The Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, by John Preston (Viking, £18.99)
Front cover of the Daily Record which was once owned by the disgraced millionaire Robert Maxwell. ‘He was a total buffoon really’.
By ROY GREENSLADE, media commentator and blogger, Honorary Visiting Professor, City, University of London, former editor of the Daily Mirror – and a member of the AMP – reviews John Preston’s new book.
WE KNEW Cap’n Bob, did we not? And, after his death, we learned even more. Now, between us, there’s probably little we don’t know about him. We all have our memories: the bad, the bizarre, the barmy. Close up, we watched him operate as bully, braggart and brigand. Down the years since his suicide in 1991 (I’ll come to that), we have dined out on Robert Maxwell stories.
So, what could John Preston’s biography possibly tell us anew? Well, to be honest, not much more than the odd detail and the occasional eye-popping anecdote (such as one about Maxwell carrying Eleanor Berry out of hospital to prevent her undergoing ECT). But it doesn’t matter in the least, because Preston’s skilful, straightforward retelling of Maxwell’s extraordinary life is an admirable piece of journalism. It is a dispassionate account that makes sense of a man who lived from boyhood to manhood, and on to his death, entirely by his own rules.
When news broke of Preston’s book, a friend emailed me to ask: “Do we really need it?” No, we probably didn’t need it. Yet, in reading it, I came to realise its value. Aside from making sense of our experiences as his employees, it is instructive for current and future generations to understand how and why sociopaths so often manage to rise to positions of power in business and politics. Page after page, incident after incident, we cannot help but note the similarity between Maxwell’s mendacity and vainglory and that of Donald Trump.
It is highly doubtful that too many of us will enjoy this book. After all, Maxwell’s greed and grandiosity put our pensions in jeopardy. Sure, in the long term, we have not suffered as greatly as people who worked in some of his other companies, but I do recall two years of concern following the revelation of his plunder. I hope enough time has passed since then to allow you to appreciate the merits of Preston’s research and the quality of his writing.
He has resisted the temptation to repeat a string of the Maxwellian follies that do the rounds among those of us still alive to recall them. Instead, as Julia Langdon notes in her review of the book in the next British Journalism Review (due out in March: www.bjr.org.uk), he has stuck to the facts, allowing nuggets of humour to emerge through his adroit use of that font known in Fleet Street as “ironic bold”.
Arguably, Preston’s greatest achievement is in having secured interviews with several people who have previously remained silent. They include three of Maxwell’s children – Isabel, Christine and Ian – and, most impressively, Rupert Murdoch. The testimonies of the children, which reinforce the portrait of Maxwell drawn by his wife, Betty, in her memoir, add a depth lacking in previous biographies. They illustrate how emotionally impervious their father was to personal tragedies, the deaths of a daughter and his eldest son.
More significantly, for the survivors, was his brutal treatment of them. “I always felt I had to court his approval,” Ian tells Preston. “Dad always beat us if we’d been lazy or inattentive… He would beat us with a belt – girls as well as boys – and then afterwards you would have to write him a letter saying how you were going to be different in future.”
One of them did get off more lightly: the youngest, Ghislaine, now in a New York jail awaiting trial on charges, which she strenuously denies, of helping to supply minors to the late Jeffrey Epstein as part of a sex-trafficking conspiracy. In her infant years she was, recalls Ian, “basically ignored”. That changed after she confronted Betty, saying: “Mummy, I exist.” From then on, she was indulged and spoiled, becoming her father’s favourite. Whatever we may feel about Ghislaine – and we British journalists, unlike our American counterparts, know better than to speculate about a person’s guilt before their trial – we cannot be in any doubt that she, like her siblings, was marked by the tyrannical parenting of their father.
Turning to his business affairs, Preston’s detailed narrative confirms what Tom Bower had tried to reveal to the world many years before Maxwell’s death: he was a crook given credence by assorted lawyers, bankers, accountants and stockbroking analysts who were willing to overlook his misdeeds for their own financial benefit. As far back as 1969, during Maxwell’s attempt to fool American financier Saul Steinberg into paying £25 million to acquire Pergamon Press, Maxwell’s solicitor wrote: “Mr Maxwell is a man of undoubted integrity.”
The pattern had been set. Despite knowing Maxwell to be a man of undoubted duplicity, the men in suits he hired too readily averted their gaze. Why, they reasoned, kill the goose laying golden eggs? How galling it was for us, and for everyone who suffered losses due to Maxwell, to read corporate statements issued after his death claiming that supposed financial experts had been deceived. Preston refuses to apportion blame, but the evidence against the City scroungers is damning. Max Hastings rightly remarked in his Times review of the book that it was Maxwell’s enablers who were the real villains.
One person who realised, as early as 1963, that Maxwell was a con-man was Rupert Murdoch. He narrowly escaped being inveigled by Maxwell into paying a million Australian dollars for worthless encyclopaedias. Murdoch went on, as we know, to defeat Maxwell in three major takeover battles. In one of them, Maxwell foolishly boasted of victory before he had done the deal, enabling Murdoch to intervene and win the prize.
As Murdoch told Preston, Maxwell’s problem was that he “couldn’t stop showing off… it was always personal with him, whereas with me, it was never personal”. Murdoch’s character-reading is spot on: “I never spoke about him, but he couldn’t stop talking about me. Whatever we did, he wanted to do it too… I could see that he was ruining everything he touched. He was a total buffoon really.”
Finally, there is the so-called mystery of his death. In my own biography, Maxwell’s Fall, published within months of his plunge into the Atlantic, I said I was certain he took his own life. Murdoch evidently agrees. Preston won’t be drawn, allowing readers to make up their own minds. He does appear to pour cold water on the murder theory by quoting the dismissive statement by the captain of Maxwell’s yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. Of the other two possibilities, accident or suicide, he says his interviewees were divided down the middle.
Those who believe it was suicide argue that Maxwell could not face the ignominy of being held to account for the money removed from the pension funds. Those, like his family, who think it was an accident, suggest it was relatively easy to fall over the side. In company with two of the crew, I conducted a test on a yacht like Maxwell’s in dry dock at Portsmouth. It did not seem possible to fall over the railings, even for a top-heavy man. Squeezing between the railings was just about feasible, and I was far thinner than Maxwell, but to do so at night while at sea would have been, and I use the adjective intentionally, suicidal. Preston’s final word on the debate is well chosen: perhaps.