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The Dark World of Robert Maxwell

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Was it an accident? Did he jump? Or, was he pushed? The glittering life of self-made millionaire, Robert Maxwell, came to a sudden end in the waters of the Atlantic off the Canary Islands in 1991.

Robert Maxwell at a Global Economic Panel in Amsterdam in 1989.

Robert Maxwell at a Global Economic Panel in Amsterdam in 1989.

Robert Maxwell’s Early Days

It’s rare for someone to rise from poverty to Roll-Royce and luxury yacht ownership without bending a few rules along the way.

Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch was born in Czechoslovakia in 1923. Most of his family was swept up in the Holocaust, but he managed to escape and made his way to Britain. He changed his name to Ivan du Maurier, joined the British Army, and took part in the invasion of Normandy.

After the war, he changed his name again, this time to Ian Robert Maxwell, and “he entered business, specializing in import and export between Britain and Eastern Europe where he established extensive connections” (Jewish Virtual Library). Then, says the Encyclopedia Britannica rather cryptically, “he managed to acquire control of a publishing company, which he renamed Pergamon Press Ltd. in 1951.”

Maxwell bought more media outlets including, in 1984, the Mirror Group of newspapers whose publications have been described as members of “The gutter press.”

The Boss as Bully

Robert Maxwell was one of those people referred to as a larger-than-life character. He had a booming voice to go along with his personality and huge frame. Based on not much evidence he always believed himself to be the smartest person in the room and that most of the people with whom he dealt were idiots.

The BBC commented that “To those unfortunate enough to have worked under him, he was a monster―a bully, a demagogue, and, worst of all, a thief.” One of those unfortunates was Peter Jay who acted as chief of staff from 1986 to 1989.

He told The New York Times that Maxwell “was a peasant to the roots of his fingernails, with the peasant’s mistrust of others. Things were run on a need-to-know principle: if you needed to know, you weren’t told.”

He was crude and rude. Sandra Barwick wrote in The Independent that “he would sometimes leave the lavatory door contemptuously open in his private office suite so that anxious female visitors would be greeted by the explosions of his mighty digestive system.”

Then, Ms. Barwick asks us to “Consider what type of man Maxwell was―the charm, the possessiveness, the sometimes powerful, but never predictable, kindness, the violence, the obsession with control, and the capacity for inspiring extraordinary loyalty in women he maltreated …”

He was also highly litigious, suing anybody who criticized him in an attempt to intimidate them into silence.

A Debt King

Robert Maxwell’s businesses were humming along quite nicely in the unspectacular world of printing and scientific publishing. In the early 1980s, Maxwell decided to go global and enter the enticing world of the international media baron.

After acquiring the Mirror Group he scooped up the Macmillan Publishing Company at what analysts say was too high a price. Magazine publisher IPC was another purchase followed by the start-up of The London Daily News. He added Nimbus Records, Berlitz Language Schools, and The New York Daily News to his holdings.

He also got involved in sports franchises.

His media empire made him a big player in the big leagues and it was all done with other people’s money. The 1980s were a gung-ho time for media expansion and the banks were tripping over themselves to lend Maxwell money.

Financial houses, of course, should have known better. Maxwell had already developed a reputation as a shady character. Joe Haines, a Daily Mirror, reporter wrote that he had proof his boss was “a crook and a liar.”

As far back as 1971, the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had given its opinion that Maxwell was “not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.”

The DTI went on to comment that “He is a man of great energy, drive, and imagination, but unfortunately an apparent fixation as to his own abilities causes him to ignore the views of others if these are not compatible.” He was filled with “a reckless and unjustified optimism” and made statements that “he must have known to be untrue.”

Doesn’t that have a familiar ring to it in 2020?

Yet, a spokesperson for the National Westminster Bank lamely told The New York Times that “Any banking relationship can be seen as a four-legged stool, involving the honesty and integrity of both the bank and the client. We could not know that in Mr. Maxwell’s case, two of the legs were missing.”

The banks did not require the sleuthing skills of a Hercule Poirot to reveal that Robert Maxwell was an unsuitable borrower; it was plainly obvious that he was not a good credit risk.

Maxwell’s Complex Financial Web

In 1990, Maxwell was deemed to be the tenth richest person in Britain by The Book of the British Rich. His fortune was estimated at $1.4 billion.

But, everything was about to come unstuck. Deeply in debt, Maxwell was juggling the accounts among his interlocking web of companies. He had a stake in hundreds of operations, some private, some public, many with almost identical names, making it next to impossible to untangle the network.

It was like the folk who borrow on one credit card to pay off the monthly minimum on another one. It works for a little while, but in the end, catastrophe is inevitable.

So it was with Robert Maxwell. By late 1990, he was pledging company shares to the banks for loans, and still the financial houses didn’t catch on that something was amiss. He got into deals to pump up the share value of Maxwell Communications with money that came from offshore investment trusts.

In May 1991, Maxwell took the company public and raised $455 million. As well, he stole ₤460 million ($575 million) from the Mirror Group’s pension fund.

Then, he started playing international currency markets in a desperate attempt to raise money to prop up the stock value. That didn’t work and it finally dawned on the likes of Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and the Swiss Bank Corporation that they had backed a loser.

The Death of Robert Maxwell

As the banks were banging on the doors of his offices demanding repayment, Maxwell was aboard his luxury motor yacht, Lady Ghislaine.

Sometime during the night of November 5-6 1991, he plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the Canary Islands. His body was found by a fisherman and immediately the speculation began about the circumstances of his death.

  • Suicide. Knowing that his financial frauds were about to be exposed, the media baron could not face the public disgrace of criminal charges and imprisonment so he decided to end it all. Those who knew Maxwell say he was a very unlikely candidate to take his own life.
  • Accident. He was an unwell, grossly obese man with a heart condition and he took many medications. During the night, he went up on deck to pee over the side, as was his habit, suffered a heart event, and tumbled overboard.
  • Murder. Maxwell had deep connections in politics and intelligence services. He knew about a lot of shady dealings that might bring down some powerful people if they came out in open court. For organizations such as Mossad, MI6, or the CIA bumping off Maxwell would be a routine mission.

We will probably never know the truth.

Bonus Factoids

  • It was the occasional habit of Robert Maxwell to go up to the roof of his office building and urinate onto the ground below, where there might or might not be pedestrians. Any person untutored in the dark arts of psychiatry can figure out the mental processes involved in such an action.
  • One day a man was smoking in an elevator in Maxwell’s office building when the press baron got on. Although a smoker himself, Maxwell was offended and fired the man. He opened his wallet, gave him ₤250 severance, and sent him on his way. The bewildered courier making a delivery to Maxwell’s office must have marvelled at his good fortune.
  • Maxwell’s daughter Ghislaine was in a long-term romantic relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the man who procured underage women for the sexual pleasure of his rich and powerful friends and himself. It’s alleged that Ghislaine Maxwell was involved in grooming Epstein’s victims; a charge she denies.
  • “Robert Maxwell.” Jewish Virtual Library, undated.
  • “Maxwell's Empire: How It Grew, How It Fell -- A Special Report.” Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 20, 1991.
  • “The Murky Life and Death of Robert Maxwell – and How it Shaped His Daughter Ghislaine.” Caroline Davies, The Guardian, August 22, 2019.
  • “The Strange Allure of Robert Maxwell.” Jon Kelly, BBC, May 4, 2007.
  • “The Beast and His Beauties.” Sandra Barwick, The Independent, October 25, 1994.
  • “Captain Bob and the Spooks.” Geoffrey Goodman, The Guardian, November 24, 2003.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor