Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston
Viking Books £18.99
Reviewed for the JC February 2021
I interviewed Robert Maxwell once, an experience not unlike being run over at speed with a steamroller. He was, as even his few friends would attest, a monstrous man, self-obsessed to the point of mania, deeply rude in behaviour, and fond of random public denigration of his staff.
And yet… as John Preston brings the old crook and liar magnificently to life in this sparkling biography, there was something extraordinary about Maxwell, the publishing tycoon who had not just climbed the greasy pole of success, but uprooted the pole and waved it, defiantly, in his detractors’ faces.
The only person whom Maxwell consistently failed to overcome was his great newspaper enemy, Rupert Murdoch, aka the Dirty Digger. Murdoch and a whole host of names, some well-known, some not, have spoken openly to Preston as he traces Maxwell’s trajectory from poor and unpromising beginnings in a nine-sibling Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, to the end of his life as owner of the Mirror Group of newspapers, sociopathic robber of its pension funds, and eventual burial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.
(At the JC offices in Maxwell’s press-baronial days, it was possible to see (and hear!) Maxwell’s helicopter as it landed and took off from the Mirror rooftop helipad a couple of buildings away. Many was the time the JC’s art department staff mimed shooting the ’copter down).
As John Preston faithfully records, when Maxwell — who began life as Ludvik Hoch — rather improbably became Labour MP for Buckingham, he told the JC that he no longer wanted to be described as Jewish. By the time I interviewed him, however, he had become a frequent and toadied-to guest at many Jewish community events.
Preston tells us, intriguingly, that we have Gerald Ronson to thank for Maxwell’s re-embrace of his Jewish identity — though even before Maxwell’s watery death in November 1991, there were murmurings in the community that you could always get a charitable pledge out of Robert Maxwell, but it was much harder to get him actually to pay up.
And Preston reveals that one of Maxwell’s last phone conversations, aboard his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine — named after his favourite, youngest daughter — was with a Lubavitch rabbi, Feivish Vogel, to discuss “the release of an archive of Jewish manuscripts from the Lenin Library” in the disintegrating Soviet Union.
There are intriguing snapshots, too, such as when Ian Maxwell found his father nose-to-screen with a TV documentary about the Holocaust. Watching the footage of Jews arriving from Auschwitz, he revealed he was trying to see if his parents were among them.
This beautifully written book provides many moments of high and low comedy. Though in real life Maxwell won the coveted Military Cross for his wartime gallantry, there was a running story that he was a Mossad spy — and, indeed, that it was a crack team of Mossad divers who had bumped him off the deck of the Lady Ghislaine.
John Preston’s sharp eye for the ridiculous and the piquant conjures up a lost Fleet Street world, in which even Mirror journalists could not drink up their lavish liquor allowance; of rival tabloid “Spot-the-Ball” competitions with unwinnable prizes; of corruption and denial; and of Maxwell bullying his wife, Betty.
Occasionally, while reading this, I was forcibly reminded of the repellent Trump, and wondering what Robert Maxwell’s Twitter account might have looked like, had he lived. Every age has its own monsters, I guess.