Robert Maxwell’s unlikely rise and steep descent

The publishing mogul was a controlling narcissist whose life was marked by unbearable tragedy

January 27, 2022
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Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell
John Preston
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Robert Maxwell was always a gambler. The press baron who raided the pension fund of the Daily Mirror and regularly bet huge amounts in casinos—one time winning £750,000, another losing £400,000—was born poor in a shtetl in Czechoslovakia, in 1923. After the Nazis invaded, he journeyed to Hungary to fight for the resistance; later, inspired by Churchill’s speeches, he joined the British Army. In March 1945, he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery by Bernard Montgomery, the day after he was told his mother and sisters had been murdered at Auschwitz.

John Preston’s life, which has won the Costa Prize for biography, keeps you gripped with its lurid highs and lows. Even as Maxwell clawed his way into the British establishment with his genius for deal-making and bullish charm, he suffered private agonies, including the deaths of two of his children. His frightening energy led him to accumulate publishing businesses at the same time as being a Labour MP and hosting lavish three-day parties at his Oxford mansion. Insecure and domineering, he used to stand on the roof’s edge and urinate onto passers-by below before climbing into his helicopter. Yet he also gave huge amounts to charity—and made sure everyone knew about it. (“Starving children were saved yesterday thanks to the intervention of Mirror publisher, Robert Maxwell,” was the type of line that Alastair Campbell, then at the Mirror, admits to writing.)

His seven surviving children both adored and hated him. He was equally capricious, replacing the picture on his desk of his favourite daughter Ghislaine with that of his dog. Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine’s boyfriend for whom she trafficked young women, were similar characters—controlling, charismatic and narcissistic—but Preston doesn’t push the parallels. Similarly, he analyses all the theories about Maxwell’s death at sea—suicide, attempted suicide gone wrong, accident while urinating, killed by Mossad—with proper scepticism. Most likely Maxwell, haunted by his family’s destruction during the war and about to be exposed as a fraud, decided to end it all the only way he knew how: on his own terms.