he rose to speak on 200 occasions in ten months.

He bugged his staff and had them followed. No piece of crookedness was too big or too small. He rigged the Daily Mirror’s spot-the-ball competition to avoid paying the prize money. On and on it goes, until by the time one reaches the description of his second autopsy (“when the ropes were undone, they turned out to be holding the body together . . . several organs and tissues [from the first autopsy] were missing, as well as most of the heart . . .”) the reader may well start to feel morally queasy, like a member of the audience crowding round to gawp at the Elephant Man.

The truth is that all the bankers and businessmen, politicians and journalists who queue up to denigrate and revile Maxwell were happy at the time to put up with his abuse and his grotesque personal habits as long as they were enjoying his hospitality and taking his money. They sucked up to him. They made him possible — so much so that I closed this engrossing, amusing, appalling book with an odd sneaking sympathy for the old brute — and a profound desire never to read about him again.

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