NOT the truth about Maxwell

April 26th, 2007

Next week’s Radio Times is a disgrace to magazine journalism. The cover story trails the Friday drama on the last years of Robert Maxwell, in which the disgraced tycoon is played by David Suchet and Maxwell’s wife Betty by Patricia Hodge. Meanwhile the Radio Times gives us four pages of the ‘truth’ about Robert Maxwell by ‘the people who knew him’.

The Radio Times chose five people ‘to unravel the mystery the publishing giant’. The only insightful contribution is by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, who says frankly in his opening paragraph, that he never met Robert Maxwell in person. But he had to face him in court thanks to the previous attacks on him by the former editor, Richard Ingrams.

There are four contributions by former Maxwell underlings, his personal photographer, Mike Moloney, his personal chef, Martin Cheeseman, and one of the last of Maxwell’s many secretaries, Charlotte Thornton. She worked for him for two and a half years. She was aged 19 and it was her first job and she tells us, ‘There is definitely something about Mr Maxwell that you couldn’t help but like.’

The longest contribution is by Peter Jay who quite rightly says that ‘the Mirror offices were like the court of some medieval king’. Jay should know because he was in that time the most highly paid courtier. He was called chief of staff, but to Jay’s former journalistic friends, he was the public relations man whom Maxwell had hired in his bid to rebuild his reputation after his business reputation as a publisher had been so thoroughly exposed by a small number of investigative journalists, of which I was one, and a long and thorough Board of Trade inquiry.

Jay first fell a victim to Maxwell’s flattery in 1967. Maxwell was then an up and coming Labour MP and Jay was being billed by Time Magazine as a future prime minister. He was actually the Economics Editor of The Times with a Sunday job doing the thinking person’s weighty television political programme under his friend John Birt, then a rising young turk at London Weekend Television.

Jay’s career took an odd upward trajectory in 1976 when his father-in-law, James Callaghan became Prime Minister and Jay was appointed Ambassador to the United States. He was not a success in the job and when he returned to London his career was in ruins, not least because he had himself got more column inches in the US press. Not about his ambassdorial advocacy off British foreign policy but because of all the bed hopping that was taking place. While Peter was bestowing his testerone on the nanny his wife fell into the arms of the leading investigative reporter of the Washington Post. Carl Bernstein’s wife, Nora Ephron, wrote a tell-it-all book which Washington found less boring than British foreign policy.

Maxwell’s flattery helped to heal Jay’s bruised ego and his money helped to pay off his debts. But the cost was born by the pensioners of the Daily Mirror whose money Maxwell stole. Jay, was only one of several figures in British public life who gave Maxwell the opportunity to become a bigger and better crook in the 1980s than he had been in the 1960s.

If you really want to unravel the mysteries of Robert Maxwell, read the two books by the two people who knew him best. A Mind of My Own by Elisabeth Maxwell (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1994). Or follow this link to a good review of it in the New York Times. However, Betty does not tell all, and her book was partly motivated by a wish to blame it all on her husband and to help her sons to keep out of jail for their part in the wrongdoing in Maxwell’s businesses.

The other book is by Tom Bower, the most persistent of the hardy band of journalistic followers of Captain Bob. His Maxwell: The Final Verdict is by far the best book about the man and the business activities. If you are hungry for more, this link will give you a run down on nearly everything written about him.

Despite everything I have written here I shall be watching on Friday night. For entertainment rather than for enlightenment. I am pretty bored by now with Suchet’s fussy Belgian detective. But he is a substantial actor and I shall be interested to see whether he gets Maxwell’s mannerisms and his conflicted character. He was, of course, a manic depressive, which is perhaps one reason why I understood him. But to understand is not to condone his quite unscrupulous business behaviour and his frequent bullying of the people who worked for him.

One Response to “NOT the truth about Maxwell”

  1. J Smith Says:

    I have to say that this is a very refreshing post to read, even if it is four years old. I was reading about Maxwell, namely through the book The Assasination of Robert Maxwell: Israel’s Superspy. Anyway, everything they said about him and his quite literally mood swings, poorly thought out decisions and unrelenting drive & ambition cried out manic depressive to me and yet the authors, in spite of producing an overall good book, did not delve into his mental state enough to be able to explain what went on.
    Maxwell’s manic depression (we can say it now, he’s dead and he can’t sue us for libel) was of paramount importance in a) his otherwise unlikely rise to power and high status, b) his wreckless leveraged, $3bn spending spree c) his decision (if he really did do so) to take his own life. In short, manic depression is the thread which runs through his life, he’s also an illustration of the tremendous cost imposed upon society by mental illness; no doubt his grandiose delusions made him believe paying $2.6bn for MacMillan could be a good idea.
    I think he is proof, if no longer living proof, that manic depression is a blessing and a curse.

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