The late Robert Maxwell, media baron. Credit: Getty

Was Robert Maxwell really the ‘crook of the century’?

John Preston, author of new book The Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, shares five facts he unearthed about one of the 20th Century’s most villainised figures.

On 5 November, 1991, newspapers around the world reported the mysterious death of Robert Maxwell, the Czechoslovakian war orphan turned British billionaire and media baron, who died suddenly while travelling the ocean on his yacht. Awarded the Military Cross in 1945 for his World War Two heroism, Maxwell was a publishing magnate by the 1950s, a Labour MP by the 1960s and, by the mid-1980s, the powerful, larger-than-life owner of The Daily Mirror.

Upon his death, Prime Minister John Major referred to him as “a great character who will be missed”; three weeks later, when the scale of his business debts emerged (£406 million) – along with the fact that he’d stolen millions from The Mirror group’s pension funds – Robert Maxwell became what author and former journalist John Preston refers to now as “the embodiment of corporate villainy.”

In his new book, The Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, Preston digs deeply into the story of one of the most compelling villain stories of our time, unearthing new information and illuminating nuances along the way.

“There aren’t many people who lead these rich, technicolour, mythical lives, but Maxwell was plainly one of them,” Preston says. “Now, almost as much as 30 years ago, so much black paint has been tipped over his head that Maxwell has become a pantomime villain. But to me, he’s a much more interesting and nuanced figure than that. He had, to my mind, very fascinating and human flaws. And in three weeks, he went from being lionised by world leaders to being the crook of the century.”

We interviewed Preston to ask about the process of researching Maxwell’s extraordinary life and death. Here, as he discusses five of the most surprising and fascinating facts he came across, what emerges is a portrait of the flawed human being behind the grandiose façade.

Robert Maxwell changed his name four times by the time he was 23

"Maxwell changed his name because he was a spy for British intelligence. It was useful for him to have aliases, because he was a Czech national; if Czech nationals were captured by the Germans, they would be killed by firing squad, so there was a very good reason for him to not have a Czech name when he joined the British army.

Anti-Semitism might have played a role, too: indeed, all the names he had before then were the most un-Jewish names you could possibly go for: Leslie Smith, Leslie Jones, Ivan du Maurier, and then he becomes Robert Maxwell. He lost three of his siblings, both his parents and a grandfather in Auschwitz, so he had an extremely invested interest in trying to bury his Judaism."

When Maxwell took over The Mirror in 1984, more than 100 photos of him appeared in the paper in the first six months

'Maxwell has become a pantomime villain, but to me, he’s a more nuanced figure'

"Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Maxwell was desperate to buy a Fleet Street newspaper, and at every turn he was thwarted by Rupert Murdoch, who became his great nemesis. Maxwell was obsessed with Murdoch, but Murdoch regarded Maxwell as a buffoon and this irritant that he couldn’t quite brush off. So when Maxwell finally got the Mirror in 1984, it meant he and Murdoch were the two great power-brokers in British political life; and Maxwell now had a pulpit, a megaphone through which he could announce himself to the world.

One of my strong feelings about Maxwell is that he never really knew who he was, and that his mania for sticking his photo in his newspaper was a way of publicly validating himself. He comes to England, becomes Robert Maxwell, but he realises that however much money he makes, however much he changes his name, the establishment are never going to let him in. When he gets The Mirror, he thinks it’s his chance to finally go toe to toe with Rupert Murdoch, to become the world’s biggest media baron."

Maxwell bugged The Mirror offices so that he could listen to what people were saying about him

"When he took over The Mirror, a number of Labour Party grandees were summoned to lunch at Maxwell house, his headquarters. Roy Hattersley, who was then the deputy leader of the Labour Party, went along on one occasion with his political advisor Dave Hill. After they’d been in the dining room for a few minutes, Maxwell sent the butler out and told him to shut the door behind him, then explained to Hattersley and Hill that he was worried that they were going to discuss intelligence matters, and that his butler was a spy who had been planted by Rupert Murdoch.

'Maxwell's mania for sticking his photo in his newspaper was a way of publicly validating himself'

When Dave Hill asked, not unreasonably, why Maxwell continued to employ a man who was allegedly a spy sent by Murdoch, Maxwell responded, 'That goes to show how little you know about business; I don’t have the time to worry about who my butler is!' He was even then beginning to tilt into full-blown paranoia. And it eventually took him over and destabilised him."

Maxwell looted more than £400 million from The Mirror’s pension funds to try to keep his business empire afloat

"One of the extraordinary things was that when Robert Maxwell died, all these heads of state paid extravagant tribute to him: President George Bush Sr said what a disaster it is, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and all these people extolled his virtues. And then three weeks later, when it was revealed he was nicking from the pension funds, the same people were queueing up to say what a terrible villain he was.

What he did was reckoned to be utterly beyond the pale – he raided The Mirror’s pension funds, thereby depriving thousands of people the prospects of a tranquil retirement in old age – but I don’t think Maxwell was a Bernie Madoff figure, stealing to line his own pockets; I think actually, if he was able to, he would have paid back the money to the pension funds. Of course, this is no consolation to the pensioners."

Maxwell was the model for the villain in the 1997 James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies

'If he was able to, Maxwell would have paid back the money to the pension funds – of course, this is no consolation to the pensioners'

"Wherever Maxwell was in the world, he loved nothing more than to gorge himself on Chinese takeaway and watch Bond films and old Clint Eastwood movies. The older he became, and the more isolated – he had driven his family away and didn’t have any friends – the more that was all he did. He was no longer making deals to dig himself out of this terrible debt hole.

There is something both ironic and poignant that he becomes the villain for Tomorrow Never Dies. When the film came out, everyone assumed the villain, played by Jonathan Pryce, was modelled on Rupert Murdoch, but in fact, the script writer for the film Bruce Feirstein said he had Maxwell in mind. There’s this line, when he’s dying at the end of the film, having been disembowelled by a razor-top torpedo, he cries out 'Great men have always manipulated the media to save the world!'"

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Image: Getty

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