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How did Robert Maxwell fool most of the people most of the time?

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell John Preston

Viking, pp.324, 18.99

‘Everyone’s heard of Ghislaine Maxwell,’ says the blurb for Power: The Maxwells, a podcast series launched last month. ‘But there’s a shadowy figure who hangs above her who you likely don’t know: her father, media tycoon Robert Maxwell.’ Blimey. I know that 30 years have passed since his soggy demise, and time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away, but it still comes as a shock to realise that such a preposterously outsize figure can be forgotten.

His tumble down the memory hole may explain why this is a book of two halves. When John Preston contacted me in 2018 with a Maxwellian query, he said: ‘I’m not actually doing a biography of Maxwell but focusing on the last 18 months when everything fell apart.’ Since then, he and his publishers have presumably done the maths and decided that readers may need some biography after all.

So the first half of Fall presents the once-familiar CV: the impoverished Jewish boy from Ruthenia who fled to England as a 17-year-old in 1940 and ended the war with a Military Cross; the Labour MP and businessman of whom a 1971 Department of Trade inquiry concluded that ‘he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company’; the overbearing egomaniac who bought the Mirror titles in 1984 and soon showed how right the Department of Trade inspectors had been.

This is all very readable — though I’m surprised Preston never mentions Private Eyeor Tom Bower, who exposed Maxwell while he was still alive and suing. (His last writ against the Eye, a month before his death, demanded ‘aggravated damages’ for its allegation that he was misappropriating money from the Mirrorpension fund.) However, the narrative gathers irresistible page-turning pace when we reach 1990, the year in which Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC) issued a vainglorious corporate video announcing that it would be ‘at the centre of the world stage’ in the 21st century under the glorious leadership of ‘Robert Maxwell, a statesman as much as a businessman’.

In truth, Preston points out, MCC was already crippled by debt. To prop up its share price Maxwell started paying absurdly high dividends — and secretly buying shares in MCC with borrowed money. He assured the banks that he had billions stashed away in a Liechtenstein trust, and they readily believed him. After all, the Sunday TimesRich List for 1989-90 had valued him at between £1.2 billion and £1.5 billion.

‘The more desperate Maxwell’s finances became,’ Preston notes,’the more he tried to throw himself about on the international stage.’ He offered to broker a deal between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev to prop up the Soviet economy; Thatcher politely declined. On a trip to Sofia in April 1990 he said he would take on responsibility for the entire Bulgarian national debt, then running at $11 billion. There was also a heroic scheme, not mentioned by Preston, to ‘revolutionise the Bulgarian toothpaste industry’.

Pure fantasy, of course — as was his Gorbachev-Maxwell Institute of Technology, announced in June 1990 at a press conference in Minneapolis. Maxwell was vague about what the institute would do, beyond ‘unleashing an incredible volume of brain-power’ and producing mankind’s ‘greatest leap forward since the invention of the wheel’. He promised $50 million of funding: needless to say, not a cent ever arrived and the wheel remained stubbornly unreinvented.

All this grandstanding couldn’t distract attention from the financial truth indefinitely. In July 1990 the FT’s Lex column studied the small print of MCC’s annual accounts and concluded that the shares were basically worthless. Over the next few months Maxwell spent hundreds of millions trying to push up the share price, but still it kept falling. By November 1990 MCC’s total debt had risen to £2.4 billion and Maxwell was, in Preston’s words, ‘churning his money around in ever more hectic circles’. When a giant sale of assets failed to raise anything like the sum required, he began raiding his workers’ pension funds instead.

In London, the insomniac tycoon spent most nights alone in his apartment above the office watching old James Bond films and gorging on Chinese takeaways, in bowel-boggling quantities. ‘Staff became used to finding plates encrusted with food hidden underneath the furniture,’ Preston writes. Every morning two Filipina maids came in to clear away his debris — including the towels that he now used instead of lavatory paper, soiled and scattered on the bathroom floor.

Preston depicts this as a reversion to infancy: Maxwell had become not only a mucky pup but also ‘a perpetually squalling child’, with tantrums galore and a compulsive need to be the centre of attention. In March 1991 he bought the New York Daily News, briefly replacing Donald Trump as the city’s most talked-about business mogul. He started an American edition of his new paper the European — mainly, it seems, as an excuse to throw a champagne launch party in the United Nations building at which 600 VIP guests paid homage.

What emerges from Fall is a vividly grotesque picture of the emperor showing off his nonexistent new clothes to an applauding crowd of courtiers — politicians, editors, bankers — who all too willingly suspended any disbelief they may have felt. If he said the moon was made of green cheese there was always a chorus of sycophants to assure him that this was indeed so. He came to believe that he could do whatever he liked. Hence the audacity of his final fraud, the theft of the pension funds. Anyone who questioned his money-juggling was either bullied or charmed into submission.

It was only in November 1991, when the empire was collapsing about him at unstoppable speed, that he entertained the possibility of defeat and disgrace. The inevitable sequel to second childhood was mere oblivion: on 5 November he fell off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. The boat was named, fittingly enough, after the woman who has now supplanted him as the world’s most notorious Maxwell.

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